The Little Red Riding Hood of our collective imaginations is usually carrying a basket, but what she’s really got is baggage ― the kind of socio-sexual-psychological baggage that has kept certain fairy tales and myths alive from one end of the media forest (oral tradition) to the other (iPads).
As a movie star, Red hasn’t had quite the career of Cinderella, say, or Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, even though her story possesses the same, sometimes amorphous elements that speak to our primal fears. In fact, her tale has a little something for everyone: Innocence. Courage. Violence. Seduction. And, of course, cross-dressing.
“Yes, but what she doesn’t have is a Prince Charming,” said David Leslie Johnson, screenwriter of the new and rather adult “Red Riding Hood,” which opens Friday. “She doesn’t have a match, and I think it’s the reason Disney never tackled this one. It has some sort of dangerous undertones to it.”
Those undertones are explored in depth by Catherine Hardwicke, best known as director of the first “Twilight” film and whose “Red Riding Hood” isn’t really Little anymore. Amanda Seyfried (who will, yes, be inspiring audiences to say “What big eyes you have!”) is Valerie, nubile inhabitant of Daggerhorn, a place that might have been called Dark Ages: The Theme Park, and which all but bristles with spikes, antlers, sharp pointy objects and other suggestive adornments on its otherwise feudal Teutonic architecture.
Amanda Seyfreied stars as Valerie in the fantasy thriller, “Red Riding Hood,” from Warner Bros. Pictures. (MCT)
Be that as it may, the place has a bigger problem than decor: For generations, a werewolf has demanded a monthly sacrifice (of livestock) and the village has acceded. But when Valerie’s sister is killed one night, under the full blood moon, the locals decide to take action. Valerie, in the middle of all this, is in love with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), a poor woodcutter, while her parents (Virginia Madsen and Billy Burke) want her married off to the wealthier Henry (Max Irons) ― in Daggerhorn, “marrying up” means marrying the blacksmith.
Grandmother? As played by Julie Christie, she’s just one of the surprises, especially for anyone expecting the classic fairy tale: Grim, yes. Grimm, not so much.
Hardwicke said that the story behind her film, and Johnson’s script, “is an example of the type that can mean something different to you when you’re at different ages. It means one thing when you’re 5 years old, but when you’re 12 or 13, and going through your own coming of age and sexuality, you might look at it and say, ‘Oh, she was tempting the wolf; she told the wolf where she was going; she invited the wolf into her life.’ There are different levels you’re connecting to, instead of just being told by your mother not to talk to strangers.”
And like a lot of fairy tales, “Red Riding Hood” has several other things going for it, things that talk turkey in Hollywood. Like old sitcom titles and video games, they have built-in audience recognition. They’re in the public domain (which means no royalties have to be paid, and no claims attached). And they’re fertile ground for reimagining ― each tweak of the original story resonates with the viewer, because the viewer usually knows the story so well, even if the story has changed over the centuries, sometimes from the gruesome to the family-friendly.
That the monster of “Red Riding Hood” is a werewolf connects it to a whole other school of bedtime story, including “Twilight” and its vampires. “I guess you could say that this story has been around for 700 years or more,” Hardwicke said of “Hood,” “and some of the original tellings have a werewolf. The idea of werewolves and girls and fear has been around a long time and that might have inspired Stephenie (“Twilight” author Meyer), too.”
What Hardwicke’s version of “Red Riding Hood” also does, in addition to injecting adolescent sexuality into a fairy tale, is reposition the female heroine in the archetypal story. Johnson recently wrote the screenplay for next year’s “Clash of the Titans” sequel (“Wrath of the Titans”) and said the contrast between the male-centric Greek myth and female fairy tales was one of the more curious aspects in the evolution of these classic narratives. In his research, Johnson found versions of “Hood” in which the girl wasn’t saved by a woodcutter, but escaped by her own wits; in another, the women of the village rescued Red Riding Hood by spreading their washing across a stream and letting her flee across. It was interesting, he said, to go back and see how the women were, often, just as heroic as the men.
“We’re all familiar with the male-driven myths of ancient Greeks,” he said, “and how they’re built up as these big heroes in our minds. For some reason, the female-driven tales have been relegated to the world of children’s stories.
“Men were essentially the ones writing them down,” he said with a laugh, “and telling us what was important.”
By John Anderson
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)