Today I’ll be indulging in some Hollywoodness and talking about a movie. There will be three parts. Part 1: My Background with the film. Part 2: My Synopsis of the film, and Part 3: My Grand Philosophical Conclusions from the film. This is Part 3.
Here’s why I loved Into the Woods so much. Upon reflection, it is so much more than meets the eye. (Warning: there may be some minor spoilers ahead)
In the beginning, every character wishes for something they deeply desire. There’s nothing wrong with any of the wishes, as all seem quite legitimate and even admirable. A couple wants a child. A mother wants money for food. A servant girl wants to escape. But the problem is that all their wishes seem impossible for them to obtain, at least in their present circumstances. In order to obtain what they want, they realize they must compromise something and enter into the woods to seek their desires.
The woods are exciting. And scary. And adventurous. And seductive. The woods represent a place of moral ambiguity. Outside of the woods, the characters know right from wrong, and in fact the limitation of an either/or world is the very thing that has kept them from achieving their desires. In the woods, however, things are different. Right/Wrong, and either/or are not as clearly defined. Things can be both right and wrong, both either and or, and as long as the ends are honorable enough to justify the means, then what does minor dishonesty, petty theft, or gentle relativism really matter?
At the end of Act 1, it would seem as though it doesn’t. All is well that ends well and everyone is happy. What happened in the woods stayed in the woods, and all that matters is how well things worked out in the end.
Or so it seems. Next up is Act 2 and with it the true beauty of this morality tale.
While the ends of Act 1 did temporarily seem to justify their means, our characters soon realize that their previous actions have led to unforeseen ramifications. Earlier, since it had been only though entering into the woods and flirting with moral relativism that they were able to achieve their goals, well then surely entering into the woods this time will solve their problems again, right? So the characters once again enter the woods in hopes of achieving their goals. This time, however, the woods have changed. Paths are harder to find, landmarks have been destroyed, and there are fewer bearings to guide them. They grapple with difficult choices and question how to determine the “right” plan of action now that their distinctions between right and wrong have become convoluted.
In the end, the remaining characters are left to the conclusion that only they can decide what is right for them to do.
Left at just this, many audience members will likely assume that the grand philosophical arc of this film is that of existentialism, where there are no absolute rights or wrongs, and that our morality is up to each of us to decide on our own. I at first thought that this was the moral of the story too. However, the more I processed and pondered, the more I wondered if actually, rather than existentialism, this film instead hints at the basis for why an absolute moral code must, in fact, exist. If each character (and by extension each audience member) decides their own right and wrong – on WHAT would they base that decision, even if only for themselves, if there were not some kind of shared moral compass across all of humanity from which to draw from?
The final song in this film is an admonition to adults to be careful what they teach their children. Though they may not always obey, children still listen and hear; they need adults to guide their moral compasses so that if they do eventually find themselves seduced by the attractiveness of moral ambiguity that they will be able to one day find their path once again.
So my grand philosophical conclusion of this film? It’s not just that there must be an absolute right and wrong out there somewhere, but that there’s a reason why an absolute right and wrong must exist.
So be careful what you wish for, for it is not one’s wishes that determine the difference between good and bad. Bad can seem nice, but that doesn’t make it right.