Based on the folk tale, and “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge” by Charles Perrault
Adaptation Grade: B+
PETER: I could eat you up.
The story of Little Red Riding Hood is always a story about danger. The little girl leaves the village for the forest with the best of intentions. However, there is darkness, ever lurking, ready to swallow whole even the most innocent of creatures. In the original myth, Little Red Riding Hood is indeed consumed by the forest and its dangers (in the form of the wolf). It is the ultimate cautionary tale: behave children (and don’t talk to strangers!), or you might die horribly. Of course, the woodcutter who is the link between civilization and the wild oftentimes saves the child, because this tale was originally for the benefit of keeping them on the safe path. Once consumed by creatures of darkness, the woodcutter is the only hope the child has of getting out unscathed.
Then, there’s the sexual aspect. The cloak could be blood, the forest the wilds of sexual maturity. Oftentimes, the wolf symbolizes not just death, but sex and the loss of innocence. In many tales, Red ends up in bed with the wolf, where she is eaten or consumed in other ways. As Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs sang in 1966:
Hey there, Little Red Riding Hood
You sure are looking good
You’re everything a big bad wolf could want
Clearly, the wolf has the best of intentions.
Red Riding Hood does its best to combine elements from already established mythology while adding in all the psychological aspects of the story as well. There is sex, danger and peril for the Red Riding Hood, who is in the process of losing her innocence, but has not yet come into her own womanhood. In this incarnation, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) is the member of a village who lives in fear of a wolf that has terrorized it for generations. She is in love with the woodcutter Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), but her parents have arranged a marriage with a richer boy named Henry (Max Irons).
One morning after the full moon, she finds that a wolf has killed her sister. The townsfolk, enraged at the wolf, set off to kill it. During the struggle in the wolf’s cave, another man dies, and the villagers take the head of a gray wolf. The priest calls in a Van Helsing type named Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), who tells the villagers that the gray wolf was not the killer, but a werewolf in the form of a human is who they should be looking for. The villagers refuse to listen and hold a night festival. Inevitably, the real wolf shows up to kill and wreck havoc. But Valerie starts to question if he is really so bad…
This movie garnered some rough reviews, mostly leveled at the performances and the plot. Frankly, I disagree with all of this, and found the whole thing fascinating. Movies like this, which retell such a classic tale, have a tough road. If they stray too much from the plot, people get upset. But staying faithful earns the label of “cliché.” Of course it’s cliché, it’s a classic story told for hundreds of years! Clearly, I am of the school that doesn’t care that I most likely know the ending to a story that’s been taken apart and put back together. It’s the reimagining that counts. And in this, I think it’s important to know that, while director Catherine Hardwicke is mostly known for her previous work on Twilight, she also directed the fabulous Thirteen, and did design production on many more surreal movies like Vanilla Sky. In fact, the direction and cinematography are breathtaking. The use of symbols and color is unmistakable and brings about a sense of darkness, of love and sex and death. The themes so prevalent in all the stories are entrenched deep into the bones of this movie, through the very act of filming it.
I was surprised by how much of the old tales were in this version. There is a scene with implied cannibalism, the wolf is weighed down with rocks, and the wolf comes out in every form possible. There were many wolves in this movie, some metaphorical and some very real. Peter, the woodsman, is the Sexual Wolf. He is the bad boy that every straight girl falls in love with when she’s a teenager. Shiloh Fernandez plays this role to the hilt, and it is apparent in about five seconds of seeing him why Valerie is obsessed with Peter and wants to run away with him. He is everything your mother warns you against, and what you want more than anything else: from the sneer, to the promise of hot and heavy petting, yowza.
Father Solomon was a wolf in priest’s clothing. Putting himself in the skin of a sheep just to lead all the lambs to slaughter. In the end, he is what Monty Python was referring to when they said, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” He is the predator amongst the flock bringing torture and pain in his wake, turning everything dark. Like the wolf makes things dark when he swallows you whole.
These wolves, as well as the werewolf itself, are allowed to exist in this narrative because the village isn’t the sanctuary. The village in this retelling is the forest. Full of lies, deceits and betrayals. Before the whole story is out, we find out that no one and nothing is as it seems. It’s one of the lessons Valerie learns as she goes from an innocent child to a hardened adult (as do we all!): home isn’t always the safe place we thought it is. Oftentimes home can be just as dangerous as the dark woods beyond.
The character I enjoyed the most was Henry. I was totally on Team Henry from the second he admonished the men not to split up on the wolf hunt. If all these men were wolves, Henry was the true breath of civilization. He was smart, brave, and true. In fact, for a little while I was sure he was the real wolf just because he was so perfect. Valerie could have done much worse than be forcibly betrothed to him. I kept waiting for her to come to her senses and chuck Peter for Henry, but that was as futile as all that Team Jacob love in that other movie.
In the end though, the movie turns the whole moral of the story on its head. Little Red Riding Hood is all about fear of the unfamiliar and strange. It is the ancient equivalent of “Don’t take candy from strangers.” However, looking at the news and statistics, we know that it is oftentimes someone the victim trusts who perpetrates the scariest violence. Instead of advising Stranger Danger, this movie comes to a more chilling conclusion: that, like Little Red Riding Hood in bed with the wolf, we could be sleeping with danger at any time.
Red Riding Hood (2011)
Written by: David Leslie Johnson
Directed by: Catherine Hardwicke
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Shiloh Fernandez, Max Irons, Billy Burke, Gary Oldman, Virginia Madsen
US Release Date: March 11, 2011