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[Review, DVD] Red Riding Hood

Red Riding Hood (2011)

Fairy tales suffer a lot. They undergo constant revision, both by design and by accident; by people purposely seeking to subvert the traditional tales (a la James Thurber), and by misrememberings and chinese whispers of oral storytelling.

Little Red Riding Hood may well be the most reinterpreted of the classic Tales of Mother Goose: Roald Dahl’s comic verse; Angela Carter’s twisted tales in The Bloody Chamber; Toby Forward’s POV swappage. There’s a plethora of retellings available on Amazon, from  board books for toddlers to long YA tomes that Freud would be proud of. In its lifetime, the story of the hooded one has been a morality tale, a metaphor for sexual awakening, a love story. It has been a thriller and a creature feature, a revenger’s tragedy and a modern satire.

Hollywood has taken the story to heart, with the character having been portrayed on-screen in at least 117 features. The The Weinstein Company‘s Hoodwinked! was released in 2005 to a lukewarm reception, and the latest take on the tale comes from Twlight director Catherine Hardwicke.

Perrault’s Le Petit Chaperon Rouge is the simplest and most well-known version of the story. In it Red is beat to Grandmother’s house by the wolf because she stops to pick wildflowers, and after running through the ‘what big arms/legs/ears/eyes/teeth you have’ schtick, is eaten up by the wolf. There’s no rescue, no redemption, and the tale ends with a moral:

Little girls, this seems to say,
Never stop upon your way.
Never trust a stranger-friend;
No one knows how it will end.
As you’re pretty, so be wise;
Wolves may lurk in every guise.
Handsome they may be, and kind,
Gay, or charming never mind!
Now, as then, ‘tis simple truth—
Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth!

Rotkäppchen (or Little Red Cap) by the Grimms differs slightly from Le Petit Chaperon Rouge. Split into two parts, the first half mirrors the Perrault text but has Red rescued by the Huntsman after she’s been eaten. Once bitten, twice shy, the Grimm’s add a second part to the story that sees Red and Grandmother foil further similar attempts to gobble them up by a second wolf.

John Everett Millais Little Red Riding Hood, 1865. Oil on canvas.

Little Red Riding Hood, John Everett Millais. 1865. Oil on canvas.

These tales find their ancestors in much older stories. The Grandmother (from France),  Little Red Hat (from Italy/Austria), The False Grandmother (from Italy) and Little Red Hood (from Germany/Poland), The Wolf and Three Girls (also Italy) – some of which date from the medieval period – all contribute to the tale. Perrault (and later Grimm) removed the most unpleasant elements from these tales – they don’t have the cannibalism of The False Grandmother and The Grandmother, or the overt sexuality of The Grandmother or Little Red Hat – and introduced them to the mass market*.

Catherine Hardwicke’s film adaptation of Red Riding Hood is, apparently, ‘sexy & stylish’ (that is, according to Marie Claire); she’s expanded Perrault’s anthropomorphized wolf into a  fully-fledged lycanthrope and chucked a love triangle into the mix for good measure. You may note here the similarities to Carter’s The Company of Wolves: lust and lycanthropy in a  lush gothic narrative. There are certainly parallels to be drawn.

Promotional poster for Red Riding Hood

Promotional poster for Red Riding Hood

The film begins with a sweeping panorama of the forest, the mood is dark and sultry as Hardwicke desperately tries to convince us that this movie is going to be SEXY and EDGY. And look! Here’s Red, aka Valerie, wearing trousers and killing a rabbit even though it’s the 1300s. She must be a Strong Female Character! In fact, she is one, sort of. She’s ballsy, but makes some shocking decisions; she has a certain amount of agency, but she’d give it all up for her man. The film passes the Bechdel Test, but that is just about its only concession to feminism.

It sounds good, the story of a Good Girl with a wild streak, betrothed to one but in love with another. But Red’s wild streak only exists because of a man (“He always had a way of making me want to break the rules”, she declares breathlessly), and since we know who that man is the drama of the conflict is nil.

Hardwicke just doesn’t seem to have her heart in it with this supposed feminist retelling. Her Strong Female Character is indeed Stong and Female, but she’s also submissive and irrational. All this is too much description of a character so without substance, so vapid that if she’d contracted TB and died a phlegmy death half way through the movie I might not have noticed. But still, Red is a contradictory mess. And not in that normal pubescent sort of way, but in a ‘I have no idea where I’m going with this’ sort of way. Similarly the village, Hardwicke’s beacon of conformity, is painted as conventional and restrictive and then throws a Bacchanalian dance party and has practically everyone who lives there in some kind of love triangle. There’s no consistency in the world and as a result it’s difficult to suspend disbelief.

Amanda Seyfried does this face a lot. A lot.

Susan Brownmiller, in Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, provides a reading of Red Riding Hood as a rape narrative; Francesca Lia Block, in Wolf (available in The Rose and the Beast), works the tale as one of child abuse. Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés in Women Who Run With the Wolves, reads the story as a warning for us to keep our wild sides in check and in 2003 a low-budget Italian horror movie saw Little Red Cap clash with Fight Club to produce a Red encompassing the wolf and turning vigilante serial killer. Red Riding Hood has been around since the 14th Century, and in that time it’s had just about every available spin put on it. This latest film returns to the themes present in the early European tales (the werewolf is a throwback to  The False Grandmother) while broadly sticking to the narrative structure of Perrault.

The cannibalism of both …Grandmother stories and stones in the belly of Little Red Cap are there as the film acknowledges the various morals and motifs each retelling offers.  Mainly, though, the film tends towards Estés interpretation of the narrative:  a warning not to stray from the path**.  That the werewolf is Red’s father is a new twist added here, which, given the eventual lycanthropy of her One True Love, smacks of Electra.

"'O Grandmother, what big ears you have got,' she said". Arthur Rackham. From The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. trans,Mrs. Edgar Lucas, 1909

It is this love story that forms the primary plot (and not as it should be, Valerie’s encounters with the wolf). If I’d been playing drink-along-a-romcom I’d’ve been incoherent before the titles rolled. Caught between a rock and a were-place, Valerie floats doe-eyed between her lupine True Love, Peter, and her betrothed, Henry, spouting feminine clichés and generally being a bit of a sop while Men stomp around doing Manly things with torches. It’s not just her, either, it’s most of the village – even her Mother has a story to tell, apparently because it is a Rite Of Passage women must go through. This village is all about unrequited love.

Hardwicke spends most of the movie throwing buckets of sex over the characters, so it’s sort of surprising that Red doesn’t get to Do It. The red cloak is handed over with the words “I was making it for your wedding…” in case we weren’t sure of the symbolism. But her seductions are, inevitably, interrupted by the metaphor wolf.

The influence of  The Company of Wolves is clear. Hardwicke evokes the ‘remove a paw, look for a handless person’ trope as The Company of Wolves does***, as well as channeling some of the eroticism of the Red/Wolf relationship. But Red Riding Hood is not a feminist retelling of the classic tale. It wants to be, assuredly so, but there’s something missing. The protagonist has too much Bella Swan about her, her sexuality belongs to someone else. In fact, she’s a lot like Catherine Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights, projecting on to her relationship with Heathcliffe her own identity crisis.

If all of that wasn’t enough, Valerie, most of the time, isn’t the one questing to unmask and kill the wolf. Nope, it’s Gary Oldman doing that;  our Valerie is just bitching and whining and inexplicably not knowing who the werewolf is****. This wolf hunting Oldman character adds a little neo-colonialism to the mix, toting round his multi-ethnic hench-slaves and Doing the Right Thing as only a white Christian man who keeps slaves can*****.

The only thing that redeems Red Riding Hood is its nod to earlier versions, but this alone is not enough to make the film worth a second of your time. 3/10


* Worth mentioning too, is Charles Marelles The True History of Little Golden-Hood which found its way into Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book:

You know the tale of poor Little Red Riding-Hood, that the wolf deceived and devoured, with her cake, her little butter can, and her grandmother. Well, the true story happened quite differently, as we know now. And first of all the little girl was called and is still called Little Golden-Hood; secondly, it was not she, nor the good grand-dame, but the wicked wolf who was, in the end, caught and devoured.

In this version Red is saved from the wolf by the magical protective qualities of her golden cloak.

** As has been pointed out elsewhere, the point of view from which Valerie is shot, especially when she’s alone)  exploits the concept of the  ‘male gaze’ to the extent of becoming predatory (which only reinforces the film’s dire warning that we shouldn’t stray). There’s even a superfluous pseudo-lesbian scene. The story may be called Red Riding Hood, but it’s all about the wolf.

*** This bit of werewolf mythology was introduced by Sutherland Menzies in Hugues the Wer-Wolf  [pdf], and not really gone away.

**** Despite the ridiculous red herrings, it’s quite clear who woolfy is from the outset.

*****Just to up the ne0-collonialism, the multi-ethnic hench-slaves are seen at the end of the movie traipsing around after the new boss after usurping of the white male Christian demon hunter by, er, a white male Christian demon hunter.


4 responses »

  1. Great post. I am fascinated by Little Red Riding Hood adaptations and was debating whether to see this. Thanks for sharing your fascinating review so I can save myself the frustration. 🙂


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