Hollywood’s been beating on dead horses for a while now, so it’s quite a relief that it now seems to have found itself an immortal one. Re-imaginings of fairy tales are the new vampire movie – they’re also the new teen movie, the new first date movie and the new body horror movie. The source material for these modern constructs is ancient, powerful folklore that taps into a primal coming of age anxiety and fear and it is easy to see why the material can be translated into so many inter-connected genres. Of course, it helps when the stories are too old to have any copyright restrictions on them — studios can do as they please with the works of the Brothers Grimm, for instance, and owe nothing to anyone for a ready made story filled with intrigue, sex, murder, violence… all the things that sell the best.
The Brothers Grimm collected ancient folk tales in the early 1800’s, but the stories were part of an oral tradition of storytelling for centuries before. It’s unlikely that they can be improved upon, but what can be looked forward to is a return to the true form of the fairy tale, one that accepts the existence of strong female characters who are not pale, washed out female leads, damsels in distress, or prudish princesses afraid of their own impending adulthood. The original source material features plenty of young women veering off the path and into the woods, and there have been a few instances of female leads who empower themselves with their new experiences.
The one person to bring to attention all that was latent in the classic fairy tale was British writer Angela Carter. Her screenplay for the 1984 film The Company of Wolves was based on her own short story of the same name, written in 1979. Carter’s take on Charles Perrault’s classic Little Red Riding Hood pulled out all the stops — the film’s cinematography, sets and art work are all inspired by gothic fairy tale illustrations, everything is heightened to an almost drug-induced state and there is a strong sense of brooding melancholy and loneliness throughout the film — all of this of course adds to Carter’s metaphors for puberty and sexual awakening. She wasn’t the first to use lycanthropy and physical transformation into the monstrous feminine as a metaphor for puberty, but she was the first to bring it to the absolute forefront of the story. Carter’s Red doesn’t just court danger by straying off the path; she covets it until it is a part of her.
The Company of Wolves was not a commercial success and although well received by critics, it remained a one-off representation of the clearly empowered female hero. The slasher films of the late 70s and 80s mistakenly positioned the Final Girl as a nod to feminism. Films like Alien, Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street all featured a sole female survivor of violence who was always a girl masculinised via her clothes, her attitude, her independence, her assertiveness and even sometimes her name. Here was a strong female lead who survived by wits (and usually a large, ‘male’ weapon), but often she was giving up her femininity and sometimes her own desires as a woman in order to live. Of course, this all tied in with what was contemporary liberal feminist theory at the time — women were still assuming that they would have to be masculine in order to be powerful. When would there be a female hero who could be feminine and still fight the good fight? A female hero who could give into her own desires and still emerge as not just a survivor, but a victor in every way.
Enter “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”.
Sure, Joss Whedon’s Buffy-verse isn’t based on any one fairy tale, but Whedon drew very heavily from the fairy tale gothic when he created the very premise of the vampire slayer: the chosen one, a girl from each generation who carried in her the powers passed down from the original slayer, powers that came from the very darkness she was to battle. For Whedon, the archetype of the modern female hero was that of a girl who accepted the darkness, acknowledged the demon within her and let it make her stronger. The First Slayer may not have welcomed the darkness initially, but Buffy embraces it and makes it her own. Not just does she use her power to battle the forces of evil, but is also empowered enough to handle the biggest demon of all: adulthood. Oh, and she saved the world a lot.
Whedon acknowledged his fairy tale sources at various times during the Buffy series — the most obvious one being Buffy choosing to dress as Red Riding Hood on Halloween, and multiple references to an evil known to the Scoobies as the Big Bad. Clearly, it all comes back to Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.
Before Twilight director Catherine Hardwick chose to bring Red back to the big screen, a small budget Canadian film called Ginger Snaps attempted to pick up where The Company of Wolves had left off. Ginger Snaps also explores lycanthropy as a metaphor for puberty — and what better way to describe the strange, bloody and fascinating changes any young girl goes through at that point in her life. Not just is her body alien to those around her, it truly becomes alien to her — almost as if it were the body of a creature from a nightmare, a werewolf that she transforms into each month…unwillingly at first, and later, when she embraces adulthood, with greater ease. Ginger Snaps takes the painful realities of teenage life and brings out the large element of body horror that belongs with the reality of puberty: a body that bleeds for days at a time but lives; a body that changes so rapidly, becomes capable of so much so soon and yet survives. But what seemed to be an incredibly strong premise for Ginger Snaps does not end well — while Ginger accepts her new self, her sister is not able to and the film ends with a disappointing reversion to the idea of the Final Girl.
So how will Catherine Harwick’s March 2011 film Red Riding Hood avoid this cliché? How will Amanda Seyfried’s Red be empowered and more importantly, remain empowered? This latest version of the story is not just about the girl who strays off the path — it is also a suspense thriller with a love triangle. Seyfried plays a girl who is torn between two men, and is attempting to solve the mystery of who the werewolf may be and from the trailer, her character appears well aware of her sexuality. ‘We are throwing all the sex and danger back in’, says Seyfried, who accepts that ‘when these stories were first written, they were so much darker. Over time, they became more prudish in a way, taking the danger and sexuality out of the stories’.
It remains to be seen whether Hardwick’s film will present a strong female lead or not, but she’s not the only one attempting to bring out the latent in fairy tales. Suddenly, everyone seems to be reading Angela Carter. There are plans for several Hollywood films based on Snow White and Hansel and Gretel amongst others and even a TV series called “Red: Werewolf Hunter”. Why the interest in fairy tales? Is it a sign of the times? Looking back at classic fairy tales again, many of the Grimms’ tales were told at difficult times, including when Germany was under occupation during the Napoleonic wars. After all, on a simplistic level all fairy tales open up ideas of escape and/or survival — something perhaps people are looking to in times like these.
But what are women looking to? What will these films say about women to young girls growing up in these same times? Will these films be able to promote independence and assertiveness in their female leads, without having them resort to masculinity or to men for a final resolution? The distance between fairy tales and real world isn’t too large, especially in a young girl’s life, and it can only be hoped that a strong, truthful female hero in fiction will help in being one in reality.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 6th, 2011.
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