This review will be a little different. I have decided to make it an interactive review in order to help illustrate the point. That is, videos will be posted from youtube showing what I am talking about. No more shall reviews be scavenger hunts. What it mainly has to do with is observable differences in the media. Sweeney Todd is actually a very effective way to demonstrate this difference. Every single piece of medium adapted into film looses (and gains) something in the translation. In Sweeney Todd, there were a few striking examples of something lost. But does that make it a better film?
First, the plot. Most probably know it-a man named Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) returns to London from Australia after fifteen years in a prison colony. He meets a woman named Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) now living in the house that he once occupied with his wife and baby daughter. Finding that his wife appears to be dead and that his daughter is now in the care of the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who set him away to begin with. Barker takes the name Sweeney Todd and vows a fearsome revenge on the world that involves slashing people’s throats and allowing their bodies to be used as meat in Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies.
First, I will give brief critique of the film. Thanks to director Tim Burton, it is highly atmospheric and the sets are creative. The performances are, for the most part, very effective, and the music is as good as ever. It also manages to be somewhat realistic (that scene in which Judge Turpin sentences a child to the gallows? That actually happened) even if it resembles a cross between Fellini and Edward Gorey. Even with the complaints I am about to give, this is still one of the finer musicals to come out of Hollywood, as much a satire on the modern glitter in the movie musical (see Moulin Rogue!) as a straightford murder story.
So, now comes the fun times. There are three things I want to focus on. The first is the portrayal of Mrs. Lovett. The concert has her being played by Patti LuPone.
OK, now what do you see in that portrayal? You see a version of Mrs. Lovett that is over the top, almost like a caricature. Of course, the play is over the top as well. Who would actually believe a person like Sweeney Todd could ever exist? Yet there are times I felt when Carter took it a tad too seriously. This is LuPone having as much fun as she possibly can. This portrayal would have been deadly in a film and would make the material appear camp. On stage, facial expressions have to be exaggerated to get the point across. The best directors can accomplish the same with the creation of the right atmosphere. I am not 100% sure if Burton succeeded at this. Both have their place, but for whatever reason, my mind always comes back to LuPone’s exaggeration rather than Carter’s underdevelopment.
The second is the ages of the kids involved in both versions. (Note: wait until 3:55 to really get this point across, although it does not hurt to watch the whole thing.)
Yes, that is Neil Patrick Harris as an 11 year old child. Why? It is a distraction. I much prefer the films take on it. This is not a sleight against Neil Patrick Harris. He can sing very well. But my suspension of disbelief goes only to far. I do not care if it is a tribute to the time when children on stage would frequently be played by adult women. There are times when tradition should be abandoned. That tradition was due to sexist policies of theatrical troupes, not out of artistic choice. I am not even willing to discuss this portion any further. Next.
The third is the twist involving Mrs. Barker (note: I am operating under the impression that people have seen this movie. If you have not, go no further).
So, which is better? Neither. The stage works because flashback can be told differently. The idea is to keep this nugget of information a secret as long as possible. The film does what they can, and in response, cuts away much of the character. The stage can do more because the flash back does not give away the character. The film does, that is how flashbacks work. So, the twist is just as surprising in both versions. So, if anyone complains about the film under utilizing the character, well, just imagine how obvious it could have been.
So there you have it. Both are equally good. Both are forced to make different choices. Watch and you will see.