Based on a short story by Angela Carter, Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984) is a film that is rich in fairy tale symbolism and imagery. While in many variations of the story of Little Red Riding Hood celebrate the coming of age of a young woman, the most well known versions of the fairy tale warn young girls about the dangers of sexual maturity, and stresses the importance of obedience and conformity to a passive feminine gender role. However, Carter’s feminist revision of the fairy tale challenges conventional gender roles by depicting a fearless girl who refuses to be victimized.
Like the strong-minded child in Carter’s short story, Rosaleen is an independent young girl who becomes an equal to the fiercest of wolves. The film presents a symbolic dream world where a girl’s transition into womanhood is both beautiful and terrifying. There are many versions of Little Red Riding hood. In European oral tradition during the middle ages, the girl is going to her grandmother’s house and meets a wolf or a werewolf, and each of them takes a different path to the house. The wolf arrives first, devours the grandmother, waits in disguise for the girl, and offers the girl her grandmother’s flesh and blood to eat and drink.
Then the girl strips off her clothes, throws them into the fire, and joins the wolf in bed. After a ritual exchange about body parts where the wolf reveals that he will eat the girl with his big mouth, the girl outsmarts the wolf and escapes. As a tale about the initiation into adulthood, the folk tale “did more than symbolize the child’s ability to defeat danger and evil by resorting to cunning: it also demonstrated the importance of women’s knowledge to survival” (Bacchilega 56). The story was rewritten by Perrault in the 17th century.
According to Cristina Bacchilega, Perrault’s tale was “written for the aristocracy, with a style to satisfy the highly cultivated adult reader, and morals meant to educate the young in civilized behaviour” (57). The story was therefore sanitized, downplaying the stripping and removing references to cannibalism. In Perrault’s version, neither the grandmother nor the girl manages to escape. Moreover, there is a moral attached to the end of the story: Young children, as we clearly see, Pretty girls, especially, Innocent of all life’s dangers,
Shouldn’t stop and chat with strangers. If this simple advice beats them, It’s no surprise if a wolf eats them. And this warning take, I beg: Not every wolf runs on four legs. The smooth tongue of a smooth-skinned creature May mask a rough and wolfish nature. These quiet types, for all their charm, Can be the cause of the worse harm. (Perrault 34) Therefore, it is necessary to sacrifice the girl in order to teach readers a moral, and to emphasize the importance of chastity to young girls in a culture that places a high premium on female virginity before marriage.
According to Jack Zipes, Perrault transforms “a hopeful oral tale about the initiation of a young girl into a tragic one in which the girl is blamed for her own violation” (Zipes 7). The girl is robbed of all agency, and becomes a passive victim. The Brothers Grimm version of the tale introduces the mother’s warning to her daughter to “not to stray from the path” (Grimm 151) when the girl heads out into the woods to visit her grandmother. In the end, the girl and her grandmother survive only because of the heroic actions of the huntsman.
The girl learns her lesson and says that she will “never leave the path, or speak to strangers,” and that she will “do as Mother tells [her], like a good girl” (Grimm 155). The Brothers Grimm is perhaps the most well known version of Little Red Riding Hood today. The Company of Wolves begins by introducing a modern, middle-class family living in a large country house. The youngest daughter, Rosaleen, is asleep in her room because she has a “tummy-ache”, suggesting that she has started her menses. While Rosaleen’s body is undergoing a physical maturation, her mind goes through a psychological maturation within the dream.
Within her dream, Rosaleen searches for “the integrity of her psyche, identity, independence, and sexual fulfillment” (Zucker 67). In many ways, The Company of Wolves is a deconstruction of the traditional Little Red Riding Hood fairytale that admonishes girls who do not conform to traditional gender roles and explores the alternatives and the possibilities that are suppressed within society through the use of dreams. In particular, it examines the coming of age of a girl who strays from the path and fully embraces her budding sexuality within a dream space that is free from the societal repression of the waking world.