Don't Care About The Interview? Libertarians Should Check Out Into the Woods


I'm willing to court further holiday movie controversy by declaring that James Corden is much hotter than Chris Pine.

The circus surrounding The Interview has pretty much sucked the life out of any buzz for any other holiday movie. Now that the dust is settling on that affair (and media transitions to analyses of what it all means for the possibility of direct home releases for big budget films), it's possible there are people out there—many, many people—who were not interested in the movie all along and did not become any more interested in seeing the actual movie, regardless of any concerns about hacking, censorship, and vague possible terrorist threats.

So Into the Woods comes off as a certain amount of holiday counterprogramming. It's a film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical about fairy tales, put out by Disney, starring Meryl Streep. Without making generalized assumptions, the studios probably didn't expect a lot of overlap in the two movies' target demographics.

The shtick for Into the Woods is that it takes well known fairy tales and turns them on their heads. This is not a new idea, of course. We've been deconstructing fairy tales for a long time (though keep in mind Into the Woods was first produced on stage all the way back in 1987). And there's nothing particularly fresh about the "be careful what you wish for" approach of subverting fairy tales—the marketing tag to promote the film. What is interesting about the play, and why libertarians might want to take note, is where that approach eventually leads. The play is a sometimes funny, sometimes very dark rumination on personal responsibility, parenthood, and unintended consequences.

Without getting too far into spoilers (though really, the play is almost 30 years old), here's a list of themes from Into the Woods of potential interest to libertarians:

Beware Unintended Consequences. The characters of Into the Woods, like most characters in stories, are obsessed with what they want. The first song lays out each character's wishes very deliberately and literally. Then the play pushes these fairy tale characters to decide how far they're willing to go to make these wishes come true. Trade some magic beans to Jack to get his cow so to remove a curse? Is it fair? What do the beans do? It doesn't matter. The important thing is getting that cow. And then later, it turns out it really did matter. The second half of the play (and final third of the movie) is about the unintended consequences of the many selfish decisions by the various fairy tale players.

Summarized, that actually doesn't sound very libertarian at all. But let me be clear: The story is not that personal desire, ambition, or even selfishness is the enemy; rather, it's the decision on how to treat others in this pursuit. Much of the mayhem and devastation that happens in the story ultimately results from the characters deceiving and violating others in order to chase after their own wishes. The violence of the story can literally be traced back to the theft of property.

Good Intentions Mean Jack. Less literally, the violence of the story can be traced back to the behavior of fairy tale characters who believe that they are immune to responsibility for their own behavior because they meant well, or at least, they didn't mean to harm anybody. And when their stories spin out of control and hit its darkest, most dire hour, they are all quick to lay the blame on each other in order to excuse their own responsibility, even as the world falls apart. It falls on the nasty witch (played by Streep) that everybody hates to call them out on what the truth is: They're not "good" people; they're "nice" people. The difference between "good" vs. "nice" is hit on throughout the story. The handsome princes with their dreamy eyes and tight pants are nice and charming, and also thoroughly self-absorbed and not very good.

Government Can't Help You, So Turn to Each Other. When everything goes all to hell the princes are just completely worthless. The kingdom descends into complete anarchy under the threat of a supernatural being, only there because of the behavior of the "heroes" of the fairy tales. Heck, there's even the fairy tale equivalent of a character's fate being determined by the brutish, thoughtless behavior of a government official.

But then the solution to the kingdom's crisis comes from spontaneous order—the survivors of the mayhem figure out how to end their crisis and deal with their emotional traumas by turning to each other. It would be easy to look at the emotional, climactic song "No One Is Alone," as some sort of collectivist, "It Takes a Village" affirmation, but only taken out of context. A story where government is hapless and self-centered and where every single character, from the witch all the way down to Little Red Riding Hood, is called to account for his or her choices is not an embrace of collectivism.   

I wouldn't go so far to say the musical advocates libertarian philosophy by any means (there are some deep cuts in the film that alter the "no happy endings" concepts of the story. Alyssa Rosenburg talks about it here). But such an emphasis on personal responsibility—particularly when imparting lessons to children—is worthy of note. Into the Woods stands out in the midst of a new rash of culture wars full of people who are still (and will probably remain) stuck in laying blame and finding fault in others, refusing to consider the unintended consequences of the policies they advocate, and avoiding any sort of introspection.

NEXT: Dropped Animal Cruelty Case Shows How Authorities Manipulate Grand Juries

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  1. Speaking of libertarian entertainment, I’ve always wondered what the opinion of an old BBC show called “Blake’s 7” was.

    1. If no one’s heard of it, it’s a show which hits a lot of the same notes as “Firefly”. It’s got the usual late-70’s BBC bugbears – cheap actors, cheap sets and FX plus the lurking suspicion that the dialog only sounds profound because of the english accents, etc. – but it might be right up your alley.

      1. I thought it was great. (Even with the flaws you mentioned.)

        1. Late checking in but ditto. Ordered the box sets from Amazon UK.

    2. Seven fighters
      Intergalactic space crusaders

      No scruples, lethal traitors

      Intergalactic space crusaders

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      Best song ever written about Blake’s 7.

  2. This is not a new idea, of course. We’ve been deconstructing fairy tales for a long time

    Should point out that fairy tales are subversions in of themselves.

    Mostly political subversions of class often putting peasants in the role of hero.

  3. Um, again – only movie I saw or intend to see was “The Hobbit – Pt Trois”. It was meh.

    1. I thought part one was blah, and part two was bleh. So, uh, that’s good.

  4. This sums up my thoughts on this article.

    1. Succinct, concise – I give it three roses.

    2. So what you’re saying is you’d prefer my more in-depth, 2,000-word analysis of how the play presents issues related to property rights?

      1. Does it involve Freud vs JUng?

        I’M ALL IN!

    3. How rude.

    4. This [OMG WHO THE HELL CARES!] sums up my thoughts on this article.

      The F?hrer, of course.

      1. Rarely mentioned is the reason that the deep, dark, scary forest figures into so many fairy tales. The plagues depopulated Europe to the point that large swaths of land were abandoned and returned to wilderness. They were deep, dark and scary, filled with hungry critters and outlaws.

        1. Also rarely mentioned is that Europe went through a protracted famine at the beginning of the so-called “Little Ice Age” in the early 14th century. Incidents of cannibalism became relatively common and infanticide was practiced pretty often when families suddenly found themselves with too many mouths to feed. This is why there are so many European fairy tales and legends that have to do with starvation, children, and cannibalism.

          1. Oh, come on, they were in the Malthusian trap for most of thousands of years before that, it was nothing new, just worse than before

  5. There ain’t a bunch of singin’ and dancin’ in this musical, is there?

    I hate that.

    1. Depends on the subtext doesn’t it?

      1. Depends heavily on whether you have a wife/girlfriend you can take to it to enjoy the subtext bro.

    2. I really wished I’d read the “musical” part closer before choosing to see it tonight. I really hate it when a movie just spontaneously breaks into song… and not like a real song, more like the clearly broadway-like singing-while-talking nonsense. ugh

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  8. Some brief thoughts upon my return from seeing “Into the Woods” with the family.
    ? I didn’t know it was a musical. Not that knowing it would have helped any.
    ? I don’t know what the running time is, but it must clock in around six hours. Just slightly shorter than “Color of Night.”
    ? The first song starts with “I wish….” By the end of the second act, I was wishing they’d wrap it up.
    ? “Please don’t start another song. Please don’t start another song.”
    ? Of the few scenes that made me laugh aloud, the best was a slightly homoerotic performance with the two princes.
    ? The ladies liked it. My 7-year-old son claims he did, too, but his testimony is suspect.

    ? Final analysis: technically proficient; musically complex; and mind-numbingly boring.

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  16. I can’t recommend this movie. Last year’s Oz the Great and Powerful was delightful, inspiring, remarkably sexy for a Disney flick, and arguably libertarian in its pro-technology attitude. Into the Woods is just depressing. (Some critics say that the original stage version treats the various unhappy endings to better dramatic effect, but I have to take their word for it.)

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  18. Into the Woods is well known fairy tales and turns them on their heads. and in this movie ,you will see Meryl Streep acting and many famous movie star.

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