If Cats (2019) and Dear Evan Hansen (2021) are anything to go off of, it seems like Hollywood is starting to really fumble the bag when it comes to adapting Broadway musicals as films. Most of the critique on Dear Evan Hansen seems to center around Ben Platt’s age –and to be fair, Ben is absolutely unpassable in the role of a high schooler– but the movie’s failings go far beyond Platt’s miscasting. The truth is, in it’s current form, Dear Evan Hansen would have failed as an adaptation of the stage show even with a more age-appropriate casting because ultimately, the film misses everything about what made the musical so unique.
Is Dear Evan Hansen the greatest musical ever? No. But the stage show is able to get away with a lot because of how it doesn’t take itself too seriously –it’s a dark comedy, and at times, the original musical seems quite aware of how ridiculous it is. Dear Evan Hansen the musical doesn’t really need its themes to be overanalyzed –it simply exists as it is. The movie, on the other hand, tries to play the entire thing completely seriously and it loses a lot of its charm (and message) in the process.
Platt’s performance on Broadway is bursting with life (and it’s also from 2016 so he looks a bit more age-appropriate). His interactions with Jared (and sometimes, with Alana as well) are humorous in a way that makes Dear Evan Hansen self-aware. The film is…awkward at best when it tries to be funny and neither Platt nor his co-stars are able to get any comedic edge in even with lines lifted directly from the stage show. It’s like Stephen Chbosky was more interested in making Perks of Being a Wallflower 2.0 rather than adapting the show. It just doesn’t work when it’s played 100% seriously.
One major misstep on the film’s part is how it subtly takes away plot beats from every character who isn’t Evan. A great example of this comes from the songs the film chose to omit from the final product. In a musical, each song serves a purpose –they give us insight into the characters, their motivations, and progress the plot along. Dear Evan Hansen‘s stage musical does a great job of using the song “Anybody Have a Map?” to not just highlight the similarities between Evan and Connor, but to develop the characters of their mothers as well.
Cynthia Murphy probably suffers the most from the song’s exclusion in the film. “Anybody Have a Map?” shows us two mothers who greatly care for their child they just can’t seem to connect with no matter how hard they try. By omitting “Map,” the film makes it seem like Cynthia never tried to get to know her son at all until it was too late. This disconnect with Cynthia is made worse by the film’s subplot where Connor is a secret musician who adamantly refuses to show his mother his songs.
Connor is a bit of a tricky figure in the stage musical –he doesn’t have any agency within the film’s narrative, really. The most we learn about Connor’s relationships with other people are from the stories about him post mortem (and frankly, they aren’t good stories). In the musical, Evan has a vision of Connor in his head that appears kind of like an angel/devil on his shoulder, something akin to a conscience. It’s pretty clear this “Connor” exists as Evan’s way to justify his own actions he knows are bad on some level, telling himself that he’s doing a good thing by lying about the situation because the Murphy family is finding peace.
Perhaps nothing demonstrates Evan wrestling with his conscience in this manner better than the song “Disappear,” which has “Connor” lament that no one deserves to have their memory forgotten –while also pointing out things like how Evan’s crush, Zoe finally notices him with this lie in place.
These ideas of invisibility and not being forgotten are crucial to the play’s story and most of its characters. “Waving Through a Window,” spells it out best: Evan feels like no one ever truly sees him or cares about his place in the world. This is also Alana‘s motivation in the play, as she relates to the idealized version of Connor in her head –this boy who was ignored and walked all over until the day he took his own life. The stage musical even has Alana sing a few bars of “Waving Through a Window” on her own to illustrate this point. Alana and Evan become foils in a way, both ultimately using Connor’s death for similar reasons of being seen. Like Evan, Connor’s death allowed people to finally talk to her where they never would have before, and keeping his memory intact is a way for her to continue to be seen.
Jared in the musical also finds himself benefitting from the exposure Connor’s death has gotten him, though to less severe degrees. For Alana and Evan, keeping the Connor Project alive is as much about their own sense of self-preservation as it is about the reasons they’ve given everyone on paper. And in the stage musical that ends up working because kids can often be like that in the wake of tragedies like this. These immature responses are coming from places of their own insecurity, trying to make sense of things they don’t quite understand. The stage musical has some fun with the idea that high school kids can be really stupid sometimes in a way the film doesn’t quite grasp.
In fact, it’s almost impressive that the film sucked all the life out of Jared’s character and reduced him to a background prop with little to no notable motivations. Jared should be both a comedic character and a benchmark for how far Evan has fallen –he’s the first one to call him out!
The movie tries to play Alana and Evan’s actions both as 100% wholesome, which makes the story begin to fall apart. In Evan’s case, the more selfish desires he has are very underplayed until the movie’s big confrontation scene with the Murphys. The scenes with “Connor” where he’s wrestling with his conscience and trying to justify behaviors he knows deep down are bad just don’t exist –at most we get some scenes of severe discomfort on Evan’s part.
It almost seems like the film tries to absolve Evan of any guilt at times through this portrayal. This is best demonstrated by one of the biggest deviations from stage to film: the truth about who wrote the “Dear Evan Hansen” note comes out. In the original play, the Murphys make a point not to set the record straight that Evan wrote the note –and this does a lot for the story itself and the Murphys’ characters. They’re not bad people and they don’t wish harm on Evan –the film even goes as far to say that Cynthia sees Evan as a second son and doesn’t want him to hurt himself if the truth got out.
The Connor Project, for better or worse, brought people together and helped spread an important message about teen suicide. By telling people the truth about the note, so many people that were touched by Connor’s story would now know it was a lie –and the story is well aware that might do more harm than good. Despite the fact that “Connor’s dream” of rebuilding the Orchard was based on a lie, it’s clear that place does hold a special place in the Murphys’ hearts and is instrumental in their healing. It might not have been important to Connor as a teenager, but the family had positive memories of spending time there in the past. The last scenes of both the play and movie spell this out quite clearly “everyone needed [the Orchard] for something.”
So what purpose does it serve to have Evan confess that he wrote the note? It’s such a silly addition that misses the message of the show from all angles. The only person who is feasibly comforted by the truth getting out at that point is Evan –and he’s the last character who needs that sort of “redemptive” coating, something the stage musical is quite aware of.
Stage show Evan kind of comes across as a guy with a bad case of “foot in mouth” syndrome at first, but once he gets a taste of the spotlight, he convinces himself to further it is a bad thing. The movie again has fun with the idea of how stupid kids can be, and Evan is a major example of this. The film doesn’t just take Evan too seriously, it wants you to empathize with him in such a severe degree that the Broadway musical never asks of you. The show knows he’s done a bad thing –the movie attempts to justify it and absolve him of his guilt.
Alana becomes an even trickier character when it comes to discussing her adaptational changes. Because in reality, giving Alana extended screen time was actually a really good idea on the film’s part –in the stage show, she really is just Evan’s foil and because she is an overachiever, she never really got out there much socially. But the film’s version of Alana is almost an entirely different character, and it’s quite hard to discern what her role is narratively here. She’s an overachiever, but she’s basically the class President, the one everyone knows and looks up to –she’s not invisible.
The film tries to say she relates to Connor (and also Evan) because she too struggles with anxiety and depression –and that fuels her crusade for the Connor Project entirely. But most of Alana’s scenes talking about her own mental health struggles kind of read as Evan PR because the film is so concerned with portraying him in a sensitive light. She simultaneously gets more to do than her stage show counterpart without getting anything too substantial at the same time.
In the end, all of Dear Evan Hansen‘s faults can be traced back to a clear desire on Chbosky’s part to retell Perks and missing crucial parts of what attracted people to the stage show in the first place. Even the film’s better ideas (like additional Alana and Connor material) fall flat because it’s all done in an attempt to make Evan look better. The humor is cut out entirely, and in a story like this with the main character who is doing a really fucked up thing, it’s hard to take at face value.
Dear Evan Hansen just ultimately wasn’t the place to make whatever commentary on mental health advocacy Chbosky clearly wants to make –though such a message is monumentally important especially in this day and age. The plot and the character of Evan Hansen in general just don’t lend themselves to the kind of sincere commentary Chbosky seems to want to make here and instead, he ended up creating a muddled mess.
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