In the Shadow of the Wolf: Little Red Riding Hood in the Contemporary World




She was following her path
It happened to be less traveled
When a wolf spied her basket
And with greed became unraveled
He needed an excuse, you see
To take all he could
His eyes glazed over her carefree smile
And landed on that little red hood
“Poor girl” he whispered
“Hiding her beauty beneath that cover
This reeks of coercion
Her freedom must be recovered”
And in a tale as old as time
Under the guise of modernization
He locked his eyes on that yard of fabric
To weave a narrative of justification

— Madiha Bhatt

LE PETIT CHAPERON ROUGE, or, for the English reader, Little Red Riding Hood, is a story with many authors. There are 58 editions of Little Red Riding Hood, some 1,000 years older than the one most familiar to us, with titles ranging from The Grandmother and Little Red Cap to The True History of Little Golden-Hood. But this tale of a child, that’s now read so frequently to children the world over, was not originally intended for the impressionable young mind. In truth, the audience for the first French tales occupied not the nursery but the salon. Charles Perrault, who penned the first literary version of the tale in 1697, had heard talk of a mysterious collection of literary tales told by aristocrats. The iconic red hood was his addition.

In 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm rebranded the stories to target a dual audience. While the text directly addressed children, its satiric tone and erotic scenes were intended for an adult audience. As children became their main audience, the Grimms stripped the tales of their aristocratic French irony and increased violence in many instances. Supposedly, the innocent honesty made them more proper for children; Taylor’s preface claims they are “brought forth to tickle the palate of the young” (1823). For how would we know not to speak to strangers if Little Red Riding Hood had not been sacrificed for her readers?

Most variations of Little Red Riding Hood trot along the same old winding path as its namesake. Time after time a beloved girl sets out for her grandmother’s, she meets the wolf, the wolf gets to grandmother’s house, eats the grandmother, and gets into bed, the girl arrives, one round of “Grandmother, what big … you have,” and the big reveal. The wolf either kills the girl, or is stopped from killing her by another man, or rapes the girl, or is killed by the girl, or becomes her lover, or becomes the girl. The combinations of endings seem limitless.

Red’s encounter with the wolf is the height of the story and thus noted with great detail by both authors and illustrators. Perhaps the most famous engravings to depict Little Red Riding Hood were those by Gustave Doré, who etched seduction and curiosity into every scene. His famous portrayal of Red’s encounter with the wolf accompanies a line that is often omitted from recent children’s versions: “come get into bed with me.” Red’s eyes, wide with fright and possibly longing, are only emphasized by the bed sheet draped over one shoulder as she pulls away while the wolf leans in. His predatory claws rest on the bed beside her. Doré’s imaginings continue to shape the way we see Red’s encounter with the wolf.

Paul Woodroffe, similarly, flirts with the threat of peril in his illustrations. In a portrait that is more commonplace, Woodroffe brings Red eye to eye with the treacherous wolf at the cusp of the story. A sense of secrecy and danger lingers in the folds of fabric and muted colors. Flushed and curious, Red is shown leaning in, ever so slightly, her red coat parting down the middle. Her finger rests on her lips and chin in wonder while her body rests against the bed. It’s as if she was just about to settle in on the bed next to her grandmother when she decided to have a closer look.

Even today, illustrations of Little Red Riding Hood enable and reinforce revised meanings of each edition. In doing so, they serve two functions. They mirror the text in that they steer the child reader while still communicating with an older audience, winking at adults while dutifully wagging a finger at children. The sinister complexity of the tale remains under the covers, out of the reach of children who require a more palatable visual. Secondly, they make the threat of the big bad wolf obvious to the reader even if it is not visible to Little Red. If only leafing through pictures, we can still spot what the wolf is up to. Though the same can’t be said of today’s visual depictions, blood and guts are not featured in these images. Woodroffe’s focus on Red’s recognition of danger and her own mistake makes this a teachable moment. Gustave’s depiction more scandalous and frightening still leaves physical violence off the page. Nevertheless, this illustration retains much of the darkness lurking in this tale.

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The wolf has always hidden under the covers of our bed disguised as a beloved relative, as someone we trust, leaving us vulnerable and betrayed. In an age where the terror alert is daily ranked at “elevated” and suspicion is the new order, Little Red Riding Hood is the perfect source for post-9/11 horror stories.

It’s no secret that fairy tales, which appear to be such light-hearted stories capped with childhood lessons, are actually immersed in layers of darkness. Yet the recent renditions have further increased the amount of violence and depicted children partaking in it. While not a new phenomenon, they seem to parallel the post-9/11 era. With titles like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013), Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), and Red: Werewolf Hunter (2010), these renditions can be placed alongside the post-9/11 dystopian literature, such as Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games (2008) and Veronica Roth’s Divergent (2011) series, in which children must act as adults. Some scholars have arguee that the popularity of dystopian books like the Hunger Games is a decade-specific phenomenon. By placing youth at the center of the narrative, they seem to suggest that what is appropriate for children has changed — a clear shift from the fear of scarring children to a need to prepare them for a dark world. It’s no longer sufficient to rely on an adult to rescue them. Children must become their own defenders.

Certain elements of Little Red Riding Hood, in particular, lend themselves to a more contemporary reading as the story involves deception and impersonation. In the post-9/11 era, the wolf’s dawning of a facade suggests suspicions based on appearances (i.e. racial profiling) and sociopolitical anxieties of terrorism. In fairy tales, peril is traditionally found creeping beneath the overgrown shrubs in woods. Little Red Riding Hood defies this general rule. Though the threat shows its face for the first time in the woods, the real violence takes place in the home. Violence is no longer limited to woods. Instead it lurks in more familiar settings. Similarly, our assailants did not announce themselves on September 11, 2001. They blended in, staging a modern-day Trojan War. And they struck us where we felt safe; they struck us in our home.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2011 movie Red Riding Hood features a new and darker retelling. This story’s Red is a young woman named Valerie who lives in a medieval village that is haunted by a werewolf. For many years, the people have kept a truce with the wolf, but that truce is broken when the wolf kills Valerie’s older sister. Seeking revenge, the town’s men set out to hunt down and kill the beast, but they lose another in the process. Desperate for a solution, they call on Father Solomon, who is known for slaying werewolves. When the wolf strikes again, he corners Valerie; she is shocked to find that she can understand the wolf when she gazes into its eyes. It says they are both the same and orders her to run away with him or he will continue to kill.

Father Solomon begins his search for the wolf, torturing an autistic boy for answers and using Red as bait to lure in the wolf. The ending carries Valerie down the same path to her granny’s house, where she finds Granny acting rather strangely. As the bed curtain is pulled back, the veil is lifted from her eye: the wolf is someone we never expected—her father. He wants to leave the village and take his children with him to the city. When he tried to speak to his oldest as a wolf, she didn’t understand him. Realizing his wife had had an affair, he lashed out, killing her. Now he wants to pass his gift on to his daughter and take her away. As he is about to bite her, Peter (her lover) arrives to save her. In the midst of their struggle, Valerie stabs her father with silver, killing him. Valerie and Peter dispose of her father’s body by filling him with rocks and dumping him into a nearby lake.

This version’s narrative is partly family psychodrama, but its roots are political too. The post-9/11 surveillance culture breeds a narrative of deeply rooted suspicion. The notion that no one can be trusted and everyone is guilty until proven innocent is the nation’s current mindset. After Red’s encounter with the wolf she finds herself searching the eyes of her friends, family, neighbors for the eyes of the monster. Thus, the fear of danger lurking behind the familiar is echoed in the suspense and unveiling of hidden identities in the movie. The trope of hidden identity and internal conflict is not new, but it is prevalent in post-9/11 literature. Ironically, post-9/11 literature illustrates the unreliability of appearances, yet appearances remain the marker for who poses a threat. This movie also introduces grueling interrogation into the original storyline. What lengths will we go to protect the people? The desperation displayed in Solomon’s tactics can be considered a nod to post-9/11 controversies surrounding waterboarding and other military actions.

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If, in the original fairytales, the wolf’s threat initially was hidden from Red, it was still apparent to the reader. In modern tellings, though, the viewer often spends the entire movie trying to distinguish the threat. The movie itself becomes a process of unveiling. We don’t know who the wolf is from the beginning but learn of him gradually. Aware of how the story goes, viewers keep a watchful eye on the grandmother. Further, in the Grimms’ version, the grandmother and Little Red Riding Hood are rescued by the huntsman — a paternal figure. DiCaprio replaces the paternal figure with the wolf himself. Thus, the timeless tale has taken on a new meaning in this era. Children mustn’t simply be wary of strangers. They must be guarded against all adults.

One of the latest renditions comes from a TV series titled Once Upon A Time (2011), which begins with a curse set by the wicked queen of Snow White. She gets her vengeance by destroying all happy endings, and transporting fairy tale figures into a little town called Storybrooke, with no memory of who and what they once were. Jiminy Cricket, for instance, is now a human therapist named Archie, and Red is a teenager named Ruby who helps run a bar with Granny. In this retelling, rather than the girl and the wolf, the girl is the wolf. And the famous red coat is magical. Granny reveals that she was bitten by her late husband, making their children and grandchildren become wolves as well. To keep her daughter from turning, Granny had a wizard fashion a red cloak. 

Red’s struggles with the beast within become a metaphor for self-exploration and for getting in touch with the darker recesses of her identity. Cynthia Jones (2009) offers a reading of the tale as one “of a girl who subverts the fear of her unknown inner animal nature.” Her journey through the woods is a rite of passage for her to confront her own animalistic nature. The forest acts as a liminal space for Red’s transformation. “Therefore when Perrault and the Grimms note that [Little Red] did not know any better [than] to speak to wolves, it is because the reader knows that within the normal conventions of society this would not be advisable, or even possible for that matter.” Moreover, the wolf has decidedly human features. Red describes the wolf in terms better fit for describing a human rather than an animal. Both the Grimm and Perrault versions state, “Oh, Grandmother, what big hands you have” instead of saying “what big paws you have.” In a way this reading returns to the original distrust of strangers by transforming the self into a stranger. Perhaps, Red must learn to guard herself from herself.

Another interesting recent series, Grimm, (2011) reimagines various Grimm Tales as criminal cases. Detective Nick Burkhardt is a descendent of the Grimm brothers, who were supposedly the first criminal profilers rather than storytellers. They also happened to have had magical abilities: they could see evil wolves and gingerbread-baking witches within killers and child molesters. The pilot episode reimagines Little Red Riding Hood with the wolf as a sexual predator who kidnaps little girls wearing red hoodies. When a little girl is reported missing on her way to her grandfather’s house, detective Burkhardt must rescue her from the big bad wolf.

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Films can be a strong indication of a nation’s concerns and attitude. We’ve encountered several retellings of the same basic plot. Why not an imagining from the perspective of the wolf? It seems only natural to want a glimpse of the criminal mind. But rarely does this happen. Perhaps our culture still reels from the fear of attack — so much so that our fears make us unwilling to step outside ourselves, and imagine how our enemies see us. We have not yet been able to understand. Thus, the perspective shift in narrative has not yet occurred. Instead, we are hungry for revenge. For instance, the 2013 thriller Big Bad Wolves gives the predator a taste of his own medicine. Two men, the father of the latest victim and a vigilante detective, kidnap the man suspected of kidnapping and killing little girls. Film School Rejects calls it “a fairy tale with bite.”

In Bhatt’s poem, with which I began, we find an echo of another chain of narratives. The symbol of the red hood has transformed into a red hijab — an allusion to the decade discourse on the veil. Laila Lalami calls these narratives chronicles of the veil. They typically feature “a feisty young woman, known only by her first name, [who] suffers under the tyrannical rule of her father or her brother or her husband,” she writes:

Then some horrific event — a sexual mutilation, a potential honor killing, a forced marriage — causes her to flee from the father or brother or husband. Often, a concerned Westerner, perhaps a reporter on assignment abroad […] helps this young woman write her dramatic story of escape.

Peek behind these chronicles, and you’ll find the thinly veiled silhouette of Little Red Riding Hood.

Fairy tales are malleable. If once told as social commentary, as didactic moralism, or to lull children to sleep, now fairy tales have crossed through the realm of magical encounters and metaphors. The very reality that fairy tales are able to evolve across culture and time is what makes them necessary to us. They have the capacity to help us understand complex topics and tend to offer a counter world to ours where things are resolved. Perchance we find ourselves returning to these tales because they help us navigate our way through the world.

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Aisha Anwar is a writer and photographer based in North Carolina.


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