Seeing ‘Into the Woods’, and reading ‘The Ship of Theseus’

There are a few different posts I’m hoping to put up here. But for now I just wanted to think a little about The Ship of Theseus (which I finished reading a week or so ago), and Into the Woods, which I just saw this evening.

Into the woods

I’d heard about the premise for Into the Woods a while ago, and it sounded great – a musical built around intersecting fairy tales, cynically re-told. So I was excited to see the movie; but while I found it amusing, I was a little disappointed.

I’ve had a look, and from my brief inspection, it seems that the movie stayed fairly true to the musical (let me know if I’ve missed anything). So I don’t think it’s something about the translation. I think it’s more that the structure. To be fair, a two-act structure might have worked better in a play with an intermission. In a movie, however, it felt disjointed. The first act is more comic; a chaotic intermingling of different fairytales, that ends with something that approximates a fairytale happy ending.

In the second act, in the play (from what I’ve read on Wikipedia), it seems that there’s a sense of time passing. Characters are discontent with the happy endings that they’ve been given; and it’s there that things take a melancholy turn. That sense of time passing isn’t really conveyed in the movie; it feels more abrupt, a sudden shift in pace and drive, without any real frame. From there it’s an adventure as several of the characters are drawn together, facing a common foe.

I liked the way the movie drew out the … complexity, I suppose, of fairytales. Sometimes the prince is a terrible person; sometimes the happy ending isn’t happy, it’s just … annoying. I felt as though that broader theme wasn’t quite carried through in the movie; perhaps because the prince and the wolf were played by different characters (in the play they’re apparently often the same actor). Some of the songs (particularly in Act II) were good, but … felt confused to me, as though they weren’t quite connecting with the plot, or had come in too late.

But regardless, it’s always lovely to hear/see a musical; there’s something about a chorus that I quite enjoy.

The Ship of Theseus

I’m not quite sure where to start with Ship of Theseus. The obvious point of comparison is House of Leaves, which I read at university, and found absolutely remarkable. Ship of Theseus, like House of Leaves, is a story told in multiple layers. There is a text, and then footnotes to the text, and in the case of SoT, handwritten notes in the margin.

SoT goes a step further, in having multiple scraps physically inserted in the book. A map drawn on a napkin, handwritten letters, photographs, postcards. They’re all part of one of the intersecting strands.

Having said all that, I think that where as HoL, despite its technical intricacy, still featured some gripping stories, I couldn’t say the same for SoT. That felt … less real, in a story sense. I’m still thinking about Robert McKee’s articulation of what stories are about – in essence, characters revealing themselves through the choices they make [I realise now I didn’t include that statement in my review; it’s true nonetheless]. In SoT, there’s very little that the central characters do by way of choices. There are struggles, at points; but it feels curiously disconnected.

In the first storyline, there is a character whose entire initial struggle – to discover his own identity – is cast away as unimportant. While there are other struggles for him, they’re defined in the last part of the book; which makes me wonder why that story wasn’t bought forward. In the second storyline, built on top of the first, it’s a little harder to care about the characters. We do learn about them, a little – and they do make a choice, in the final chapter. But for most of the story, they are essentially playing word games.

I think it’s this particularly that didn’t grab me about SoT; it felt very proud of itself, like it had done something clever in overlaying two stories. And don’t get me wrong; to do that in a way that was coherent, throughout, is a major project, and impressive. But it’s still not a story. Similarly, with the handwritten notes in the margins, second guessing the symbols and meanings of the characters; that was interesting at points, but at times felt belaboured, and didn’t add as much as I would have liked to the story.

Oh, a final point; if you enjoy lying down while reading a book (say before going to bed), then SoT is not for you; the way the items are inserted means it’s virtually impossible to read it anywhere but at a desk, or they’ll come spilling out.

Great potential for both Into the Woods, and SoT; but for both, and particularly SoT, I felt like there could have been more.


2 thoughts on “Seeing ‘Into the Woods’, and reading ‘The Ship of Theseus’

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