Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Sondheim on Bettlelheim, and Lapine on Narrators

So Into The Woods didn't snag any of the awards they were nominated for at The Golden Globes on the weekend, but the movie (and fairy tales) are still very much being discussed, especially as the cast (and media) continue to promote the various overseas releases.
I keep seeing references to Sondheim and Lapine using Bettelheim's philosophy when writing Into The Woods, (as in the original musical, which they both then adapted for the Disney movie), however it's not quite as black and white as that. 
We'll start with a summary so you have a better idea of the thought processes behind the writing of ITW, from an interview with Edward Seckerson, published by Stage and Screen Online in 2006. It seems to make it pretty clear the pair were anti-Bettelheim, but as I said, it's not so straight forward so keep reading:
Sondheim: "[W]e took a Jungian approach. You know, this whole thing about how we based it on Bruno Bettelheim is nonsense — it’s nothing to do with Bettelheim. In fact, I don’t know if James read the book, I didn’t." 
And when Sondheim was interviewed by James Lipton for the TV series Inside the Actors Studio, Lipton brought up Bettelheim: "There seems to be a philosophical war in that musical between the theories of Bruno Bettelheim and Jung." 
Sondheim responded, "It’s interesting you say that. Everybody assumes we were influenced by Bruno Bettelheim. But if there’s any outside influence, it’s Jung. James is interested in Jung—Twelve Dreams is based on a case Jung wrote about. In fact, we spoke to a Jungian analyst about fairy tales."
And from Sondheim's book, "Look, I Made a Hat" comes the following quoted paragraph:
"And, ah, the woods. The all-purpose symbol of the unconscious, the womb, the past, the dark place where we face our trials and emerge wiser or destroyed, a major theme in Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment, which is the book everyone assumes we used as a source, simply because it's the only book on the subject known to a wide public. But Bettelheim's insistent point was that children would find fairy tales useful in part because the young protagonists' tribulations always resulted in triumph, the happily ever after. What interested James was the little dishonesties that enabled the characters to reach their happy endings. 
... James was also skeptical about the possibility of 'happily ever after' in real life and wary of the danger that fairy tales give children false expectations. As his play Twelve Dreams has demonstrated, he was drawn not to Bettelheim's Freudian approach but to Carl Jung's theory that fairy tales are an indication of the collective unconscious, something with which Bettelheim would be unlikely to agree. James and I talked about the fairy tales with a Jungian psychiatrist and discovered that with the exception of 'Jack and the Beanstalk,' which apparently is native only to the British Isles, the tales we were dealing with exist in virtually every culture in the world, especially the Cinderella story. African, Chinese, Native American - there is even a contemporary Hebrew version in which Cinderella wants to dance at the Tel Aviv Hilton." 
So the answer is more like "No, they didn't base it on Bettelheim's ideas" but also "those ideas weren't exactly ignored either."
OK, that's all good then, but here's the thing that bothers me, personally, though: Lapine (who wrote the "book" for the musical, as well as co-wrote the screenplay for the current Disney movie adaptation), is reported by Performing Arts Journal in 1988 as saying this (emphasis in bold is mine):
"The Narrator is what the fairy tale is about. I tried telling the stories without a narrator and it just doesn't work. A story needs a storyteller, and the storyteller is the ultimate figure of authority. Originally we wanted a public figure, not an actor, to play the Narrator: Walter Cronkite, or Tip O'Neill—someone who disseminated information and points of view. Then when we got rid of him you would see that the news was now being reported by the newsmakers, not the news reporter; decisions were being made by the people, not the politicians. Ultimately, we defined our narrator as a kind of intellectual, a Bettelheim figure; I wanted to get rid of Bettelheim!"
If this is the case, why was the Narrator's pivotal role so greatly downgraded in the movie? It makes a huge difference not having The Baker's father as the Narrator (especially as we then lose the impact of the change of POV in story telling when he's removed). Having The Baker be the Narrator all along didn't work quite like the bookend I (now) believe it was intended to be (as in, he was telling this whole story to his child.) When watching the movie I was a little confused as to why the Baker was telling us all of this in the first place, the WAY he was telling it (especially how the telling started, then ended...). 
A last but important note: I want to be clear on one point. I am in favor of the movie, in general. I fully expected it to miss the mark - widely - but the material is more faithful than I expected too. The fact that it uses fairy tales at its center is actually what helps transcend the things that bother me about the movie. What fairy tales are, how they live in people's minds, how the stories communicate and pass themselves on, is what does it. The stories themselves, and all the history they bring with them, the social legacies and various personal contexts etc work to overcome the movie's shortcomings, simply because their essential forms (wonder stories/Märchen) are kept intact. The beauty of certain iconic images (created by Rob Marshall et al) and catchy, beautiful tunes that remind us of certain story phrases, support this too. Everything else is peripheral and people can take what they want to (or need to) from the movie as a result. It's kind of magical in a way.
So there you go - my two cents for the day. ;)
Additional sources: "Look, I Made A Hat" & HERE. All movie screencaps created by Turn the Right Corner. Go HERE to see many more.


  1. This is the first time I've even heard of Bruno Bettelheim. Can someone provide me with a link to who he is and what he said about fairy tales?

    1. Oh boy. Get ready for a fun and controversial ride! Bruno Bettelheim wrote THE book on "the meanings and importance of fairy tales" that media/reporters all seem to like to quote, to show they've done their research on the subject. The title is "The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales" and was ground breaking when first published. It's main flaw, however, is in subscribing (fairly singularly) to the Freudian world view. Knowing that going into it should help you be able to judge his ideas for yourself without getting too confused (or swallowed). It's a book every fairy tale scholar (serious or armchair) needs to read and have a copy of, if for no other reason than it is constantly referred to by journalists. Personally I like a lot of the exploration of concepts in the book, even if I don't end up agreeing with his conclusions. It's all in how you see it. The book (and Bettelheim's theories) tend to get boo'd at in fairy tale literature circles but I'm not in the hater-camp. I think it was an exploration that launched a big interest in the meanings of/behind fairy tales in the general public, making them think a little more about these stories they've heard so often they can tell their own version without too much thought. It's just one way of looking at the possible meanings/inferences behind the stories, of course, but it's resonated with so very many people that it can't be completely dismissed. I actually enjoyed it a lot, even if I didn't take it all on board. My recommendation in reading it is to already have/be aware of other books giving a different perspective on the same topic so you can then read those and compare views and thinking. (I recommend "Off With Their Heads!: Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood." by Maria Tatar for starters thought there are many others. This one happened to be written in response to Bettelheim though, so it's a good place to start.)
      I believe Bettelheim (and his book) is responsible for helping launch a lot of fairy tale research and scholarship, even if it was done in adverse response to his writings! I recommend it. Just know what you're reading. He was right about one thing, in my opinion, and that is: that children need fairy tales. (Just not for all the reasons he proposes!)
      Here are some links:
      -*- The Uses of Enchantment Wikipedia entry - the summary here is a really good and simple place to start:
      -*- Goodreads on The Uses of Enchantment - lots of opinions here - you'll start to see the controversies:
      -*- A thorough and in depth essay by well respected (and possibly best known) fairy tale scholar Prof. Jack Zipes on both Bettelheim and his book - "On the Use and Abuse of Folk and Fairy Tales with Children". I highly recommend this, once you get an idea of Bettelheim's book in general (free download) but it's fairly heavy going if you're not used to reading much academic work:
      -*- Bettelheim Wikipedia (I recommend reading this last, after reading the book, since it WILL color your view of the book and I think the ideas are worth considering on their own, even to reject):
      Happy researching!

    2. Hoo boy. That's a lot of stuff. I actually don't read a lot of fairy tale analysis and criticism. I'd usually rather just read the stories myself and come to my own conclusions. But that's probably because I'm not much of a nonfiction reader as it is. Books that don't have plots and characters tend to lose my interest (I had to use a timer to push myself to read for 30 whole minutes at a time when reading texts for both my college and grad school degrees). Maybe that's why I find myself hesitant to refer to myself as a "fairy tale scholar" and always preferred the more pedestrian "fairy tale fan" or more self-deprecating "fairy tale geek" labels.

      I have been dipping my toe into this stuff though. I bought Marina Warner's new little book. That's a good start, right?