Posted by Susan Doll on March 14, 2011
I am inclined to think that a good fairy tale is wasted on children, especially in today’s world where indulgent parents have created generations of over-stimulated progeny who are more interested in being passively entertained than actively mentored. A fairy tale stimulates imagination while providing a model for moral behavior. It begs readers/viewers to measure their own lives against those depicted in the tales and stirs them to question the behavior and decisions of the characters.
When I was a child, I liked to read the old fairy tales and get caught up in their aura of enchantment, particularly if they were accompanied by beautifully rendered illustrations. As an adult in college I learned that old-school fairy tales and myths offer a window into the history of past cultures because the stories are allegorical presentations of social issues and problems—an anthropological interpretation of tall tales supported by everyone from Claude Levi Strauss to Robert Darnton. In that class, I was also taught how to apply this approach to studying popular films, which parallel fairy tales in their use of formulaic stories and archetypal characters. The class was an eye-opening experience that prompted my life’s vocation as a film historian—as well as a renewed appreciation for fairy tales.
Last Friday, director Catherine Hardwicke’s reworking of Red Riding Hood opened to generally poor reviews, and while it suffers from many weaknesses, particularly in casting and narrative structure, I thought much of the criticism aimed at the movie was vague and unfounded. I liked many aspects of Red Riding Hood, including the protagonist, Valerie, and her ultimate handling of her “wolf” issues. The movie inspired me to search my memory for other live-action interpretations of fairy tales aimed at adults, which are listed below. I limited my list to those featuring female protagonists, but feel free to weigh in with your own favorite fairy-tale movies, preferably live-action versions not simplified or laundered for the kids market.
1. Red Riding Hood (2011), Catherine Hardwicke. Amanda Seyfreid stars as Valerie, the title character of this reworking of Little Red Riding Hood, which is set in a medieval village called Daggerhorn in the midst of the Black Forest. A werewolf has been threatening Daggerhorn for decades, but the citizens placate it with livestock until Valerie comes of age. The beast’s anger or torment seems directly related to Valerie’s own dilemma of choosing between two suitors—childhood sweetheart Peter (a lowly woodcutter) or the earnest Henry (son of the prosperous blacksmith). The film includes a lengthy, complex subplot involving a religious figure named Solomon who has made it his life’s mission to hunt down witches, werewolves, and other creatures of the night. When Solomon reveals to residents that the werewolf is really a shape-shifting human who lives among them, havoc ensues as villagers turn on each other, destroying the peaceful innocence of village life.
Some reviewers have griped about the additions to the story, but Little Red Riding Hood has been altered many times over the years. As Robert Darnton noted, fairy tales evolve to the needs of the culture retelling them, and it is wrong to think that there is a definitive version. Some of the story elements deemed “new” for the film were, in fact, part of previous versions of the tale. Reviewers fell all over themselves attributing the werewolf idea to Hardwicke, who had directed the first Twilight film—that much reviled vampire series aimed at adolescent girls. But, a version of Little Red Riding Hood from the nineteenth century also posits the wolf as a werewolf. Red Riding Hood picks up other details from older versions of the story, including the emphasis on the soothing properties of bread, as when Grandmother reminds Valerie that her worries will lessen with the eating of warm bread. In addition, Hardwicke, a former production designer, seems to have borrowed visual cues from older tellings of the story. An 1885 version notes that the girl takes the path of needles to her grandmother’s house while the wolf takes the path of pins. In Hardwicke’s film, the forest near Grandmother’s isolated house is surrounded by trees with giant thorns on the trunks, which look like daggers or pins.
Daggers or knives are also phallic symbols, leading to the subtext of all versions of Little Red Riding Hood, which is the sexual coming of age of the girl. (The name of the village is Daggerhorn—a double reference to phallic objects.) The wolf represents the end of childhood innocence, including the recognition of lustful, sexual desires, deemed dark by some cultures. I have read interpretations of this story in which the red cloak represents the spilling of menstrual blood, signaling the end of girlhood, while the walk through forest is the journey over the threshold into womanhood. In the 1885 version of the story, the grandmother has been killed by the wolf, who puts some of Granny’s carcass and blood on the shelf in the cupboard. The girl consumes part of her grandmother before shedding her clothes and climbing into bed with the wolf. The cannibalism symbolizes the gaining of wisdom from previous generations of women, which enables the girl to recognize the wolf and prevent it from consuming or killing her.
Despite its flaws, I liked the way Red Riding Hood expanded on the female coming-of-age theme of the original fairy tale. That the film was aimed at girls who are fans of Twilight is evident by shots or scenes of Valerie’s ultra-giggly girlfriends engaging in typical teen-girl behavior. But, that somehow seemed appropriate for a film about the brink of womanhood, particularly because fearless Valerie sets herself apart from the immaturity of her BFFs in word and deed. For example, her passion for Peter the woodcutter sets off the beast within her, too, and she is torn between being the good girl and acknowledging the fire inside her. A lot of the dialogue, which is not particularly well-written or clever, reiterates the idea of “the beast within”—that is, sexual desire or sexuality. Ultimately, Valerie embraces the changes that she is experiencing as she becomes an adult woman, while the other villagers still live in fear. I found this film an interesting contrast to Black Swan, in which the female protagonist is a victim of the changes she experiences as she matures from girlhood to womanhood—depicted as ugly mutilations of her body. The perfectionist ballerina grows increasingly hysterical as she loses the innocence of girlhood, finally going mad. I much prefer Valerie’s journey.
2. The Company of Wolves (1984), Neil Jordan. Little Red Riding Hood has spawned several other interpretations, including this one from director Neil Jordan. Jordan collaborated with writer Angela Carter, who had revised the classic fairy tales from a feminist perspective in her book called The Bloody Chamber. Jordan also added two elements that make his interpretation rich in atmosphere and meaning—a dream narrative and a doppelganger, or doubling, theme. The protagonist, a girl named Rosaleen, lives in modern-day England but she dreams of herself in a past life where she resides on the edge of an enchanted forest and is threatened by wolves—who represent the dominance of patriarchy, and in one sequence, the aristocracy. Modern-day Rosaleen acts like a spoiled child, who pouts when she doesn’t get what she wants, but her ultra-cool dream counterpart brandishes a knife, flirts with a werewolf, and uses a rifle to defend herself. Throughout the film, modern Rosaleen and dream Rosaleen are contrasted until their two worlds come crashing together in an exciting—and symbolic—conclusion. In this film, the transition from girl to woman is both a beautiful and dangerous moment, one that should be celebrated and feared.
3. Freeway (1996), Matthew Bright. My favorite version of Little Red Riding Hood is definitely not for family viewing. In this updated, postmodern telling, Reese Witherspoon plays Vanessa, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who outwits the wolves of the world as a matter of course. Vanessa leaves home after her hooker mother and drug-addicted stepfather are hauled off to jail. Rather than face a foster home, the resourceful teen hits the highway in a stolen car. In a long streak of bad luck and bad breaks, her car gives out, and she is picked up by Bob Wolverton, played by Keifer Sutherland. Bob, a child psychologist who works with troubled, poverty-stricken youth, is fond of proclaiming that he knows what’s best for wayward girls. But Vanessa discovers that he is actually California’s Interstate Killer, a serial murderer who rapes and kills young girls. The most appealing part of this violent, sexy fractured fairy tale is the character of Vanessa, who walks the line between trashy and classy, immoral and moral, victim and victor. The film’s subtext is not about sex, but about class and taste, as it reveals the hypocrisy and condescension of the liberal middle class toward the “unfortunates” of society.
4. Three Wishes for Cinderella (1973, Tri Orisky Pro Popelku), Vaclav Vorlicek. Hollywood doesn’t have the market cornered on adult interpretations of classic fairy tales. This retelling of Cinderella from Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) offers a proactive heroine—a sort of socialist feminist—who can ride horses and shoot crossbows as well as any man. In this version, Popelka is a servant in the house of her stepmother. Her friend the Owl leads her to three magical acorns and grants her a wish for each one of them. Director Vaclav Vorlicek creates a sense of enchantment not through an expensive set design or fancy special effects but by simply filming the story in a winter wonderland. Long shots of the snow-covered forest and deep drifts work to create a sense of another time and place. Viewing Three Wishes for Cinderella has been a Christmas tradition in the Czech Republic since its original release in 1973.
5. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970, Valerie a tyden divu), Jaromil Jires. Mixing gothic humor with a gentle eroticism, this unusual vampire tales set in nineteenth-century Europe is more fairy tale than horror flick. In the same vein as Red Riding Hood, this surreal fantasy is an allegory about a young girl’s coming of age amidst religious repression and social turmoil. The story follows 13-year-old Valerie, whose first menstrual cycle sets off a series of strange events in her medieval village, this time involving vampires instead of werewolves. The ravishing imagery, rich color, and beautiful lighting create an ethereal atmosphere that complements the film’s surreal approach. I couldn’t help but wonder if Catherine Hardwicke or her scriptwriter, David Johnson, had seen Valerie and Her Week of Wonders given the similarities in the storylines of the two films, plus the fact that both heroines are named Valerie.
6. Red Garters (1954), George Marshall. This musical parody of westerns uses a stripped-down, overtly stylized set design in primary colors to announce that it has little intention of looking like a true western. The deliberately formulaic story and two-dimensional archetypes create a fairy-tale atmosphere that warrants its inclusion on this list. The slight story features gunslinger Reb Randall (played by the forgotten Guy Mitchell), saloon girl Calaveras Kate (a cute Rosemary Clooney), and big-man-about-town Jason Carberry (the always entertaining Jack Carson) in a love triangle. Gene Barry costars as the black-clad villain, Rafael Moreno. The graphic-looking sets and costumes are as minimalist as the characters, who begin their scenes with pronouncements of their archetypal traits. Hundreds of westerns had been produced during the Golden Age, and this parody seemed to suggest that the classic form of the genre had run its course. And, perhaps it had, because about this time, the western began to evolve into something darker in tone as it seriously ruminated on the violence that is part of the genre.
7. Betty Boop in Snow White (1933), Max and Dave Fleischer. This animated interpretation of the Old German fairy tale owes its success more to Cab Calloway than to the Brothers Grimm. Betty is at odds with the hook-nosed Queen, whose wise-cracking mirror informs Her Highness that Miss Boop is now the fairest in the land. Koko the Clown and Bimbo are ordered to chop off her head in the forest, but they don’t have the heart. The trio spend little time with the seven dwarves, instead ending up in Hades with Betty encased in an ice coffin. The themes of transformation and resurrection often found in fairy tales fit perfectly with the Fleischers’ style as their characters and settings continuously morph into new imagery, especially when the scene occurs in a haunted or mysterious setting. In Snow White, Koko transforms into a ghostly Cab Calloway who intones a mournful “St. James Infirmary” as the trio work their way through Hell. They are chased by the vengeful Queen, who turns into a flying snake. In the background, objects continuously morph into dancing skeletons and other macabre imagery. The lyrics, the tone, and the imagery all suggest that we don’t get out of this world alive, but Betty’s resurrection, as in the original Snow White, announces a new day, a new life.
8. Beauty and the Beast (1946, La Belle et la Bete), Jean Cocteau. The most exquisite film version of a fairy tale ever made is Jean Cocteau’s interpretation of this eighteenth-century story. Handsome Jean Marais stars as Avenant, a wealthy nobleman, and as the Beast, who bargains with a merchant for one of his beautiful daughters. Belle complies with the demand and journeys through a dark forest to the Beast’s magical castle. There she falls in love with the Beast, who is ugly on the outside but has a heart a of gold. The Beast is the opposite of Avenant, whose attractive looks mask a selfish, cruel personality. Cocteau, together with his cinematographer Henri Alekan and art director Christan Berard, created a sense of enchantment through lighting and set design—not special effects. The crisp natural lighting used to render Belle’s childhood farm contrasts with the high-contrast, dreamy atmosphere of the Beast’s castle, where the lighting design was inspired by the paintings of Vermeer. Long hallways are illuminated by candelabra held by human arms sticking out of the wall, while statues with real eyes cast glances at the interaction of the humans. As if in a dream, Belle glides down a long corridor where white curtains billow in slow motion. The effect is fanciful, exotic, surreal—the visual embodiment of “once upon a time.”
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