Dear Evan Hansen: a Ben Platt vanity project
By Kaitlyn Riggio
The Dear Evan Hansen movie adaptation is a Ben Platt vanity project above all else.
The musical Dear Evan Hansen has been something of a cultural phenomenon since its first performances in 2015, and even more so since its Broadway debut in 2016. Following the story of an anxious high school student who gets caught up in a web of lies after a classmate, Connor, takes his own life, Dear Evan Hansen took Broadway by storm, won six Tony Awards including Best Musical, and has amassed a strong online fan community. It’s a popular musical, so it would be reasonable to think audiences would be enthusiastic for a movie adaptation.
So why does the movie adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen, released in October, currently have a 30% on Rotten Tomatoes?
Movie adaptations of stage musicals are not a new. In fact, they’ve existed since the advent of sound films. Some, like The Sound of Music, have cemented themselves as timeless cultural staples. Others have been lucky enough to gain recognition broadly throughout the entertainment industry: the 2002 film adaptation of Chicago took home Best Picture at the Academy Awards, for example. If other movie adaptations of musicals found success, what went wrong with Dear Evan Hansen?
It could be the fact that from the outset, the reason behind creating the film was somewhat misguided. According to director Stephen Chbosky, one of the main purposes of creating the movie adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen was to immortalize Ben Platt’s version of titular character Evan Hansen.
Platt originated the role of Evan Hansen on Broadway, and it’s not uncommon for actors who originated Broadway roles to reach a sort of icon status. Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth will always be the Elphaba and the Glinda in Wicked, no matter how many incredibly talented performers succeed them.
The problem with Chbosky’s approach is his attempts to immortalize Platt as Evan Hansen came at the expense of the overall quality of the film.
Chbosky’s first error, arguably, was casting Platt in the movie at all. Chbosky seems to think that Platt’s depiction of Evan Hansen is the end-all-be-all of Evan Hansens.
“His understanding of the character is so complete and so profound. I couldn’t imagine anybody else playing it,” Chbosky said in an interview with Vanity Fair. “I felt very strongly about it. And to me it was never even a consideration.”
Despite what Chbosky may think, there is no shortage of viable candidates that could have played Evan in this film. Since opening on Broadway, 14 people have taken on the role of Evan Hansen, so to imply that playing this part is something only Platt can pull off feels misleading, if not insulting to the other actors who have played Evan.
And not only is Platt far from the only person capable of portraying Evan onscreen, it probably would have been a wise choice to go with someone other than Platt for the film. One common critique related to the casting of Platt in the film was his age: Evan is a senior in high school, Platt is 28 years old.
While age gaps like this are not uncommon in musicals (Andrew Rannells was 33 when he played the 19-year-old Kevin Price in The Book of Mormon, for example), the suspension of disbelief is greater on stage than it is on screen. There’s less flexibility with age in a film, especially when Platt appears considerably older than Kaitlyn Dever and Amandla Stenberg, his Dear Evan Hansen co-stars.
While Platt may have been able to pull off 18 years old on stage five years ago, he was far less convincing in the film. He just looked too old to be a senior in high school, which made it hard to engage with his character as an audience member. If the creative team was looking to prioritize the overall quality of the movie rather than just Platt, someone like Andrew Barth Feldman, a 19-year-old who has also played Evan Hansen on Broadway, would have been a much more effective choice.
This isn’t the only time when prioritization of Platt negatively impacts the film. When adapting the story for film, the story was changed to focus squarely on Evan. Chbosky even admitted this in an interview with Variety: “We’re really on Evan’s journey. It freed us up to meet all the characters through Evan.”
The problem with this approach is that characters that were previously well-developed and important to the story in the stage version are now sidelined and all but forgotten. The most obvious example of this is Connor, Evan’s classmate who takes his own life.
Even though Connor dies early on in the story, he still appears throughout the stage version. He appears on stage occasionally, functioning as a sort of figment of Evan’s imagination, embodying his inner thoughts and almost acting as his conscience at times. It’s through these interactions between Evan and Connor where some of the motivations behind some of Evan’s actions are revealed. By reducing Connor’s role in the story, the motivation behind Evan’s actions become less clear and the story suffers as a result.
Other characters and elements of the story are whittled down in the filmed version as well. The stage version’s opening song, “Anybody Have A Map,” is omitted from the film, taking valuable insight about Evan’s and Connor’s mothers with it. “Good For You,” a song from late in the second act which highlights how people in Evan’s life were hurt by his lies, also didn’t make it to the movie.
While it’s not uncommon for movie adaptations of musicals to deviate from their stage predecessors, the changes made to Dear Evan Hansen center the story too much on Evan himself at the expense of other interesting characters, which leads to a much flatter and less compelling story on the whole.
Dear Evan Hansen did not need a movie adaptation. It could have maintained its status in history as a well-liked musical had it just stayed on stage. But due to a misguided and borderline selfish attempt at immortalizing one person’s performance, this film will forever exist as a black mark on Dear Evan Hansen’s legacy.
At least we’ll always remember that Ben Platt was in it.