Victor Hugo’s massive Novel Les Miserables is not a book so much as it is a tome. That being said it has been adapted into a very successful musical which in 2012 was adapted into a film. One of the key questions in the book, the musical and the film is “what makes a person miserable?” and as a corollary “what makes a person happy?” Addressing the second question is another musical that was recently turned into a film: Steven Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Into the Woods, is a bit more transparent than Les Miserables, so I’m going to talk about that one.
Now for those who haven’t seen it, Into the Woods takes a handful of commonly known fairy tales and puts them all together in the same time and in the same place then sits back to see what happens. Jack gets the magic beans from a baker who needs the cow for a magical potion as well as Cinderella’s glass slipper and little red riding hood’s hood. You get the idea. The musical begins with all the characters singing “I wish.”
“I wish I could go to the festival” (Cinderella.)
“I wish our cow would give us some milk” (Jack)
“I wish we had a child.” (Baker & Wife)
They are in a tough spot in life. Their circumstances are what make them miserable and the narrator goes to great lengths to explain that very fact. So, understanding that their circumstances are what make them miserable, and assuming that changing their circumstances will make them happy, everyone goes on an adventure in the woods to see what they can do to make themselves happy. This then, is the key fallacy about happiness that so deeply permeates American Culture: that our physical circumstances are what makes us happy or depressed.
What both films do, however, is give the lie to this assumption. While some measure of happiness is achieved by changing our circumstances it does not last. Valjean cannot remain mayor of a small town and be happy. At the start of Act II of Into the Woods everyone is pretty much as depressed and unfulfilled as they were at the start of Act I. It isn’t until “The Last Midnight” that the witch forces all the characters to face the fact that there are no quick answers and no silver bullets. As she disappears so does the potential for a magical fix that can change everyone’s circumstances and make everything right and everyone happy. Even then the Baker still tries to find happiness in his circumstances by running away.
It all falls away as the obstacles to changing their circumstances continue to mount: the witch disappears, the giant can’t be stopped, and there is no way to leave the Kingdom. The only alternative, to stay in current circumstances, must be taken and the characters have to find a new way to cope. Little Red Riding Hood is sobbing her heart out and Cinderella comforts her.
“Mother cannot guide you, now you’re on your own.
Only me beside you, still you’re not alone.
No one is alone. Truly, no one is alone.”
At the end of the day, our circumstances do not dictate our happiness so much as the quality and love of the people around us.