I venture through dark and twisted woods on this one
As part of the program, we did some journaling exercises. First, we had to pick what story we’d retell. I chose Little Red Riding Hood.
I remember reading the story in an illustrated children’s book when I was at daycare. It was definitely an updated, sanitized version of the story. In the original Grimm fairy tale, the grandmother and Red get eaten and are smothering inside the wolf’s belly until the huntsman cuts the wolf open and lets them out. In the original French version by Charles Perrault, the wolf eats the grandmother and Red and that’s all, folks. No rescue, no happy ending. If I’d read that version as a kid I’d have been like, well, that totally sucks. Next story, please. The version I read as a child was the one where the grandmother gets locked in the closet and Little Red Riding Hood gets help from the woodcutter before the wolf can eat her.
I’m pretty sure my adult fascination for Little Red Riding Hood was sparked by the season 4 Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Fear, Itself” where Buffy dresses up as the character after her friends convince her to go a fraternity Halloween party. Her mom alters the old cape of her childhood costume to fit her now that she’s in college. Buffy, in her little red cape, kicks ass when the creepy happenings ensue. That incarnation of the character imprinted on me for sure.
One of the exercises that we had to do during my writing program was to list some bullet points of what we liked about the original story. Here are a couple things that came to mind:
I identified with the character because as a child and teenager I felt alone and vulnerable. I think I loved the idea that a genuinely imperiled young girl who is actively being preyed upon could be the hero of the story. At least, in the version I read, she survives in the end. Naturally, I was looking for reassurance that I would survive, too.
Learning to spot and evade a predator is a primal instinct and it never goes away. Instead, as we evolve, predators become better and more sophisticated at disguising themselves as allies or friends.
The old telling of Little Red Riding Hood by Charles Perrault was about sexual danger. It was written at a time when young women were responsible for protecting their virginity and thereby their livelihood. The wolf was the seductive predatory male who assaulted her. This is still an ever present danger for women. I was very aware of this danger growing up. As a little girl, it was “stranger danger” in the form of child molesters. As a teenager, it was street harassers and sexually violent boys, who seemed to become literal wolves with their tongues hanging out. A real danger, and not cute.
In the sanitized version that I remember, the targeted girl escapes this fate. She gets help from the woodcutter. I did not have a protective male in my life as a child, and this was the tale I needed to hear.
I never thought much about why I like this fairy tale until I did this program exercise. Once I did, it made a lot of sense. It probably resonates with a lot of people, particularly women, for the same reasons. Little Red Riding Hood is considered to be up there next to Cinderella as one of the most popular fairy tales.
If I were to do a retelling I would update it to give the heroine more agency. I’d really lean into the dark and erotic aspect of the story–ha! probably no surprise there. In author Angela Carter’s 1979 feminist reimagining of the fairy tale, “The Company of Wolves”, the female protagonist recognizes her own wild nature when she meets the wolf. This is an interesting alternative way to look at the story.
One thing’s for sure: if I ever do a reboot of this fairy tale, it won’t be the story I thought it was going to be.
Do you have a favorite retelling of Little Red Riding Hood?