Fairy Tales on Film: “Why Grandma, what big teeth you have…!”

Two films stand out for me with regards to the retelling Little Red Riding Hood as it was meant to be told i.e. as an enchanting, dark and sinister fairy tale. The first being a childhood favorite, The Company of Wolves (1984) and the second, the recent Red Riding Hood (2011) released last year as part of the influx of fairy tales on film. Two very different films in my opinion, with The Company of Wolves by far exceeding in quality of story and screenplay but both getting the atmosphere spot on. 

The Company of Wolves is one of those films which I remember watching a lot growing up. More specifically the opening dream sequence with giant dolls in a creepy woodland, the (at the time) very creepy scene of the dog jumping through the window at the end – trust me that was scary for some reason! And also the bizarre scene where the guests at a 17th century aristocratic wedding are cursed and turn into wolves at the dinner table, their chunky paws breaking through thier court shoes! But I digress. 

The Company of Wolves, albeit not everyone’s cup of tea, really is a fantastic imagining of this popular fairy tale. Based on Angela Carter’s novel, it looks at Little Red Riding Hood from a more psychoanalytical approach. More specifically focusing on the sexual awakening of a young girl and the dangers this presents, all expressed through subtle metaphors: Rosaleen’s white (pure) dress hanging up on her bedroom door, the red cloak given to her at the same time as her first date, the mysterious man who captivates her but who is in fact a werewolf, the constant warnings from her Grandmother not to “stray from the path” (the “path” being both literal and figurative). As soon as Rosaleen strays from the path, she is at the mercy of dangerous men, but this just seems inevitable during the film.

What’s most fascinating about this film is the many layers involved in the story. From the start you are aware that you are being pulled into Rosaleen’s dream. Then within her dream we are able to see the stories her Grandmother tells her. This inter-weaving of tales and dreamlike atmosphere really adds to the overall affect of the film, as does the mixture of the past and present. Her dream takes place in a typical fantasy/fairy tale forest and seems to be set in the past by their dress and their general way of life. But then we have scenes including a1920s motor car with a chauffeur. It all just adds to the mysterious, almost ethereal, atmosphere of the film.

It was Charles Perrault who originally wrote Little Red Riding Hood in 1697 and The Company of Wolves follows this original tale insofar as it is the huntsman who leads Rosaleen away from the path and then attacks her Grandmother (he being the wolf in disguise). His transition into the wolf is both painful and fascinating to watch, (even if its just to appreciate the level of “special effects” at the time!), and its scenes like this one which push this film slightly into the horror genre. The end of the film sees Rosaleen taming the wolf and turning into one herself, having “embraced her womanhood” and finding her mate who she manages to tame in the end. 

The general tone and ambiance of this film is spot on when it comes to conveying a classic fairytale like Little Red Riding Hood, but focusing on the gothic, almost macabre side of it. It was suitably enchanting yet sinister. The psychoanalytical undertones and the dream-within a dream storyline only added to its overall charm and, for me, it’s a classic.

Last year another reworking of Little Red Riding Hood came out: Red Riding Hood starring Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman. This one did not have as much depth as The Company of Wolves but it certainly had a similar atmosphere. The problem with this film, which I think dragged it down right from the start, was the immediate comparisons to the Twilight franchise. Amanda Seyfried was perfect casting for the lead role and the press releases of her in her deep red cloak against the pure white snow in a gothic forest seemed to hit the nail on the head as far as I was concerned. But then you have the addition of the two lead males/love interests, complete with their emo haircuts and soulful eyes and it goes down the toilet along with the other Twilight-y copycats that have come out over the last few years. Not to mention the slightly dodgy special affects when it came to the wolf. (By the way, what is it with that anyway? Even the latest Twilight film, with their big budget, couldn’t pull off CGI wolves well enough so save people from frowning at the screen and saying…”really?”). But, story and crappy romance aside, the overall look of the film was fantastic. For me the cinematography i.e. set design, lighting and the general ambiance conveyed throughout, personified “dark fairytale” for me and for that alone (along with the brilliant Gary Oldman of course) it should have done well – or at least better than it did! 

So there were are. Two films based on the same fairytale. Two very different approaches. But both, more or less, achieving that “dark fairytale on film” which seems to be more and more popular these days. I know which one I prefer, but I am still delighted that there are films like this out there and more to come: keeping fairy tales dark and gritty as they were meant to be! 🙂


2 thoughts on “Fairy Tales on Film: “Why Grandma, what big teeth you have…!”

  1. Paul Fuller says:

    I still have yet to see ‘Red Riding Hood’ but of course ‘The Company of Wolves’ I’ve seen a fair few times. And like you certain scenes from it are still ingrained in my mind despite my many years of watching all different kinds of horror films. Whether that’s down to being far more impressionable at a young age I’m not sure but whenever I’ve seen people talk about the film more often than not they highly compliment the art direction and the unsettling and surreal atmosphere it intentionally or unintentionally manages to create as well as the impressive transformation scenes. Which is no mean feat given they appeared to be on a pretty tight budget – using German Shepherds to make up the numbers might have been a give away!

    Whilst the film does manage to create a very unique atmosphere in terms of the way in which it layers up the dream sequences and multi-stories I can see why some people found it hard to watch and came away feeling the film was perhaps being a little too pretentious and putting far more emphasis on the look and feel of the film rather than making sure the narrative stayed strong from start to finish. But I think if you watch it a few more times it does open itself up much more – even if there are still some questions seemingly left unanswered. Wouldn’t be at all surprised to see screenwriters and directors sniffing around this film in 10-15 years time (or sooner..given the trend of the last 5 years of so) for a modern day re-working.

  2. Thanks Paul, that was a really nice summary! 🙂 I really hope they attempt a remake of Company of Wolves – I can’t see that working!!

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