In the famous fairy tale “Red Riding Hood,” a girl goes on an errand to bring food to her sickly grandmother who lives in the woods. Aware of this, the Big Bad Wolf rushes ahead to her grandmother’s house, devours the grandmother and dons her clothes, then waits for the girl whose nickname is Red Riding Hood in disguise. When she arrives, the wolf swallows her too, and falls asleep. Just in time, a woodcutter comes to the rescue. He cuts open the belly of the wolf and takes out Red Riding Hood unharmed.
The 2011 Hollywood movie, “Red Riding Hood,” produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, sheds a new light on this story. In this film, based loosely on the fairy tale, the wolf is not out there in the woods; he is a werewolf living in secret among the villagers in disguise. When the blue moon rises, he turns into the Big Bad Wolf and terrorizes the village. Whenever he bites a villager, he dooms them into becoming a werewolf like him.
Like a corrosive ideology, the werewolf infections are highly contagious. Fear spreads among the villagers because no one can be sure who the werewolf is and how many of them are infected. Thus, the villagers become suspicious of one another and accuse others of being associated with the wolf.
One day, Father Solomon, a famous witch hunter, arrives with soldiers and a huge torture machine in the shape of a metal elephant. It is worth noting in passing that the “elephant” is a symbol for the conservative Republican Party in the US whereas “red” implies a radical Leftwing ideology. At first, Father Solomon poses as the savior of the village, who protects the people from the bad wolf. Gradually, however, he turns into a tyrant who terrorizes the village, just as the nefarious Big Bad Wolf does. Like the papal inquisitor during the Dark Ages, Solomon tortures people, burns them in the torture machine, and rules the village with an iron fist in the name of justice and the greater good.
Father Solomon is a stubborn, self-righteous tyrant who firmly believes that he is doing the right thing. Indeed, as he says on one occasion, whatever he does is “for justice and the greater good.” It is symbolic that just like the wolf with deadly claws, Father Solomon, too, has hands with menacing silver-coated fingernails. Gradually, people notice the resemblance between the priest and the wolf.
We eventually learn Father Solomon’s secret: in the past, he had to kill his wife, who had turned into a werewolf. That is why he is so vengeful and obsessed with killing the wolf. Although he pretends to protect the villagers and sugarcoats his crusade to kill the wolf under the banner of the greater good, in the end his real concern is his personal vendetta.
When the blue moon rises, Father Solomon confronts the wolf, but the beast bites him. Since the priest will soon become a werewolf, his captain has to kill him. However, Solomon does not want to die and utters, “I meant only to serve; to protect us from darkness.” He does not know he is the darkness itself. While fighting a monster, the priest has become a monster himself.
At the end of the story, the Big Bad Wolf turns out to be Red Riding Hood’s father, Cesaire. He wants to pass the werewolf’s curse onto his daughter. When she refuses, Cesaire is enraged and tries to bite his daughter by force. Then, at that very moment, Peter the woodcutter appears and saves Red Riding Hood. Using Father Solomon’s silver-coated fingernails, Red Riding Hood kills her father.
“Red Riding Hood” offers important insights into modern society, as we, too, suffer from a viral curse and self-righteous tyrants. Red Riding Hood is a defiant girl who boldly rejects both the dark legacy of her father and the tyranny of Father Solomon. Like her, we, too, should renounce our cursed legacy and the tyranny of those who pretend they are the defenders of justice and the greater good. Both of them are equally dangerous.
In the film, Red Riding Hood and the woodcutter together kill the wolf who transmits the dark curse that resembles a virus, and the captain kills Father Solomon, who could have become another horrible wolf. Likewise, we, too, should have the courage to repudiate both the dark legacy and the madness of a tyranny that masquerades as justice. Both plagues have terrorized our society for a long time and caused us to forfeit our right to live without fear.
The age of the two antagonizing monsters is over now. The future belongs to the defiant new generation that will destroy the two cursed remnants of the dark past and build a new society with a fresh new vision. “Red Riding Hood” serves as a mirror to our grim present reality and shows us how to overcome these troubled times.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.