Thanks to the director’s commentary, I know that this movie version of Sweeney Todd is based on a Broadway play (I guess I could have deduced that from all the singing), so I won’t worry about its anachronism or Victorian-ness. Except that it might be more “Victorian” than the novel. Which is awesome. After watching it for the first time (first impressions are all I have time for this close to my quals), I think that this adaptation took a cheap serial with no continuity and turned it into–what else?!–a sensation novel.
Here’s what happened in the Johnny Depp version: the movie opens with a colonial return (cf. John Hazel in Foul Play, George Talboys in Lady Audley’s Secret, Captain Kirke in No Name, etc.), as Sweeney Todd comes back from being transported for a crime he didn’t commit (yeah, John Hazel, big time). So, already, he’s sympathetic. And he’s aligned with the long-suffering husband figure. The role of Mark is adapted into someone named Anthony (reference to Mark Antony? I don’t really see a connection, but that’s a weird coincidence). He’s on the ship with Sweeney Todd in the opening scene (why? I don’t know. Doesn’t seem to matter).
Sweeney Todd was married to a beautiful woman (hmmm…. much like Archibald Carlyle and George Talboys), but oh no! A caddish judge stole Sweeney Todd’s beautiful wife! He lured her to a party and then kidnapped her! (Wow. Even the Victorians allow sensational heroines more sexual agency than that. Think about that, Tim Burton.) Absolutely none of this happens in the novel, where Sweeney Todd is distinctly working-class, sociopathically incapable of love, and motivated exclusively by money (or commodity fetishism?). This adaptation places him squarely in the middle class–the beloved locale of melodrama and sensation fiction. It also continues the quintessential trope of melodrama: the assault on the virtuous heroine’s virtue (that’s intentionally redundant). The judge (Alan Rickman! I love you, Alan Rickman!) enacts this assault on Sweeney Todd’s wife, and then again on Sweeney Todd’s daughter. Unlike Isabel Vane or Lucy Audley, both of these women maintain their virtue until the end (wow, is this adaptation waaaay more conservative–on a certain level–than Victorian sensation fiction?).
Anyway, Sweeney Todd meets up with Mrs. Lovett and hears the (partial) story of how his wife poisoned herself and how his daughter is the ward/prisoner of the judge. He vows revenge and ends up killing half of London after they decide that, hey, why waste good human flesh by burying it? (This realization comes after they kill a completely superfluous character who recognizes Sweeney Todd’s disguise and threatens to blackmail him for half his profits). The interesting thing about this change is the class issue. When we first meet Mrs. Lovett, she bakes the worst-tasting meat pies in all of London. Why? Because meat prices are so high, that’s why. Again, this adaptation subtly changes the class dynamics of these characters. In the novel, Mrs. Lovett is obviously a good capitalist, but in the adaptation that relationship gets foregrounded a bit more brutally. But as interesting as that is, the adaptation shuts down the subversive gender dynamics of woman-as-capitalist by making Mrs. Lovett fall (kind of?) in love with Sweeney Todd and obviously fantasize about marrying him, domesticating him, and replicating the safe middle-class lifestyle he shared with his first wife. In fact, it even turns out that she has lied to him by implying that his first wife died of the poison she took, when in fact, she is still living as a beggar woman. And Sweeney Todd kills her–kills his wife, not recognizing her, and then kills Mrs. Lovett after he finds out about her lie-by-omission. Side note: in the film, he throws Mrs. Lovett into a furnace, while in the novel, he uses the traditionally feminine method of poison to kill her off. Hmmmm…….
And let’s talk about Johanna, shall we? In The String of Pearls, Johanna is pretty badass for a Victorian heroine. Sure, she falls in love with Mark Ingestrie and waits patiently and passively for him to seek his fortune and come collect her when he’s ready to get married. Okay, very Victorian. But when he doesn’t show, and she starts getting clues that he may have run afoul of Sweeney Todd–that creepy barber on Fleet Street–she takes matters into her own hands. First of all, she tells another guy who’s in love with her: “dude, it’s not gonna happen.” Then, she dresses up as a boy, gets a job as Sweeney Todd’s apprentice, smothers her stereotypically “female” emotions (which, ahem, Tobias was terrible at doing), and starts looking for evidence. It’s Johanna that figures out the mystery of Sweeney Todd’s chair, and Johanna that helps the magistrates catch him in the act. Compare that to the Tim Burton adaptation. What does Johanna do? She sits imprisoned in her room, next to a caged bird (because Tim Burton clearly took Freshman English and learned about symbolism) getting ogled by Anthony (Mark!) and by the judge. When she refuses to marry the judge, he puts her in an asylum (the novel put Toby in an asylum–gender politics!), and she waits patiently for Anthony (Mark!) to bust her out. BTW, at this point, she’s never actually exchanged ANY words with Anthony–she’s really just trying to escape her cage, and any generic white knight will do. Anthony dresses her up as a boy, and then she hides in a box while Sweeney Todd murders her mother (neither of them know it’s her mother). The end.
So. The angel in the house? As it turns out, it’s not just a Victorian thing. This adaptation actually managed to turn Mrs. Lovett–MRS. LOVETT, goddammit!!–into a wannabe conventional Victorian housewife. But there’s still something that is really amazing for my project: the razors. The most amazing thing about this adaptation of Sweeney Todd is that it turns The String of Pearls into a love story–a love story between a man and his murder weapons. I’ve already commented in an earlier post about how disconnected the original Sweeney Todd is from all the objects he collects. He categorizes his collections of souvenirs, but he doesn’t appear to have any emotional connection to them. Even with the titular string of pearls–his biggest “take” ever–he just wants to unload them to the highest bidder. Who cares about the pearls? Not even Johanna cares about the pearls, and they’re a gift from her potentially-dead lover. But not Johnny Depp. He sings a love song to his razors, when he finds them hidden under a floorboard. He gazes at them lovingly as he examines his reflection in their shine. He calls them his friends. Then, when Mrs. Lovett pipes in that she’s his friend, too, he repeats that the razors are his friends. Tim Burton clearly wants us to see them as a prosthesis, an extension of Johnny Depp’s hand, most likely as an allusion to Edward Scissorhands–but it works perfectly for the Sweeney Todd of Victorian fiction. This is a great intertext for my project, because I’m interested in the affective relationships of sensational detectives, and in the object-relations that drive their quests for revenge. Here, we have a middle-class Sweeney Todd from a conventional middle-class marriage, who was the victim of a crime, and returns (colonial-return-style) to solve another crime (via committing brand new crimes) and who becomes attached to the objects of these crimes. Generally speaking, this is a sensational plot (albeit a sexually sterile one, despite the heaving bosoms). Interestingly, the director’s commentary links a lot of the camera-work in this Tim Burton adaptation to a horror-film tradition, to which I say, okay, great. But I see the roots of melodrama here, and the corresponding legacy of sensation fiction strongly influencing this adaptation. Perhaps another question to pursue might be: is modern-day horror the descendent of 19th-century stage melodrama? And that’s a whole other dissertation….