Review: Much Is Lost in Film Adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen, Including Essential Elements Like Context, Empathy

When it premiered on Broadway in late 2016, Dear Evan Hansen, an original new musical with a book by Steven Levenson and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, received glowing reviews. The New York Times deemed it a “Critic’s Pick,” and the venerable theater critic Charles Isherwood said star Ben Platt was “giving a performance that’s not likely to be bettered on Broadway this season.” Indeed, Platt went on to win the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical that season (one of the six Dear Evan Hansen would win overall). As if from the show’s own pivotal scene, wherein Evan Hansen’s “speech” (really, a showstopper called “You Will Be Found”) goes viral, Dear Evan Hansen itself went viral in the real world. The show boasted the hottest ticket on Broadway that season, and the cast album debuted in the top 10 on the Billboard 200 chart when it was released in early 2017. At its core, the show is about those painful, often seemingly endless years of adolescence when it feels like you can do absolutely nothing right in this life, and like it’s never, ever going to get better. It’s surprisingly inspiring yet tinged with tragedy, and, it must be said, it is far from perfect. Now, with some questionable creative choices and a much bigger audience to impress than the die-hard theater kids who dressed up as Evan for Halloween a few years ago, its flaws are being laid bare more starkly than ever in a new film adaptation.

Dear Evan Hansen
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

In this version, directed by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Ben Platt again stars as high school senior Evan Hansen. This is wonderful mainly because his performance, particularly his soaring, emotive vocals, is at the center of Dear Evan Hansen‘s success; it’s hard to imagine hearing anyone else’s voice in the role. And yet. Platt was already too old to play Evan when he did in 2016, but at just 23 (and with the benefit of the distance between a theater audience and its performers), he pulled it off. Platt is now nearly 28 and, as anyone who’s been in their early 20s and then woken up one day in their late 20s can tell you, things change quite a bit in that decade. So, the first problem with the film adaptation (as has been widely acknowledged online) is that Chbosky and his casting director didn’t have the same guts as the team behind In the Heights did, to bump their marquee lead actor who’s clearly too old for the role (in that case, none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda) and instead cast someone just as impressive (a la Anthony Ramos) who’s much more appropriate for the role today.

The second problem with the adaptation, as far as I’m concerned, is the creative choices the team made regarding which numbers to excise and which to add (in that perennial and ever-blatant attempt to qualify for an Original Song Oscar). Levenson (who adapted his story for the screen) and team scrapped four numbers for the film, only one of which is fairly inconsequential. Chobsky opens the film on Evan in his room, getting ready for the first day of school; within the first few beats, Platt is opening the film with “Waving Through a Window,” a song about feeling invisible and wondering if maybe everyone is better off if you stay out of the way and observe the world from afar. He’s got a cast on his arm from a fall from a tree, we learn, and he’s feeling more out of place at school than ever. It’s a stirring opening sequence, filmed with promising energy as the school gym fills with the typical American cliques and Platt gets lost in a pep rally full of students, teachers, athletes, a jazz band (including his crush, Zoe Murphy) and more all swept up in their own lives.

But what this approach misses is the context set with the original opening number, “Does Anybody Have a Map?,” wherein we meet Evan’s mom, Heidi (Julianne Moore in the film, more on her later), who’s encouraging her son to write letters to himself as his therapist assigned, motivational missives that are supposed to build his confidence. Failing to make her case, Heidi wonders aloud (well, in song) if anybody knows what they’re doing as a parent, because she sure as hell doesn’t. Cut to the neighbors, the Murphys, who are also in the chaotic morning rush to get ready for work and school; dad Larry (Danny Pino) is fixated on traffic, mom Cynthia (Amy Adams) is trying to corral the kids, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) and Connor (Colton Ryan), who figures he’s too stoned to go to school anyway. Like Heidi, Cynthia sings about being at her wit’s end; hers is a family clearly in crisis, and she’s at a loss about what to do about it. The film misses all of that and instead waits to introduce bad boy Connor in the school hallway, when he and Evan have an awkward interaction in passing. Later, in the library, Evan is writing one of his letters to himself, printing it off just as Connor arrives at the shared printer, picking it up before Evan can. Before Evan can explain to Connor, who’s just signed Evan’s cast in a sort of taunting, sarcastic nod of friendship, what the letter is for, Connor notices Zoe’s name in the text and blows up at Evan, storming out of the library and taking the paper with him.

Evan is as shocked as the rest of the school is to find out a few days later that Connor has killed himself and the only thing his parents found with him was a letter that starts, “Dear Evan Hansen…” They arrive at the school to meet Evan, and this shy, awkward, anxious young man doesn’t have the heart to tell these grieving adults the truth about the letter. Instead, he’s caught up in the moment and begins to embrace the lie that he and Connor were friends. In the film, this sequence of events nearly causes whiplash they happen so quickly. We just met Connor, now he’s dead, and we’re supposed to focus on Evan? Wait, what happened to Connor? Right around here, the Broadway show features a song called “Disappear,” a number that puts into context what happens next: Evan and a couple of friends, Amandla Stenberg’s overachiever Alana and Nik Dodani as comedic sidekick Jared, create a sort of support group to honor Connor’s memory and ensure no one else in their school ever feels so alone that they make the same irreversible choice he did. It’s a crucial bit of narrative that, when absent from this film version, removes any scrap of empathy a viewer new to this story would need to keep them squarely in Evan’s camp, if we ever really can be.

The third song the film cuts is Larry’s only solo number, “To Break in a Glove,” which isn’t as huge a loss; the scene, which serves to remind us that Evan is still deeply broken by his own father abandoning him, does still exist to a small extent, and we’re spared hearing Pino sing (sorry, maybe he’s a wonderful singer!). But perhaps most essential of all, the filmmakers have dropped a late number called “Good for You,” a biting, visceral scolding delivered by Heidi, Alana and Jared, who’ve all discovered to just what extent Evan has let the lie grow and how many people have been unwittingly caught up in it. It’s in this moment that Evan truly realizes, I think, what a monster he’s been through all this, and that is, unforgivably, entirely absent from the film. Instead, Stenberg’s Alana is given a meaningless missive called “The Anonymous Ones” about how hard it is to go through life with struggles others are clueless about. (That’s right, they don’t even give the new song to Platt.) By the time the truth finally comes out and Evan admits not only what he’s done but what’s behind all his ill-advised decisions, the filmmakers have removed nearly every possible way for an audience to forgive him for it all. There is the revelation of one key plot point that I won’t spoil here, but it’s tossed off in such a fashion that it seems inexcusably trite rather than, as was surely intended, profound.

In the end, there is a lot that is not good about the film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen, Ben Platt in the lead role chief among them. Thankfully, he’s supported by a superb cast who do their best to inhibit these roles that orbit Evan like moons around a too-big planet, sucking them into its gravity field. Even though they’re given less to do than their stage counterparts, Moore and Adams are both excellent as women struggling to parent through their grief; indeed, Moore’s version of “So Big / So Small” is a powerful solo filled with emotion (just like the stage version). But even these women (and the rest of the cast) can’t ultimately save this hobbled adaptation from itself. By removing songs that mean so much to the show’s overall narrative, numbers that help an otherwise (and understandably) skeptical (cynical?) audience see things a bit more clearly, there is little to convince us to absolve Evan of his quite serious discretions, a feat we’re asked, almost laughably, to accomplish by the movie’s final scenes.

Chances are those rabid fans who helped Dear Evan Hansen tickets (and albums) sell like gangbusters a few years ago will do the same for the film; whether it performs at the box office with the vast majority of moviegoers who didn’t have the experience of seeing the stage show will have to be seen. But for a theater audience hungry for film versions of their favorite shows they can watch and rewatch (and rewatch again), this adaptation of the show they know and love (for better or worse) could be much, much worse. It could also be much, much better.

Dear Evan Hansen is now playing in theaters.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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