On jets, and the lagging thereof

During the past 50-someodd hours, I’ve had a grand total of approximately four hours of sleep. This was largely due to needing to wake up early for a lengthy international flight on which I was unable to sleep (obligatory screaming baby three seats to my left, and another two rows behind me), and now trying to adapt to a strange new time zone.

Johnny Depp as Sweeny ToddOn the plane, I finally watched (amongst other things) the movie adaptation of Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, by Tim Burton. When it was released in theaters I had been amused at reports of people who had been surprised to discover that the film was a musical, despite it being a film adaptation of a fairly high-profile Stephen Sondheim musical of the same name.

In the end, I was surprised to find that it wasn’t so much an adaptation as virtually a straight translation, maintaining even the incidental and transitional music from the stage show, just adding CG elements to fill out the world beyond what can realistically be done in most live theater. And making some surprising changes, where you’d least expect them.

At this point, I’ll confess to being a bit of a theater nerd. Below the fold, my comparisons between the movie and the stage play. While the comparisons are mostly spoiler-free, they won’t mean much to you unless you’ve seen one or the other of the productions. So those who have no interest in this sort of discussion probably want to skip this post. More game design discussions tomorrow, when I’ve had proper amounts of sleep, I promise.

Sweeny Todd (like many of Sondheim’s musicals) really rests on the strength of the characters, and I’m not entirely convinced that everything they did to the characters really worked for me in the film. In particular, neither Depp nor Carter are world-class singing talents, and can’t quite live up to what’s really one of the most challenging musical scores out there. Don’t get me wrong — they’re not terrible, they just don’t hit it out of the park in the way that, say, the original Broadway actors did (George Hearn and Angela Lansbury). Or that even a few regional rep companies I’ve seen have. Of course, when dealing with something like Sondheim, regional rep companies usually try to mimic the Broadway production as directly as they can, which Burton most definitely is not attempting.

One good example is the sailor Anthony, who saves Todd from drowning shortly before the start of the story. Originally, he was portrayed as a clean, straight-laced and somewhat naive sailor, and is typically costumed in a starched sailor suit through virtually the whole of a stage production. In terms of structure, he is the thematic foil of Todd; the polar opposite. Anthony is obsessed with love and morality, while Todd is obsessed with revenge at any price. The contrasts between Anthony and Todd, and the difference between their fates is one of the central themes of the play.

On the other hand, while Burton’s Anthony is still obsessed with love he is portrayed as a rather darker (and surprisingly effeminate) character, and the resolution of his plot thread has been entirely cut from the film. The traditional ‘Anthony’ would certainly not have been a very Burton-esque character, but I was still a little disappointed to see that whole side of the plot turn mushy because there was nobody to hold it up any more.

The assistant Toby (usually played as a somewhat dim-witted boy of about sixteen) is cast in the film as a boy of about ten. I was initially dubious about this choice, but the character grew on me. His character departed from the book a good deal more than most of the other characters, but I think that the changes worked well. Except, of course, that the resolution of his plot thread was also cut. And a boy of his years delivering “No one’s going to harm you” song jangled a bit for me. It seemed to come a bit out of left field.

But by far the biggest change was to Mrs. Lovett, who has metamorphosed from a love-starved, strong-willed, matronly lady to an extremely slender, stereotypical gothic figure who typically speaks and sings in a vague whisper. It’s an interesting character choice, but as when theater troupes choose to set one of Shakespeare’s histories in World War Two, there are many lines that simply don’t work when you stretch for that interpretation, and so you occasionally find the actors rushing over small sections of dialogue which simply don’t work for the changed character, but which the director couldn’t bring himself to remove entirely. And I’ll confess that much of the time, I was quietly wishing that they could have gotten Angela Lansbury to recreate her original role.

George Hearn, as Sweeny ToddOther notes.. the few comic songs from the original musical were toned down substantially for the film, either cut, shortened, or played straight, presumably to present a more uniform Burton-esque highly gothic feel. I can understand wanting to maintain that mood, but when they eviscerate “God that’s good” to the point that folks who had only seen Burton’s film wouldn’t even know which song I’m talking about, well.. I do wonder why they didn’t cut it entirely.

There’s a play called ‘night, Mother; a particularly harrowing one-act play which consists of a mother trying to convince her daughter not to commit suicide. Someone once told me that ‘night, Mother is structured as a one act play because it’s so stressful to watch that many would simply not feel up to returning to it, if they were given an intermission in which to silently slip out of the theater.

In the same way, perhaps Burton’s Sweeny Todd felt that it could cut down on the comic numbers in order to maintain its melancholy air, since it didn’t need to coax its audience back after an intermission, unlike the stage show. And I suppose that would make sense.

If I had to give a single rating to the film (which thankfully I don’t have to do, since I don’t claim to be running a movie review site), I’d describe it as “muted”, as much of the film is muted and washed out. Everthing from the singers’ performances to the acting, and even to the color palette is all just a bit muddy and indistinct. About the only thing not muted in the film is the volume of blood, which has substantially increased over the quantity of blood in the stage show.

I do heartily approve of the increase in bloodiness. While there is much less blood in the live shows, that blood has a very strong impact due to it being shed live, in a context where people are not accustomed to seeing blood. In movies, people are a good deal more desensitised, and so using more of it to maintain the same audience reaction was probably a really good idea.

Overall, I do recommend seeing a stage show of Sweeny Todd over seeing the movie, if you can manage it. And if you can’t (and can cope with watching a play on your television screen, where the blood will have far less impact), then I recommend trying to rent a DVD of the Broadway cast. It’s not that there’s anything that’s grossly wrong with Burton’s film.. it’s just difficult to recommend it when there’s such a stunning classic available that surpasses it in most aspects.