An Underdog in Big Bad Wolf's Clothing

Amanda Seyfried in Warner Bros' Red Riding Hood
Photo by Kimberly French
Amanda Seyfried in Warner Bros' Red Riding Hood Photo by Kimberly French

Intentionally or otherwise, "Red Riding Hood" screenwriter David Johnson has become a rising star in the cinema of the not-too-discriminating. Sandwiched between his scripts for "Orphan" and "Wrath of the Titans," we have a fairy tale that generated lots of advance speculation, partly because of the tale's familiarity, and partly because no one could really figure out what the new angle would be. There has to be one ... right? Youngsters were drawn to it over the weekend looking for glimmers of director Catherine Hardwicke's previous film, "Twilight." Oldsters (and British people) may have mistakenly wandered into theaters expecting some sort of prequel to the David Peace's Red Riding Quartet. Possibly the only expectations that were met were the studio's – the post-Oscar season is a notorious dumping ground for movies that can't be counted on to garner critical praise or big box office. However, there are more than a few folklore junkies like myself out there who most likely took the bait.

SIG's Christine Spines was on point last month when she discussed Hollywood's perennial obsession with fairy tales. I think this is completely inevitable, but for reasons that have nothing to do with Hollywood tail-chasing. As cultures evolve, the details of our stories always change to reflect current attitudes and teach new lessons; it has always been thus. Since our cultural evolution has been in spasmodic overdrive for decades (thank you, globalization and mass-communication!), there are seemingly endless possibilities for turning old stories inside out.

In Catherine Orenstein's Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked, you can see the drastic changes that time has wrought upon this particular little tale, beginning with a version published for the lusty court of Louis XIV in 1697. In "Le Petit Chaperon Rouge," Orenstein points out, the wolf gobbles up the girl, end of story: "Any courtier who read this tale or saw the accompanying image would have readily understood its meaning. In the common slang of the day ... when a girl lost her virginity it was said that elle avoit vû le loup – 'she'd seen the wolf.'"

Centuries later, Tex Avery permanently subverted the idea of Red Riding Hood as an innocent victim of sexual predation. In his notorious 1943 cartoon "Red Hot Riding Hood," the wolf is driven into an erotic frenzy by Red, and then himself becomes prey – to Grandma. After that, anything seemed possible for our heroine; she was soon granted all the signifiers of modern womanhood, from coy materialism to aggressive feminism. Nowadays there's no telling which version of the tale a child is most likely to first encounter, but odds are that it will be ... odd. For example, the version in Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes ends like this:

"But what a change! No cloak of red,
No silly hood upon her head.
She said, 'Hello, and please do note
My lovely furry WOLFSKIN COAT.'"

Donning the titular hood in Johnson and Hardwicke's film, the translucently beautiful Amanda Seyfried joins a small, strange cadre of actresses who have brought this ur-woman to life onscreen. Off the top of your head, can you think of another character who could be played by both Reese Witherspoon (in the scrumptiously vile "Freeway") and by Mary Steenburgen? (Remember Faerie Tale Theater?)

There's also "Hard Candy," otherwise known as "104 minutes of Ellen Page packing Patrick Wilson's testicles in ice." Strange coincidence: Both "Hard Candy" and "Freeway" were also victims of the early spring straight-to-dumpster release. It appears that something about the Red Riding Hood formula doesn't seem to inspire much confidence in studio execs. However, despite their inauspicious beginnings both those films also went on to be surprisingly successful cult hits – so who gets the last laugh? I'm not a gambling man, but since "Red Riding Hood" scored third in the box office race this weekend (nabbing an easy $14M), I'd be willing to bet that the movie is drawing out the same curiosity-seekers. From here, it's just a hop, skip, and jump through the woods to, "My, what big international grosses you have!"