Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
Screenplay by David Johnson
(Based on a folk tale from the Brothers Grimm)
Key Performances: Amanda Seyfried with Julie Christie and Gary Oldman
Summary: A heroine created in the Victorian Era has indelibly imprinted herself on our cultural imagination. Her basic problem is the same problem every young person must face: who can she trust? Here in the early 21st Century, “Valerie” (aka “Red Riding Hood”) has a feisty core of self-reliance, so she learns to trust her own instincts, staying faithful to those who truly care for her, and keeping her distance from those who would use her for their own purposes. Can any girl do more?
Director Catherine Hardwicke has deliberately created Red Riding Hood for the multiplex crowd, with a visual design that evokes a lavishly illustrated story book. She sets her story in purely imaginary landscape intended to transport us to a time long ago and a place far away. So please don’t buy a ticket if you’re looking for “realism.”
I left the theatre aesthetically and emotionally satisfied, convinced once again that no one knows my inner teenager quite as well as Catherine Hardwicke.
Two weeks after another “Blue Oscar” ceremony (during which an endless stream of men from an overwhelmingly male list of nominees made speeches and accepted awards), two films anchored by teenage heroines opened in selected American cities.
I’ve now seen both of these films twice, and despite their many differences, I’m struck most forcefully by how much these two films have in common.
The two heroines, originally created in the Victorian Era, have indelibly imprinted themselves on our cultural imagination. In each case, long lists of film and television adaptations prove that audiences enjoy revisiting these two stories to see how their archetypical elements fit the current context.
Here in the early 21st Century, both “Jane” (as in Jane Eyre) and “Valerie” (aka Red Riding Hood) have a feisty core of self-reliance, and prefer independence (whatever the cost) to socially-sanctioned marriage without love. In both cases, the rejected suitors are depicted as great guys who adore our heroines and would strive mightily to make them happy. And they’re both handsome and well-spoken young men, albeit a bit on the reserved and proper side.
Both love objects, on the other hand, are smoldering, passionate, and often inarticulate. In each case, our heroine declares her love after our hero flirts with another woman to make her jealous. And without giving any details away, let me just say that our two heroines share remarkably similar fates—freely living for love at the edge of civilization with the partner of her choice.
But for all the many characters and plot elements which run parallel, these films are totally different in tone and style. Red Riding Hood, created for the multiplex crowd, is a vibrantly-designed, color-drenched extravaganza, whereas Jane Eyre, created for the art house crowd, grounds itself in austere authenticity.
On Friday, March 11, Red Riding Hood opened in 3,030 theatres nationwide, whereas Jane Eyre opened in exactly four theatres (in New York and California). I have no doubt which film my [mostly male] fellow film critics will prefer, but I’m actually far more interested in which film female audiences will prefer. For myself, I can honestly say I liked them both. Let a thousand flowers bloom!
Specific thoughts about Red Riding Hood
Director Catherine Hardwicke has deliberately structured Red Riding Hood as a fairy tale visually designed to evoke a lavishly illustrated story book. The camera swoops like an eagle over a medieval landscape, circling around a town built on a rushing river, and then traveling over miles and miles of dense forest, before settling down inside a small village. But there are no longitude/latitude coordinates to identify this locale on Google Earth; this is a purely imaginary landscape intended to transport us to a time long ago and a place far away.
Summer flowers fill the screen with big splashes of color, then winter comes and the ground is quickly covered with white crystals. Do these actors live inside a snow globe? Everything here is picaresque so be warned: If you’re looking for realism, you’ve come to the wrong movie. European peasants never wore clothes so bright and flouncy; women’s hair could not have been this bounteous before shampoos, conditioners, and curling irons.
But then fear runs riot once “the wolf” begins attacking humans again (after an unexplained hiatus measured in decades). And when the villagers respond by searching for “the evil” in their midst, summoning self-righteous saviors in clerical garb and accusing each other of sorcery, we know historians all affirm exactly these responses to pervasive terror. It is precisely because Red Riding Hood embodies fundamental truths that we keep returning to it over and over again; here Valerie’s story is a metaphor, part dream and part nightmare.
I didn’t guess the wolf’s identity until it revealed itself at the very end of the film. One reason I went back a second time before writing this review was to see if I’d missed any obvious clues. Then I asked others and they didn’t know either. So I applaud screenwriter David Johnson for hiding his wolf in plain sight, and keeping his mystery potent well into Act Three. I also enjoyed the way he incorporated inevitable lines into the dialogue. Going in, for example, I was sure that I would hear the words “Grandmother, what big eyes you have!” at some point, but when they finally came, I was giddy with delight.
Valerie’s problem is a problem every young person must face: whom can she trust? Someone in this village is the wolf. Is it one of her suitors? It is one of her friends? Is the wolf a member of her own family? Valerie has good reason to suspect everyone. She knows she is in danger, but she is no longer sure who is an enemy and who is a friend. Valerie learns to trust her instincts, stay faithful to those who truly care for her, and keep her distance from those who would use her for their own purposes. Can any girl do more?
Amanda Seyfried anchors the film, turning in another luminous performance as Valerie. This young star (still in her twenties) has made some very bold choices since her 2008 breakthrough in Mama Mia! She frequently works with female filmmakers (either in the screenwriter and/or director role), and she’s building quite a resume even though some of her films have been commercial disasters.
Julie Christie (as “Grandmother”) and Gary Oldman (as “Father Solomon”) provide gravitas with tongue-in-cheek brio; Virginia Madsen and Billy Burke are appropriately mismatched as Valerie’s parents; Shiloh Fernandez (as “Peter”) and Max Irons (as “Henry”) are virile and stalwart suitors, and Seyfried has good chemistry with both of them.
Finally there’s Lukas Haas. Way back in 1985 (the year Seyfried was born!), a little boy stole our hearts as the Amish kid in Witness, but he hasn’t been this well-used on the big screen since. As “Father Auguste,” the village priest who thinks Father Solomon has answers but soon learns otherwise, Haas’s enormous eyes are truly the windows of a tortured soul.
Bottom line: I left the theatre aesthetically and emotionally satisfied, convinced once again that no one knows my inner teenager quite as well as Catherine Hardwicke.
Please do NOT read until after you’ve seen Red Riding Hood
Jane Eyre is a long novel well over 300 pages long. Little Red Riding Hood is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale barely 3 pages long. Therefore many plot elements must be removed from the first and added to the second to make a coherent screenplay.
Two points about this adaptation of Red Riding Hood:
A quick trip to Wikipedia will show that many plot elements added to this version are grounded in prior iterations, for example, the idea that this “wolf” is a supernatural creature (a werewolf) rather than a wilderness creature (Genus Canis/Species Lupus).
Plot elements that are not in prior iterations, for example, the sudden appearance of Henry-the-Blacksmith as a rival for Valerie’s affections, come straight from the conventions of Victorian fiction (see chart).
What I like best is how well this version explains the trips to Grandmother. I now understand not only why Grandmother lives so far away from the village, but how she managed to stay alive so long. New generations will be raised to believe that Grandmother was a witch and now Valerie herself is also a witch; people in the village will never appreciate that their own safety depends on Valerie’s ability to keep the wolf domesticated.
Jan’s Final Addendum:
Catherine Hardwicke has released five films to date, and I’ve seen them all and loved them all. According to IMDb, she currently has two new films in development, both scripted by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Ron Nyswaner. This makes Hardwicke one of the most successful female filmmakers in history.
And yet, as far as I know, Chicago critics were never offered the chance to see Red Riding Hood in our local screening room. Our only opportunity to see it was at a large “Word of Mouth” screening with a target audience on Tuesday March 8 (three days before it opened on March 11). To me, this means critics were expected to trash Red Riding Hood, and most of them did. I know for sure I was never offered the opportunity to speak with Hardwicke before the film opened, even though all the local publicists know I specialize in reviews of films by female filmmakers.
So far, I’ve only had one opportunity to chat with Hardwicke real time, although I did meet her way back in 2004 at a reception hosted by our Gene Siskel Film Center soon after Thirteen was nominated for Independent Spirit Awards in both the “Best First Feature” and the “Best First Screenplay” categories. Our conversation, a phoner, took place in December 2006, right after she flew to Rome to do the premiere of her third film The Nativity Story at the Vatican!
I’m including some comments from that chat here because I think they’re indicative of Catherine Hardwicke’s commitment to teenage girls from Mary to Bella to Valerie and beyond.
Jan: As I watched The Nativity Story, what moved me so much was the idea that if these two very young people, Mary and Joseph, had not committed themselves to each other, if they had not created an environment of love in which this specific child could be born and raised, then the story of Christianity would be over. I’m “a good Jewish girl from New Jersey,” Catherine, but you made this story matter to me in a way it had never mattered before. You really made me care about these two kids as people.
Catherine: Yes, and I think that relationship is what is the most powerful part for me too. You see Mary making that brave decision—like there’s a will for this child that’s beyond what people may say. And then you see Joseph, and when he makes a brave decision too, her love deepens. So it’s like this whole kind of like emotional building of their relationship that I just love.
What drew me in so much was the beauty of this relationship, and the tender age of this girl. When I first got the script, Mary was kind of a saint from the very beginning and I’m like: “Well, we do at least need to see her as a kid just playing with her friends,” to see that kind of transformation.
I have, of course, worked with teenage girls, and I have a lot of cousins and nieces that I’m dealing with right now. So I just tried to imagine Mary—how she would cope with this—trying to get inside her head as much as I could.
© Jan Lisa Huttner (3/15/11)—Special for WomenArts
Photo Credit: Kimberly French/Warner Brothers Pictures