Once upon a time there was a girl. Her grandmother gives her a red cape and a nickname. The rest is fairy tale…and movie…and novel…
The fairy tale has stood the test of time. The movie has been panned. So far as I can see, no one except a few amazon shoppers and me have read the novel (written by Sarah Blakley-Cartwright), and my sense is that, like me, most read it after watching the movie.
Which was, to be honest, appealing in a slide show sort of way. It worked better if I turned my brain off and just looked at the pretty pictures, although I found architecture of the village bizarre and overdone. The artist in me loved the fantasy scenes, where we see Red from overhead, striding through the snow and trailing about fifty feet of swirling, snapping red cloak. The first time I saw this my brain, which was still engaged at that point, said, “Hey, she drags that much fabric through that much snow and wind and she’s going to wind up strangled,” but that was just a fleeting moment.
The movie has its share of anachronisms–the actors accents (although hey, it’s a fantasy; why can’t they make Red Riding Hood talk any way they want?) the bright shining dental work on people we are to believe never heard of toothbrushes, and the fact that these people, who apparently spend all their time in the village, starving, are all constantly engaged in cooking something or other, plump, well-fed, and generously provided with Adult Beverages.
Other reviewers have noted that this is basically the “Twilight” movies, without the vampires and electricity and pickups, and (my own observation) uglier werewolves. What others don’t note is the curious nature of the villagers’ relationship to the werewolf, which has evolved into the thing that most resembles religious practice in the village. We have lip service to The Church, but the priest looks like he subsists on prayer and scraps, while the monthly sacrifice the villagers offer to the wolf is their biggest and best. And until the wolf breaks the covenant between them by killing a girl when he’s already gotten his sacrifice that month, the villagers seem content that it should be so. There was something very Old Testament about the whole arrangement.
All of which makes it difficult to understand the logic of the twist the movie takes, down Burning Times Lane. Valerie (Red Riding Hood) is deemed to be a witch because she can speak to the wolf, and from there on things get very predictable. This is both disappointing and puzzling. We’ve just been set up to see the wolf as some sort of vengeful forest god. The logic of these things would indicate that a girl who could speak to this creature would be handy to have around. She could be the Super Sacrifice, which the wolf seems to want. At the very least, she might be able to talk him into shopping in another village for his monthly groceries. Turning it into an unfunny Black Adder episode is just sad. But as I said, the movie’s better with your brain off. Sink into a light meditative trance and enjoy the pretty pictures.
Which leaves us the question of the book. The foreword indicates that the book should have been very much a creature of the movie. Sarah Blakley-Cartwright spent extended time on set, and was given access to scripts, actors, directors–everything that should have equipped her to write a book that faithfully replicated the movie in theme, tooth, and claw.
In the beginning I found myself mentally inserting “movie stuff” into the “book stuff.” This seemed strange, since in the past I have invariably found myself moving the other way–mentally adding book details to flesh out inadequacies in the movie. And in the beginning I found myself troubled by anachronisms–a reference to trees swaying like ship’s masts in a medieval, landlocked mountain village where a ship would never have been seen, for instance.
But as I read I found looking for Blakley-Cartwright’s sly, subversive humor, and the book actually makes more sense than the movie when it comes to explaining why Valerie becomes the target of village animosity. When the wolf hunter/witch finder comes to town (the point at which the movie takes a sharp, inexplicable, and disappointing left turn) Blakley-Cartwright uses the series of “red herrings” that turn the film hunt for the wolf into farce into something much more–an examination of the nature of monsters.
In the end, the movie slaps on a quick, rather cobbled-together conclusion–one that really doesn’t mesh very well with the character ultimately identified as the wolf. Blakley-Cartwright’s ending, on the other hand, doesn’t really seem like a conclusion. It’s not very satisfying from a dramatic point of view–but it absolutely hammers home the theme of her book–that monsters are identified not by species, but by actions. In fact, it rather put me in mind of the ways that George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and My Fair Lady end. One ending is justified by the narrative; the other doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’ll please an uncritical audience.
I believe this is Cartwright’s first foray into extended fiction, and on the whole, I believe she’s done fairly well. Certainly she’s taken a pretty mediocre movie and turned it into a book that, though flawed, has lovely moments, and raises questions. Do I recommend it? That’s a tough one. on the whole, I would say not–but I would also say that Sarah Blakley-Cartwright has potential as a writer; I’ll be interested to see what she produces with a little more seasoning and experience.