Little Red Riding Hood in the Company of Wolves

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The Company of Wolves is a gothic story about the loss of innocence inspired by the tale of Little Red Riding Hood.

There are various and numerous versions of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, from the most ancient to the most famous one by the French author Perrault, who published it in the Tales of Mother Goose collection at the end of the seventeenth century. Here the sexual allegorical significance is made explicit through the representation of the girl getting into bed with the wolf. This version ends with a moral which, being expressed directly, distorts the beneficial strength of the fairy tale since it limits its potential interpretations and transforms it into a threatening warning. The Brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century elaborated two versions, published years later, where the figure of a young and naive girl is always found succumbing to the wolf but is saved by good men (woodcutters or hunters). In one of these versions, Little Red Riding Hood comes to emancipate herself and, without the saving intervention of any man, is able to defeat the wolf together with her grandmother. Despite many common elements between the French and the German versions, the conclusions are very different and the Brothers Grimm’s one ends with the salvation of the protagonist.

In the tales, Little Red Riding Hood is pretty, naive and even a little curious, but because of her levity she loses her way and is devoured by a dangerous hungry wolf.

Perrault clearly tells us that if a child, through ignorance or disobedience, deviates from the right path, has no escape: in fact, his version finishes with the wolf’s victory and is therefore devoid of salvation and consolation. In Perrault’s purpose, this was not to be a proper fairy tale, with allusions and hidden meanings typical of the genre, but simply an admonitory story with the aim of intimidating children through a disquieting ending.

Little Red Riding Hood is an unusual and enigmatic tale, on the origin, evolution and meaning of which many doubts were sown and several questions have been raised. The absence of heroes, helpers or other typical characters of fairy tales in Perrault’s version led to regard it more as a moral fable than as a true story.

The tale seems to root into the French rural tradition. An ancient text pointed out by some critics as possibly parallel, though very distant, is De puella lupellis servata, written in Latin by Egberto from Liege in the eleventh century. However, there are others with similar elements in several parts of the world.

Various readings of this story have been attempted by philologists, anthropologists and psychologists. Some have emphasized its immediate moralizing interpretation, some have considered it a story of lycanthropy (since in some traditional French versions the wolf is actually a werewolf), some have emphasized the sexual meanings of the story, through the representation of a teenage girl who approaches a male seducer, personified by the wolf.

Finally, according to Bruno Bettelheim, the representations of sexual development of the girl, through the symbolism of the blood (displayed by the red tippet), as a parallel of the menstrual cycle and the loss of virginity are fundamental.

The Company of Wolves is a 1984 film directed by Neil Jordan, starring Sarah Patterson as the protagonists and Angela Lansbury in the role of the grandmother.

The film was inspired by the werewolf stories of The Bloody Chamber collection by Angela Carter. The writer herself collaborated with the director to write the script, inspired not only by her stories, but also by the earlier radio adaptation having the same title.

The story begins nowadays with a young girl in a dream: this setting is designed to reveal the focus of the film on the subconscious fears and desires, and creates what the director called “a Chinese box structure” within which the plot unfolds.

In the first dream Rosaleen, the protagonist, after the death of her sister killed by wolves, moves to her grandmother’s who, through frightening and fascinating stories, tries to warn her about those creepy creatures, whose constant presence is continuously and obsessively evoked.

From this initial episode, a sequence of mysterious dreams develops, in which the same elements of the Little Red Riding Hood tale are interpreted and retraced: the grandmother, the house in the woods, the red tippet, the path and the lurking wolves, that in the film take the form of werewolves. Some scenes also show Rosaleen discovering physical attraction for a guy and trying to learn the nature of sex, another recurring theme.

In one of her trips inside the wood Rosaleen meets a handsome hunter who, once arrived at grandma’s house, reveals his bestial nature by killing the latter.

At first terrified, the girl shoots the hunter who, once hit, turns into a wolf. But, moved and fascinated by his new form of wounded wolf, she lets him escape. Turned into a wolf herself, she follows him and flees into the woods with him.

Throughout the film the protagonist wanders within these atmospheres and symbols until the final meeting. The bestial nature of the man terrifies and attracts her as well as the meeting with the instinct of her own nature.

The plot of the traditional tale is almost completely deconstructed and reworked with great originality, through the aggregation of episodes that, rather than by progression, are connected by association.

What is clearly expressed in the tale, in the form of a moral or as an indirect warning – the wolf danger –is not univocally solved in the film: Rosaleen is frightened but also fascinated by the bestial nature of the hunter. This contact, which is potentially devastating in Little Red Riding Hood, is rather healthy and vital, although disturbing, for the main character.

Everything is set in the unresolved ambivalence of predator and prey, hunter and hunted. The real wolf, as the girl will discover in an epilogue suspended between horror and compassion, is the one that has “the hair inside,” and the only way to overcome the fear of the wolves is to become wolves ourselves.

Great skill has been expressed by the director with his ability to recreate the dreamlike dimension typical of fairy tales.

The village in a forest, perpetually wrapped in mists and shadows, is a place where reality has frayed edges to such an extent to become a fruitful magma from which one can get, even today, the unlimited symbols and meanings of the old fairy tale.

Translation by Anna Anzani