7 Topics Worthy of Discussion from Into the Woods

into the woods

There are a few things you need to know before you go. It’s not for kids…in case you haven’t heard yet. And it’s a musical. That being said, it’s clever. Dare I even say brilliant? The writer in me was beyond impressed, not only with the mashup which incorporated several fairy tales into one, but also with the way the writers managed to say so much about life in such a little space of time. And whether you agree or not with some of the messages in the movie (I will explain a little more about some of the various messages and interpretations), it will definitely provide you with much to discuss, on a variety of topics. Of all the wonderful movies out there right now, to me at least, this one definitely has the most to offer in terms of opportunities for discussions about faith, character, choices and life. Here are 7 Discussion-worthy topics.

1.  Red Riding Hood meets Taken:

I loved the Red Riding Hood storyline. It’s kind of like Taken, told via fairytale metaphor. Red disobeyed her mother’s words to come straight and not delay.   She got distracted and a bit enamored with the charming wolf. “He seemed so nice and he showed me so many beautiful things…and he made me feel excited and scared when he said come in.” Watching Red’s story, I couldn’t help but think of the way so many good girls get lured into sexual sins and/or forced into them. She started out a willing participant, but in the end, the wolf forced himself on her and devoured her. (It’s really a great metaphor for temptation of any kind, so don’t necessarily limit yourself to seeing this in terms of sexual temptation.)

It had a sweet ending though—one of hope and redemption. Fortunately, the Baker arrived in time to rescue her and cut her out of the wolf’s belly. She told him, “[I went] down a dark and slimy path… so we lay in the dark till you came and set us free.” There she was, in the belly of the beast, and yet, she knew that salvation was on its way. Beautiful. That’s the gospel! We go down a treacherous, sinful path and get stuck in dark, death and decay, helpless to save ourselves. Jesus stepped in, however, and defeated death and sin so that we can live.

Red learned some important lessons through this ordeal. First off, she had her hope in the wrong things. She thought her cape and hood would keep her safe, but it was powerless. “Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood.” She sings. There’s a powerful discussion there—what is it you put your faith in? What is it that you think will save you? The Bible is pretty bold, saying that Jesus is the only way, truth and life.

She also learned that “Nice is different than good.” Yet another brilliant statement and powerful conversation to have with anyone, but especially young girls. Nice is not the same as good. Many a nice charming man is but a predator in disguise. A wolf in sheep’s (or granny’s) clothes. Nice is a great quality, but it’s far more important to be good. She concluded by saying, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot…and a little bit…not.” It’s true. She grew wiser, and that feels good, but it’s bitter sweet—she lost her innocence.

Wrapping up this little piece of the story, the witch comes in and offers her sage advice, “Children must obey. Don’t you know what’s out there in the wood? Princes, yes, but wolves and humans too.” It’s not all bad in the world. There are good things, but there are also dangers. The solution? How do you avoid trouble? Obedience.

  • Questions for Discussion:
    • How does the wolf resemble the way a man might woo a woman?
    • What mistakes did Red make? How would obedience have saved Red from danger?
    • Red had her hope in her cape, but her cape was powerless to save. What are the things you put your hope in? How might they be useful? How might they fail you? What are good things to put your faith in?
    • Red mentions being somewhat repulsed and yet at the same time fascinated with the wolf. Have you ever been in her shoes?
    • Red was powerless to save herself, it took the Baker, someone outside to help her. Do you think you can save yourself, or do you feel like you need a savior? Do you trust in God enough that when you get into trouble you can just wait and know that He will save you?
    • When have you seen “nice” and “good” not be the same thing? Have you ever been hurt by believing someone was good because they were nice? How can you tell if someone is only nice or if they are actually good? Have you ever known someone who was good but not actually very nice?

2.  Parenting:

There are several parenting issues in the movie. The Baker and his wife are cursed because of the actions of his father. (Definitely raises the question of generational sins!) The same Baker was haunted by bad things he learned about his parents, and then later was tempted to repeat their mistakes and leave his own child, feeling that he was unequal to the task of parenting. His father came to him and urged him to be better than he was and not to repeat his mistakes. How many people can relate to this?!

The Baker and his wife are unable to have children. They are told there is a way to fix this and they are so desperate to have children they are willing to do almost anything to lift the curse—even things which require taking advantage of others or coloring outside the lines of morality a bit. This is a very real issue. People who can’t get pregnant are faced with a lot of options these days, ones which must be carefully, prayerfully navigated—ones which aren’t always, necessarily morally or spiritually obvious, ones which may get a result, but may also require some compromises.

Rapunzel’s mother kept her in a tower to protect her. Her mother was right, there are dangers out there (see little Red’s story!), but complete isolation wasn’t necessarily the answer. Not to mention, it didn’t keep her from meeting a man, neither did it keep that man from sneaking into her tower/bedroom. Furthermore, it created a rift in their relationship when Rapunzel began to realize how her mother had isolated and controlled her (as well as denied her any element of trust). We can sympathize with her mother though, when she says, “I was just trying to be a good mother. To protect you!” There is a fine line between protecting and controlling, but to be a good, Godly parent, surely you have a responsibility to protect your child. How do you do that?

  • Questions for Discussion
    • What do you think about the verse that suggests the sins (and their consequences) of the fathers are carried by the children (Numbers 14:18)?
    • How are you affected by the mistakes your parents made? Are you challenged to be better, or are you limited by them?
    • Science offers a lot of alternative options for infertility. What do you think about some of these options—are they all acceptable or are some crossing lines of acceptability/morality? How do you know when you are going too far, chasing the end and forgetting the means?
    • How do you protect your children without going overboard?
    • What do you do when your child disagrees with your parenting choices?
    • Do you think the Bible can help you become a better parent?

3.  Loss

Loss is also a huge theme. Rapunzel’s mom sorrowfully sings that “Children can only grow from something you love to something you lose.” Red and Cinderella both miss their mothers. The Baker’s wife grieves the loss of hope of having children. The Baker falls apart when he loses his wife. And throughout the movie is a refrain: “You are not alone.” Part of the good news of Jesus is that Emanuel, “God with us” came to earth—to be with us. We are not alone.

  • Questions for Discussion
    • How have you suffered loss? Of a parent or loved one? Of a dream? Etc.?
    • Do you feel alone in life? What triggers that emotion most?
    • God is called “Emmanuel”, which means “God with us”. How does that make you feel, to know that Jesus came to earth so that He could be with us? So that we don’t ever have to be alone?

4.  When you get what you want…and are disappointed

The story begins with conflict and resolution as you would expect, and everyone gets their happily ever. But what then? What happens after Cinderella and Prince Charming wed, for example? Life isn’t over…and life is messy, but we don’t typically see that side in the fairy tales. So, in Into the Woods, there’s this great moment, a wedding, a happy payoff for all the struggle…but then the story isn’t over—it keeps going. Into the Woods explores the rest of the story, the reality that sets in after you get what you thought you always wanted. Cinderella’s mom foreshadows this in her warnings to Cinderella: “Do you know what you wish? Are you certain what you wish is what you want?”

I can’t help but think of Israel’s desperate desire for a king. God told them they didn’t need a king. A king wasn’t the best thing for them—He was. But they insisted and He gave them what they wanted. It was great for a little while, but then that king became a disappointment and a hindrance to them.

  • Questions for Discussion:
    • Have you ever been disappointed because you got what you wanted, but then realized it wasn’t what you really wanted after all?
    • What do you do when reality disappoints you? How do you respond? Do you blame others? Do you try to change things? Do you try to develop gratitude and adjust to the new reality? Or do you do something different?

5.  Searching for a Feeling

Prince Charming, as he says, was taught to be charming, but not sincere. He expects that getting the woman that ran away will satisfy his desires, but he discovers he isn’t satisfied—he still wants other women. He wants them because they make him “feel alive”. He is always searching for a high, but never for truth or righteousness. He is perfectly content to use others for his own satisfaction with no regard for how it might affect them. Frankly, I loved how they showed this for the awful thing that it is. So often this is the underlying truth of the romance in our “romantic” movies, the ones we set up as the standard, the ideal even, to aspire to. It’s not the selfless, sacrificial kind of life that God calls us to, but a self-serving love that’s entire aim is to “feel alive”, no matter who may be used and/or destroyed in the process. Just so long as we dress it up so that it looks pretty and feels good as we watch it, stirs our desires and makes us want to feel what they are feeling we will forgive any lapse in actual character, depth and quality of love. Prince Charming shows us just how evil and selfish and wrong this kind of love is.

  • Questions for Discussion:
    • How did you feel about Prince Charming?
    • He rationalized his actions by saying, essentially, “What happens in the woods, stays in the woods”—is this ever true? Is it ever okay?
    • Are feelings a good enough compass to direct our actions?
    • 1 Corinthians 13 and Ephesians 5:25 talk about the kind of love God says is best—how does it differ from Prince Charming’s kind of love?

6.  Blame and Niceness

The witch calls the rest of the cast to task after things fall apart. The others are busy placing blame and arguing about how they got into the predicament they are in. The witch cuts right to the heart of things. First off, she points that they are more concerned with blaming each other than with finding a solution. Secondly, she tells them they are all to blame. Why? Ultimately it’s because they are nice, well, because they are only nice. “You’re so nice. You’re not good. You’re not bad. You’re just nice.” It’s not that being nice is a bad thing, but that it’s not enough (as we saw earlier with Little Red Riding Hood). You have to be more than nice, you have to be good and true—righteous, if you will. (Oh my—such a sensitive but important topic for conversation! How many times have I heard someone say that they think so-and-so should go to heaven simply because they are a “nice” person—because they don’t recognize the importance God places on holiness, perfection, righteousness, or on sin.) The townspeople were all generally likeable and nice, but they all made compromises to get what they wanted. And those compromises had been easy to overlook because they did it nicely, with a smile, if you will. But those compromises were now coming back to haunt them.

  • Questions for Discussion
    • What compromises did the various characters make? Is it okay to do things that aren’t right, as long as you do them nicely?
    • How easy is it for you to overlook the wrong things others do if you just like the person?
    • Do you tend to value likeableness and niceness or truth and righteousness more? In yourself and/or in others?
    • When things go wrong, do you tend to pass the blame, examine your own culpability, or focus on a solution?

7.  The Final, Somewhat Ambiguous Message

The story wraps up with a song which is filled with warnings. Most of them are really sage, but a few of the statements are a little troubling. I read this review which did a great job of highlighting the concern, however I have a slightly different take on it as I think about it.

The troubling statement is this: “You decide what’s good. You decide what’s right.” The Bible clearly says that it is wrong to call an evil thing good (Isaiah 5:20)—so I definitely think that it’s dangerous (at best) to give someone the freedom to just rename something that is bad (an affair, say) as good. If that is what they are actually saying, I think it’s an atrocious and ridiculously absurd statement. But, I don’t think that’s really what they mean. For one, I don’t think it’s in keeping with the tone of the movie. The story does not in any way exalt Charming as a hero, and he is the worst offender of this way of thinking. He is the one who says it’s not wrong if it happens in the woods—he redefines right and wrong based on where it happens. He’s absurd.

The other reason I don’t think that’s what they are saying is the context of that statement. It comes right after Red questions the group’s decision to kill the giant. “A giant’s a person. Aren’t we supposed to show forgiveness?” The popular opinion was that giants are bad, but Red thinks for herself and questions what everyone else is saying and doing. This is on the heels of Cinderella realizing that just because everyone has told her that the prince was wonderful and a good catch (the best, actually), and just because he looked good and was very nice…didn’t mean he really was. In fact, the whole second half of the movie, after “happily ever after” falls apart, is all about blowing stereotypes out of the water and people thinking for themselves, versus simply believing what the populace holds to be true.

So they sang that “witches can be right”—because the witch, as unlikeable as she may have been, was incredibly wise and “right” about a lot of things. And they sang that “giants can be good” because they saw that the giant wasn’t necessarily evil just because she was large and angry, rather, she was hurt and grieving her dead husband. I don’t think they were redefining evil as good, but recognizing that life is complicated and things aren’t always what they seem. So the challenge is for us to reject the temptation to simply accept stereotypes, or blindly follow the group (popular opinion, etc.). Instead, we are to think for ourselves—to be discerning. It’s not that we get a license to call evil good, but that we are being empowered to discern whether a thing actually is good (or evil).

I could be wrong, of course. But in either case, the discussion that matters is two-fold: 1. It’s bad to call an evil thing good—we cannot, in that way, simply decide what is good or bad. We have a Bible to give us that standard and our job is to agree with it. The world, all too often, however, teaches us that we have the right to reject God’s standards and make our own and has all manner of ways of renaming things to ease us into this and soften the blow—so sin is no longer “sin”, but a “choice” (for example).   2. We need to be discerning (rather than following). When we stand before our Maker, we will be accountable for what we did and how we thought and we won’t be able to say, “Well, they said it was okay!” We are responsible for our own actions, and those actions are based on our ability to discern, to decide, right from wrong. We don’t set the standard for right and wrong (God did that), but we are responsible for judging for ourselves how things match up to that standard.

The final words of the story seem to me to support this interpretation as they warn us that our actions, words, wishes do in fact matter. Be careful, they warn, because these things do matter. There is weight to them, not only for ourselves, but for those who are watching and listening and following us—especially our children. When we compromise, when we call bad things good, there are serious consequences, for generations even. So we must discern right from wrong. We can’t just be nice people. We have to be better than that. We have to be holy.

  • Questions for Discussion:
    • How does our culture change our perception of right and wrong through language? Can you think of any examples of things the Bible would say are sin that our culture has redefined and said is acceptable? How has our language about that thing changed?
    • What is the danger in saying “you decide what’s right and wrong?” How might that lead to chaos?
    • Why is it important to have a standard of right and wrong?
    • Have you ever done something that was wrong because others told you it was “fine”, or “wasn’t wrong” or “didn’t matter at this time or in this place”?
    • Why is it important for us to make our own decisions about right and wrong—not that we set the standard for right and wrong, but that we discern how something matches up to that standard?
    • Do you believe that the Bible is the standard for right and wrong? If so, do you believe that it is relevant and applicable to any moral dilemma you might face?

Click here to read a collection of quotes from Into the Woods.

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