For the past year or so, a certain segment of the population—musical-theatre fans who were children in the eighties and thought they were too good for Andrew Lloyd Webber—has experienced a punishing range of emotions about the new movie “Into the Woods,” based on the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical of the same name. The emotions include anxiety, rage, anticipation, possessiveness, nostalgia, suspicion, denial, and dread. More than once, I’ve heard the show’s own lyrics used to explain how “Into the Woods” devotees feel about the adaptation. “Excited and scared,” as Little Red Riding Hood has it.
As a member of this small but fervent demographic, I’d like to explain why we’ve been so tense. Part of it is that “Into the Woods” is easy to get wrong. The musical weaves together fairy-tale figures like Cinderella, Jack (of the beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf, Rapunzel and the witch, and more than one handsome prince. Two new characters, a baker and his wife who’ve been cursed with barrenness, help to tie everything together. By the end of Act I, everyone’s wishes have come true: Cinderella gets her prince, Jack gets the giant’s harp, the baker and his wife get a child, and so on. In Act II, it all falls to pieces. A second giant goes on a killing spree. The princes cheat. The couple resorts to blaming and bickering. The characters question their original wishes and what they stole and whom they sold out to fulfill them. Nobody quite lives happily ever after.
In other words, it’s the antidote to Disney. So how could Disney possibly adapt the show without betraying its dark spirit? That was the question lingering over the buildup to the movie, stoked by dribs and drabs of paranoia-inducing detail. In a Talk of the Town piece by Larissa MacFarquhar in June, Sondheim himself seemed to confirm purists’ worst fears, telling a group of drama teachers that Disney had in fact bowdlerized some plot elements: “You will find in the movie that Rapunzel does not get killed, and the prince does not sleep with the baker’s wife.” (Only one of those things turned out to be true.) Disney’s tagline seemed unnervingly apt: “Be careful what you wish for.”
More than plot, what’s tricky about “Into the Woods” is tone. Lapine’s book tacks between farce and tragedy, winking at the absurdities of the original tales (How the heck does Little Red Riding Hood climb out of the wolf’s belly intact?) and then guiding their characters through calamity and heartache. Sondheim’s score is a puzzle-master’s trove of overlapping motifs, internal rhymes, wordplay (“We’ve no time to sit and dither / while her withers wither with her”), and psychological nuance. Few musical-theatre soliloquies are as elegant as “On the Steps of the Palace,” Cinderella’s deconstruction of the moment she decides to leave behind the shoe:
You think, what do you want?
You think, make a decision.
Why not stay and be caught?
You think, well, it’s a thought,
What would be his response?
But then what if he knew
Who you were when you know
That you’re not what he thinks
That he wants?
And then what if you are?
When the musical opened on Broadway, in 1987, parents would occasionally yank their young children out of the theatre in shock during the second act, thinking, They killed Rapunzel? I was too young to go (though, to my mother’s credit, she brought me to see Sondheim’s “Passion” a few years later), but fortunately Lapine’s note-perfect production was preserved by “American Playhouse.” The moment I first saw Bernadette Peters singing “Last Midnight” on PBS, circa fifth grade, was a formative one. It wasn’t just that she looked like a fabulous goth diva or her peculiar, warbly way of delivering punch lines. It was Sondheim’s articulation of the witch’s alienation and moral skepticism that was so riveting. Also, her hair.
I certainly didn’t comprehend all the musical’s resonances, among them the communal solidarity during the AIDS crisis, which at the time was stomping around the theatre world like an angry giant. (Sondheim has downplayed the AIDS connection, but it’s unavoidable.) Still, the show was a psychological bait and switch, a gateway to adolescence and its complicated truths. Act I had magic beans. Act II had disillusionment, responsibility, and loss. You got from one to the other through the woods, as good a metaphor as any for the big brutal world. Even the shifts in tone were a lesson: amid despair, a dry one-liner (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere”); after an act of courage, ethical revisionism. What I learned from “Into the Woods,” most of all, was ambivalence. It’s in every song, undermining prepackaged morals. (“Isn’t it nice to know a lot?” Little Red sings to herself. “And a little bit not.”) No one in musical theatre does ambivalence like Sondheim, and usually no one tells you what it is until after you’ve experienced it. Cinderella’s hemming and hawing on the palace steps is worlds away from “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” from Disney’s cartoon version. What if your heart doesn’t have a goddam clue?
It’s appropriate, then, that ambivalence is the overriding feeling I’ve had about the movie, even after seeing a screening a few weeks ago. Rob Marshall’s version, I’m happy to report, is faithful enough to please most diehards, without sacrificing the concrete magic that movies can offer. For the most part, the plot changes seem wise. (Come on, guys, relax about the Mysterious Man.) Meryl Streep is excellent; duh. It’s wordier and weirder than other movie musicals, as it should be. If anything, it was jarring to see the show's ambiguities translated so literally to a big holiday film, where they don’t seem to belong—or maybe I was just seeing the musical's flaws for the first time. Is the second-act massacre really deserved? I kept wondering, as I watched, how this could possibly be marketed to children, but then I reminded myself that I was ten when I saw “Into the Woods” on PBS. So now I’m worried less about the movie than about how the rest of the world will receive it—the selfishness of aficionados, who want their special thing all to themselves. Someday, the generation that learned about moral relativism from “Wicked” will feel the same way. I’ll tell them something that I learned from the witch: sometimes the things you most wish for are not to be touched.
Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements / paper topics for “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau that can be used as essay starters. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in Walden and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements for Walden by Henry David Thoreau offer a short summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from Walden by Henry David Thoreau at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent paper. Before you begin, however, please get some useful tips and hints abouthow to use PaperStarter.comin the brief User's Guide…you'll be glad you did.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: Transcendentalism in Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau is classified as a transcendentalist writer, and Walden is one of the seminal works of this particular literary/philosophical movement. Write an expository essay in which you identify and define some of the central tenets of transcendentalism. Link these key ideas and beliefs to passages in Thoreau’s Walden and support the claim that Thoreau was a transcendentalist. For a more challenging alternative, explore the ways in which Henry David Thoreau deviates from some of the central ideas and modes of transcendentalism. For more assistance with this topic, check out this openly accessible article on transcendentalism in Thoreau and Whitman through Walden.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Thoreau, Walden, and the Genre of the Memoir
The genre of the memoir has exploded in popularity in recent years, but one of the enduring memoirs in American letters is Thoreau’s Walden, which is essentially a journal of and reflection upon the time the author spent living in simple conditions in the Massachusetts woods while also dealing with some issues that find their way into a related text called “Civil Disobedience” (full summary and analysis here). Thoreau could have chosen to write a fictitious account of his time beside Walden Pond, but he selected the memoir genre instead. Consider the differences between the genres of fiction and memoir, and write an essay in which you defend Thoreau’s choice of the memoir for Walden, as opposed to another genre.. In your essay, include a consideration of issues such as narrative voice and reliability, the development of the reader’s interest and engagement, and the way in which meaning is conveyed. In the closing paragraph of this essay on Walden by Henry David Thoreau, you might want to speculate how the overall meaning and themes would be altered if he had chosen another genre for this text.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: Thoreau as Character in Walden
One of the only human “characters" in Walden, Thoreau is both author and subject of this text. In almost all literary works, whether fact or fiction, what engages the reader is seeing how a character develops as the result of his or her experiences. Thoreau clearly positions himself at the beginning and end of the text, as well as in between, as to why he is writing and what he has learned. In your estimation as a reader, how has he changed and developed? Write an expository essay in which you trace Thoreau’s development as it occurs in Walden.
Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #4: The Role of Nature in Walden
It is obvious that nature is both the setting and main subject of Walden, yet the seemingly simple transcendentalist symbolism of nature in (i.e: seasons and other cycles; the contrast of light/dark) belies some more profound interpretations. Choose one or more nature symbols that appear in Walden and write an essay in which you interpret these deeper meanings and connect them to the lessons that Thoreau wishes to convey.
• Again, the articles Transcendentalism and the Poetry of Thoreau and Walt Whitman and Analysis and Summary of “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau will be very helpful •
This list of important quotations from Walden by Henry David Thoreau will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from Walden listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of Walden by Henry David Thoreau they are referring to.
“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again." (3)
“In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience." (3)
“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn…. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done." (90)
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived….I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartanlike as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it." (90-91)
“I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life." (131)
“If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies." (216)
“If we knew all the laws of Nature, we should need only one fact, or the description of one actual phenomenon, to infer all the particular results at that point. Now we know only a few laws, and our result is vitiated, not, of course, by any confusion or irregularity in Nature, but by our ignorance of essential elements in the calculation. Our notions of law and harmony are commonly confined to those instances which we detect; but the harmony which results from a far greater number of seemingly conflicting, but really concurring, laws, which we have not detected, is still more wonderful.…." (290)
“Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant's truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails." (218)
“I hesitate to say these things, but it is not because of the subject,—I care not how obscene my words are, —but because I cannot speak of them without betraying my impurity. We discourse freely without shame of one form of sensuality, and are silent about another. We are so degraded that we cannot speak simply of the necessary functions of human nature." (221)
“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves." (323)
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." (323)
Reference: Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. J. Lyndon Shanley ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971.