Content warning: Mental illness, suicide
Despite their rise in popularity over the last decade, movie musicals tend to be incredibly hit-or-miss. There’s a lot to be said about the clunkiness of the stage-to-screen adaptation, but at the core of this inelegance is the fact that Broadway musicals depend on something that no one will ever be able to translate fully to film: a certain suspension of disbelief. On Broadway, people can dress up like cats and sing about something called a “Jellicle Ball,” and the show will run for 18 years. When the same thing is attempted on screen, the film gains a reputation for being one of the worst movies ever made. It’s true that there is a lot wrong with the “Cats” movie, but the story’s absurdity was always there — what changed was a wider audience’s level of tolerance for it.
“Dear Evan Hansen” joins the ranks of other movie musicals with new film adaptations, and it suffers deeply from that change in tolerance. Ben Platt (“The Politician”) can play a 17-year-old on a stage that distances him from his audience, but if you put him in front of a camera lens, every feature of his betrays the fact that he’s in his late 20s. On stage, he can sing poppy, hummable anthems that make it easy to forget the fact that his character acts abhorrently throughout the show, and then the show can garner near-universal acclaim and a reputation as a powerful force for suicide awareness and prevention. This is not the case for the film.
In “Dear Evan Hansen,” the titular character is a socially anxious, severely depressed high school senior who writes letters to himself as part of an exercise assigned by his therapist. On the first day of school, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan, “Uncle Frank”), an angry social outcast, takes one of the letters after becoming enraged by its mention of his sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever, “Booksmart”), Evan’s longtime crush.
Soon after, Connor takes his own life off-screen, but Evan’s letter is found in his pocket, leading Connor’s mother Cynthia (Amy Adams, “The Woman in the Window”) to believe that the two were friends. Sympathetic to the family, Evan doesn’t correct them and instead doubles down, even going as far as to write multiple backdated emails between himself and Connor and rewriting his own history to accommodate their fabricated friendship. He entrenches himself within the grieving Murphy family — essentially replacing Connor as a son figure — begins dating Zoe, and becomes an internet sensation after his speech at Connor’s memorial service goes viral.
As a musical, the film asks us to accept a certain amount of implausibility as soon as Evan starts singing two minutes in, and this might be easier to do if the direction didn’t suffer at the hands of Stephen Chbosky (“Wonder”), a first-time movie musical director. Even for a musical with straightforward settings and situations, Chbosky’s almost static, lingering camera eliminates the potential for any kind of dynamism during the musical numbers, flattening them. They’re almost boring, and some at the beginning even feel gratuitous.
The film is also filled with little oddities that are hard to comprehend as ever being believable. There is, of course, the fact that the attempt to age Platt down by 10 years somehow had the opposite effect. The internet exploded after the trailer’s release, with most of the commentary making the same observation: Ben Platt looks really, really old in this movie. There’s also a production design that makes us wonder if anyone involved has stepped foot inside of a high school since the early 2000s, and a sort of hilarious misunderstanding of how young people use technology (a lingering shot on video entitled “His Best Friend Died … You Won’t Believe What He Did Next!” actually provoked laughs in my theater).
Most importantly, though, the shift in the level of acceptability between stage and film changes the way that we interpret Evan and his actions. Criticism for the content of “Dear Evan Hansen” is not new; a 2017 piece from Medium even calls the musical “a toxic piece of theatre, a morally bankrupt exploitation of the experience of mental illness.” Evan is a character whose struggle with mental illness makes him easy to sympathize with, but is that enough to forgive all of the hurt he causes when his lies unravel? Does internal struggle justify objectively bad actions? Is “Words Fail,” an admittedly powerful eleven o’clock number, enough to absolve Evan of all of his sins?
The film desperately wants us to say “yes,” but my answer is “no.” One of the most salient criticisms of the musical is that it’s emotionally manipulative, and the film’s late addition of an essential revelation about Evan, intercut with the aforementioned eleven o’clock number, validates that criticism. We’re supposed to be hearing an unconditional apology from the character, but the movie inserts raw imagery of his earlier suicide attempt on top of it, asking the audience to forgive all of his indiscretions because of his trauma. This completely undercuts the number’s intentions, obscures the musical’s ultimate message and leaves behind a bitter aftertaste. In trying to redeem Evan, the film reveals its blatant manipulation. This decision resolves some of the frustrating moral ambiguity of the source material, but not for the better.
Critically and commercially, “Dear Evan Hansen” is one of the most successful Broadway musicals of the last decade, but its film adaptation is on its way to becoming one of the most poorly received movie musicals of all time. The ineffective translation to the screen has a lot to do with the way that many of the musical’s narrative decisions and themes just don’t work on film, revealing some of them as clumsy, some as mildly absurd and others as genuinely unacceptable. It proves that some things are better kept to the stage, as the failure of the adaptation will surely impact whatever legacy “Dear Evan Hansen” will leave behind.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at email@example.com.