Adaptation and Themes in In the Heights

Last week, I talked about the recent backlash against Lin Manuel-Miranda. His appearances and creations for Broadway, movies, and television prior to Hamilton spanning nearly two decades seemed to inspire a mixture of admiration and indifference. But after Hamilton hit Broadway, and again once it went to Disney+, detractors were out in full force. I find it telling that people (and the art they create) draw the most ire when they’re at their most successful. It’s almost as if “haters” are actually mad at something other than the thing they’re criticizing. Like maybe they’re jealous of the fame and wealth that come with such tremendous success. This isn’t to say there can’t be valid criticism or that all negativity suddenly appeared out of a vacuum when Hamilton got big. But the complaints and accusations seem disproportionate and come as a personal attack on the creator of the two musicals rather than fair, critical media appraisal. Today, I’d like to talk about something that I find much more interesting than the political discourse surrounding Miranda’s work: the work itself. It’s a tragedy that so much of the reaction to In the Heights has been about political undertones (which arguably aren’t there) rather than the artistry that it represents. I’ve already reviewed In the Heights on its own merits as a movie. Today I want to look at the themes Miranda explores in In the Heights and how they changed in the film.

In the Heights themes


In the Heights is a movie I expected to like, but not one I thought would leave me with so much to think about. The elements of the stage show that they omitted from the film say a lot about the themes director Jon M. Chu wanted to explore. The passage of time since the show opened and the changes necessary to make a widely appealing film are factors too. But for the most part, I can’t help thinking certain characters and songs were cut to remove some of the show’s more challenging or sorrowful story elements. There are two significant changes I want to focus on here, namely the significance of Abuela Claudia as a character and Nina’s arc/motivation. I’ve never seen In the Heights performed on stage and hadn’t even heard of it until Hamilton came out on Disney+. But I enjoyed the movie and listened to the original Broadway cast recording because those are usually better, and I like many of the original actors (who later starred in Hamilton). In the play, Olga Merediz’s character, Abuela, performs “Paciencia y Fe” much earlier on and dies closer to the end. When I first saw the movie, I didn’t notice a problem because I had no frame of reference. Being familiar with both now, I think this was absolutely 100% the wrong choice and weakens both her character and the overall story. While Usnavi is the main character in both versions, Abuela is at the heart of the neighborhood and its story. Abuela is the inspiration for big decisions made by characters like Nina and Usnavi. In both the stage play and the movie adaptation, Abuela is a pillar of the community who offers advice, food, a listening ear, and seemingly whatever anybody needs from her. Abuela practically adopts Usnavi when his parents die, but she also helps raise characters like Nina. The movie downplays this a lot by removing the song “Everything I Know,” in which Nina grieves for Abuela while looking through her old photo albums.

In the Heights themes

This had to be done for the movie to exist in its current form. In the original, Nina decides to go back to school not because of undocumented immigrants like Sonny but because of the impact Abuela had on her life and education. This is another instance where I liked it when I first saw the movie, but now I don’t think they made the right call. Modernizing the story came with adding in the struggles of immigration and the like, and I have no problem with that. But the play feels tighter narratively and more succinct thematically because both Nina and Usnavi’s arcs are tied into Abuela’s character. Abuela Claudia was based on Lin Manuel-Miranda’s real-life grandmother, and this has a direct hand in the role she plays and how it makes the audience feel. For the past eight months since my grandfather passed away, I’ve been seeing him in everything. Nina’s anecdotes about Abuela in “Everything I Know” hit me like a truck every time. While the situations are different, the feelings are the same. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why they would cut something so honest and personal in lieu of movie Nina’s choice to go back to college based on Sonny’s immigration status. It’s not that that isn’t a noble reason or doesn’t make sense; it’s fine in both regards. But it’s weaker than the original because it’s less personal to Nina. I think it must have come down to two things, which may have been influenced by the studio heads: making the movie happier and making it timelier. I think removing parts of a story like this that might be upsetting or bittersweet misses the point. We turn to fiction for fun and entertainment, sure. But I find it comforting to be reminded that experiences like loss are universal and see a character like Nina grow from it. Rather than dwelling on what she lost when Abuela passed, Nina is inspired by the life she led and the impact she had on the whole block. Nina returns to her struggles at Stanford to make Abuela proud while reminiscing on how she encouraged her in school as a kid. Cutting this scene hampers Abuela’s impact on the story, as well as Nina’s arc. In “Finale,” Usnavi sings, “I illuminate the stories of the people in the street/Some have happy endings/Some are bittersweet/But I know them all and that’s what makes my life complete,” and that perfectly demonstrates the issue here. Giving Nina a purely happy/inspiring reason to go back to school is less of a downer than tying it into Abuela’s death, I guess. But that’s just the thing; life isn’t complete without loss and sadness, and neither is fiction. Putting Abuela’s death right after “Paciencia Y Fe,” her only solo number, detaches it from the other major events of the story. Abuela’s death was like a realistic version of the fantasy trope where the hero must lose his mentor figure to grow and come into his own; think Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc. But in the movie, it just feels like a random event, unrelated to Nina and Usnavi’s journeys. In a story about family and community, it seems really strange to disconnect the characters’ stories like that. In a way, it’s even sadder; in the movie, her death means little and makes no difference in the grand scheme of things. Originally, she inspired people to make difficult (but correct) choices.

In the Heights themes

While movie Nina struggles with racism at school and apparently dated Benny before, OG Nina dealt with racism in her relationship with Benny. I find this change particularly puzzling; apparently, they didn’t want Nina dealing with racism both at home and school. I think they should have kept the complicated dynamics between Nina’s family and Benny. I also would have kept her original problems at school, which were financial in nature. Regardless, in the original, Nina and Benny want to be together, but they can’t because Nina’s father Kevin is very traditional and only wants her to date Latinos. He looks down on Benny because he’s black and probably because he isn’t a college whiz like Nina as well. I think this was not only simpler than saying Benny dumped Nina so she could go to college (what the hell?), but it was an interesting dynamic. It may be a little clichéd to have star-crossed lovers who can’t be together because of their families, but it’s a cliché for a reason. People love stuff like that. These changes also led to cutting one of the couple’s songs together, “Sunrise.” This bilingual ballad is absolutely gorgeous, and in it, the two pledge to be together no matter what. (“Promise me you’ll stay beyond the sunrise/I don’t care at all what people say beyond the sunrise!”) This was one of the best musical moments involving either character, and of their three songs together, it is my favorite and the only one cut for the movie.

In the Heights themes

Additionally, they cut out Nina’s mother Carmilla and her song “Enough” when making the movie. This alteration makes the most sense to me; the movie is already long, and this character/song would have the least impact of those cut. However, the song is funny and catchy, and Carmilla puts both Kevin and Nina in their place. Overall, I think it’s a loss. Kevin, Carmilla, and Nina were a “normal,” nuclear family represented amidst young lovers (Nina/Benny, Usnavi/Vanessa) and surrogate families like Abuela and Usnavi. I like the idea of showing all types of families within the community. And despite what I believe Jon M. Chu said in an interview, I don’t think making Carla and Daniela a couple substitutes for this. The relationships between the Rosario family were more complex with Carmilla present and Nina’s original conflict at school.

In the Heights themes

It seems like they wanted to change Usnavi’s motivation for staying in New York, prompting some of the changes with Abuela. In the play, when Abuela passes, I get the impression that Usnavi’s resolve to go back to the Dominican Republic is diminished; the two explicitly planned to go “home” together one day, and Abuela winning the lottery enables them to do so. “Hundreds of Stories” has become one of my favorite songs on the cast album for a few reasons. Lin Manuel-Miranda and Olga Merediz sound fantastic together; seriously, when these two harmonize, I get chills. This is the only time the two sing together aside from brief interludes in “In the Heights” and “Blackout.” She comforts Usnavi by reminding him of his name’s meaning (or lack thereof?) and telling him how proud of him his parents would be. The song is beautiful in its instrumentation and lyrics, and it further cements the familial bond between Usnavi and the woman who took him in when he had nobody. It’s a happy, buoyant song the first time you hear/see it, but I really love how the song’s meaning changes when you know the story’s ending. They keep reiterating that they’re going home together; “And whatever we do, it’s you and I!” Knowing that she won’t live long enough to achieve her dream gives the song a tinge of sadness. Once Abuela has passed away, Usnavi could still go to DR, but there would be nobody for him there. I think going there with Abuela, his closest family aside from his cousin Sonny, was a crucial part of the fantasy. It’s a done deal when Usnavi sees Pete’s mural on the bodega walls, but in the play, it wasn’t a painting of the beach and ocean like in the movie. It was a mural of Abuela, cementing that this is where Usnavi belongs and that the community still needs someone like her. This is such a satisfying moment because it pays off so many setups at once. In “In the Heights,” the show and movie’s opening number, Usnavi introduces us to the people in the town as he knows them intimately. We see that everyone respects Usnavi, and he’s an essential member of the community. But that’s not how he sees himself. He doesn’t feel like he belongs in New York and refers to the Dominican Republic as his home. The original ending works so well because it ties everything together: Usnavi’s need for a sense of belonging, the chasm left in the town when Abuela passes, and Usnavi’s inability to see his value to the community. In the movie, they cheapen this significantly by making it all about the island itself and Usnavi’s romantic interest in Vanessa.

In the

Vanessa is the weakest central character in In the Heights by a lot, and I mean either version. Her interest in fashion was an addition to the movie to flesh her out more, which is kind of funny. Melissa Barrera is drop-dead-gorgeous and does a fantastic job in the role, but Vanessa doesn’t work as a character for me. Her goals are vague, she’s not very nice to anyone (especially Usnavi), and their relationship seems forced to me. Nina and Benny are a better-developed couple, especially in the play. It seems like the only basis for these two as a couple is that Vanessa is beautiful. She doesn’t seem to like Usnavi, even once she agrees to go on a date with him. She makes fun of him when he compliments her in the store, and when they go out, she ignores him and dances with “half of the Heights.” Why would anyone like this character, much less want the lead to end up with her? This doesn’t seem quite as egregious in the play because, while Usnavi states, “I’m steppin’ to Vanessa/I’m gettin’ a second date,” she isn’t the reason he stays. She isn’t even present when Sonny and Pete show Usnavi the mural. In contrast, in the movie, she initiates the whole thing. Vanessa also shows Usnavi some dresses she made, which I don’t get. I guess it’s good that she got over the fashion equivalent of writer’s block, but what does it have to do with persuading him to stay in America? This scene was all-around better when it was about Abuela and her role in the community. Usnavi’s relationship with Abuela was stronger and more compelling than his feelings for Vanessa; it was undoubtedly better developed. But it also tied directly into his arc and the story’s themes, whereas staying for Vanessa doesn’t. In the original, he mentions her, indicating that she is a factor in the decision. That was plenty. In the movie, Abuela is still the town matriarch and an inspirational figure to at least Usnavi. But the effect just isn’t the same when you cut her role down, delay any exploration of her character until the scene before she dies, and hamstring the play’s themes. Usnavi was inspired by Abuela’s example to stay and serve the community in the original, realizing that he had been home the whole time. Abuela’s smaller role in the film and the removal of critical pieces of music involving her have a devastating effect on the satisfaction the ending brings.

I still like the In the Heights movie. It’s a visual feast with impressively choreographed dance routines, an immensely talented cast, and beautiful music. It doesn’t have to be either/or. However, I find it unfortunate that they chose to cut some of the show’s most impactful moments to make a light, happy summer movie. In real life, you have to take the good with the bad, and I think there’s value in depicting that in fiction. The happy ending is all the more satisfying when you know what it represents and what it took to get there.

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