Evan Help Us: How Good Intentions Can Go Wrong
Why a post about a film that flopped? Because it illustrates how badly any creative project can go wrong because of one key mistake.
Two months before the pandemic started, I posted a piece about ‘Dear Evan Hansen’. The melancholy tale by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul spoke in a relatable way to middle-class teens and their families, and became a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic.
Outline: The 17 year-old medicated anti-hero Evan dries up so much around others that he barely exists. A letter Evan writes to himself for encouragement finds its way into the pocket of school misfit Connor just before he kills himself. Connor’s parents mistake the note’s origin and are grateful to believe he had a friend. In a classic all-kinds-of-wrong decision, Evan adds a false trail of emails to the dead boy to gain further Likes.
It’s the start of a disastrous trophic cascade. The email chain goes viral, Evan’s social standing rockets, the school starts a narcissistic memorial campaign and everyone wants fame by association. Connor’s family accept Evan as a surrogate for their dead son, devastating Evan’s mother. And Evan is in love with Connor’s sister, which can’t end well. Then the online fans who waved their candles at Connor vigils grow suspicious and go on the attack…
It was a Netflix-ready theme about teen suicide, peer pressure and bullying, essentially a Broadway show with some refreshingly low-key ballads thrown in, although it was a rare example of a piece that would have functioned perfectly well without guitar interludes.
It would have worked without the internet too, because it’s a story as old as time – ‘The Scarlet Letter’, perhaps, a darker ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ or even ‘Carrie’. Evan, a bundle of sweaty twitches, is thrust into a torquing plot that opens discussion points for any parent, and – even after years on Broadway – is relevant to today’s teens.
But there’s a problem with the set-up. Hansen’s confident new life is based upon a lie. A moral line is crossed. Evan gets the girl, which is creepy, and finds a father-figure by continually forging letters, at his own mother’s expense. The outcome needs to punish the hero before allowing a cathartic release.
That’s not exactly what happens.
Instead our old enemy sentiment gets in the way and the story turns lachrymose, fudging the central issue. Evan is allowed to dodge the consequences of his actions. But we live in a time when it’s OK to lie, so at least it has zeitgeist. Perhaps Gen-Xers feel more secure when they see it, but it’s clear to me that the writers got scared.
A film was shot in trying pandemic conditions and rushed out with the original lead, Ben Platt, playing off against Amy Adams and Julianne Moore as the respective mothers. Platt was now 10 years too old to play his 17 year-old self, and despite solid direction his hunched, soul searching performance is unfortunately reminiscent of ‘Nosferatu’. It’s possible to view the whole thing as Evan’s older self looking back and thoroughly enjoy the film. In pre-internet days that’s probably exactly what would have happened.
Now, the irony.
Before it even had a chance to open, a film about social networks was destroyed by the very people it portrays. The real-life vigil candle-wavers went on the attack; internet memes ridiculed Platt’s age so much that when you Google the film, the first question that comes up is ‘Just how bad is it?’ The Guardian was as damning as any other UK newspaper; ‘crudely manipulative storytelling’, ‘honkingly insincere’.
From a writer’s point of view this is a near perfect example of a high-expectation project failing because of one overlooked problem. At the outset it had a key decision to make; play the tale at face value or satirise our phonily lachrymose society?
Filmed satire may be beloved by writers but it kills audiences. So, be fully sincere – except that this leaves you dangerously exposed. If the public goes against you, you can only explain your good intentions. You may get away with it onstage (or in a novel), but film sets it in stone. Without realising it, the light touch becomes the dead hand.
All of the complaints can really be boiled down into one single key point; the ending is wrong.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in writing so much, it’s that the ending must be the first thing that works; without it you have no story. I hammer this home again and again – it’s not the hook, it’s the finish.
It would be logical to assume that Evan’s lies will be exposed and his ‘crime’ will come crashing down upon his head. Having lost the girl and learned a painful life-lesson he’ll go off alone, bloodied and humbled, to become a better person and have a life without fear. It’s what audiences and by extension, readers, need from stories. There are many wonderful exceptions to the rule, of course, but an organic outcome is always best.
Instead, and perhaps sensing that something was wrong, the writers added a final act which only worsens the problem. Evan finds evidence of the bullying Connor’s sensitivity, and makes a final admission which redeems him amid yet more tears.
A light skim of The Iliad and The Odyssey will tell you that this is not how heroes are made. A young man makes a mistake and apologises – it’s not much of a story, but it’s what today’s audiences want. The stage version is already back in the West End.