It is hard to think of something that sits at almost entirely opposing remove from the success of its source of inspiration. It is probable that the reasons for this were something to do with the two different audiences for either. Broadway musicals are usually enjoyed by people in their fifties and upwards, whereas the cinematic audience for the musical was at its peak during the 1960s with efforts like West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965) and underwent a drastic decline during the 1970s. The musical is almost an unknown genre in the late 1970s and beyond excepting perhaps genre-busting efforts like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and the occasional successes of more recent efforts such as Chicago (2002) and Mamma Mia (2008).
The Fantasticks had the misfortune to end up in the hands of director Michael Ritchie. Ritchie saw some success in the 1970s with films like Downhill Racer (1969), The Candidate (1972) and Prime Cut (1972). However, whenever he has attempted to touch fantasy material as in the cases of the modern pirates of the Caribbean film The Island (1980), the disastrous Eddie Murphy fantasy The Golden Child (1986) and the childrens film A Simple Wish (1997) Ritchie only churned out flops. He died the year after The Fantasticks finally saw cinematic release.
I have never seen the stage version of The Fantasticks and am not a particular fan of the musical as a genre. A large part of the problem that those who were fans had with the film adaptation is its interpretation of the material. The musical was designed as a minimalist Broadway show it has no sets, all the magic that is supposedly conjured comes from the audiences imagination and via what the characters describe to us. This is impossible to duplicate on film unless maybe you want to take the route of something like Lars von Triers Dogville (2003) and so in the film the minimalist effect have been replaced by sets and things that are seen rather than left to the imagination.
Part of the problem that the producers of The Fantasticks failed to see when it came to the film version was simply that the audience for the film were no longer there. The predominantly youth audience of the 2000s had no interest in the Broadway musical. The film trades in simplistic, old-fashioned feelgood sentiments and an almost manic larger-than-life optimism the two old fogeys bring their two children together into one anothers arms beneath their pretend rivalry; the two lovers split up; he goes on a pretend drugged journey, while she nearly falls prey to the sinisterly charismatic circus master; everything works out for the best at the end. It is a film where you sit almost entirely indifferent to either the drama or the feelgood sentiment the music tries to create. The cast are variable, although the often greatly underrated Barnard Hughes shines in the role of a bad ham performer.
It is also hard to think what was going through Michael Ritchies head during some of the scenes. For the musicals minimalism, he replaces a tatty sense of carnival sideshow that comes with the threads clearly and obviously showing. Ritchie almost seems to be deflating any pretensions to magic or flight of fantasy and the film plays out in a way that is deliberately lacking in any magic. The abduction scene features absurd pieces with Jean Louis Kelly tied to a knife-throwers wheel, sword duels, shallow dives, a sphinx and Jonathon Morriss El Gallo seeming to be conducting the action from the lines. It goes on and on particularly during the sideshow tour of India and Venice in a way that only leaves you wondering what it is all about much of the time.