aunt tiger, Big Bad Wolf, brothers grimm, cape, charles perrault, darrell larson, diane ladd, Faerie Tale Theatre, faerie tale theatre reviews, fairy tale, fairy tale adaptation, fairy tale history, fairy tales, fairytale, fecunda ratis, forest, frances bay, german fairy tale, giambattista basile, graeme clifford, Grandma, grandmother, grandmother's house, grimm, grimms fairy tale, hood, huntsman, i know things now, into the woods, jacob grimm, jennie harbour, john vernon, la finta nonna, little red riding hood, malcolm mcdowell, mary steenburgen, predator, red cape, red hood, red riding hood, shelley duvall, television review, the brothers grimm, the richly laden ship, tv review, werewolf, wilhelm grimm, wolf, wolfman, womanhood, woodsman
“Now there’s a tasty little dish…”
– Reggie V. Lupin as he first lays eye on on our heroine
CONTENT WARNING: This review contains several allusions to rape throughout.
You know her the moment you see her, the girl in the red cape and hood walking through the woods. Maybe she’s an innocent child, maybe she’s a bit older and looking for some excitement, but there is always a wolf watching her just out of sight, drooling at the the thought of making her his next meal. When you’re a kid it’s easy to understand this story on the surface level, but as an adult, you begin to notice certain dark undertones – ones which were deliberately planted there from the very start.
Little Red Riding Hood is another fable that was born from oral tradition, but for once, it wasn’t the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, or even Giambatta Basile who got to her first. That distinction belongs to Egbert of Liège, who recorded the earliest known version of her tale around 1023 AD in Fecunda Ratis (The Richly Laden Ship). The scarlet-clad lass in that story receives a red dress from her godfather as a baptism gift. The dress attracts the attention of a mother wolf and she kidnaps her. The other wolves start licking her face, but the girl demands they don’t besmirch her dress because it was a present from her godfather. The poem emphasizes the heavily Christian theme of God holding dominion over animals and protecting those baptized in his name, thus the wolves don’t harm her.
While variations such as Italy’s La finta nonna and Taiwan’s Aunt Tiger existed as early as the fourteenth century, scholars believe it was this poem that would inspire the version Perrault wrote almost seven-hundred years later. It’s similar to the one we all know, but with one cruel twist – the story ends with Red being devoured by the Wolf. No last-minute huntsman to the rescue here, it’s explicitly stated that she is dead (I still remember how shook I was when I discovered a book that kept that ending). German author Ludwig Tüg translated Perrault’s retelling and added the character of the huntsman, but kept the grim conclusion: he kills the wolf but is too late to save Red from her grisly fate. Ironically, it was the Brothers Grimm who gave the story a happy ending, as well as a denouement where Red and her grandmother work together to stymie a second wolf, and more context in the beginning for the underlying moral. The story starts with Red’s mother insisting she stay on the path and beware of strangers, stressing the importance of listening to the wise, experienced mother figure; I’d hail it for being a Grimm fairytale that finally gives some women a bit of respect, but one could argue that the main character needing to be rescued by a strong man in the end renders it moot.
And what of this moral, you may ask? Well, remaining wary of flattering strangers is the obvious one, but strip the tale of all fantasy elements and you have an aggressive male figure stalking and charming an attractive young woman, then taking advantage of her when she’s at her most vulnerable (in a bedroom, no less). The lesson posted at the end of Perrault’s story leaves no doubt that it’s a warning for women to be on their guard around men, lest they consume their bodies in more ways than one. Thankfully, unlike Sun, Moon and Talia, this is clearly portrayed as a bad thing.
There’s plenty of symbolic resonance that backs up this reading of the story. Think of the color red and what it represents: passion, fury, blood. Once the Wolf has youthful, vivacious Red in that pretty cloak within his sights, he marks her as his next victim. Then there’s the wolf himself. Folks growing up in Europe before the Industrial Revolution had good cause to beware of wolves. They would kill their livestock if prey was scarce, and you as well if you strayed too far into the forest. As wolves were also revered animals at the height of paganism, the rise of Christianity saw them marked as creatures of the Devil. Anti-wolf hunts – which Perrault happened to take part in – became the means to drive wolves to near-extinction, as well as demonize and destroy all traces of the old gods. In fact, some early versions dating before Perrault feature our heroine outwitting not an anthropomorphic wolf, but a werewolf. Witches were often accused of shapeshifting into wolves among other animals in order to commit evil deeds such as, oh, tricking a girl into getting eaten.
With that in mind, it’s not shocking that later retellings sanitized Red’s misadventure for fear of scaring kids, even though that was the point of the story in the first place. My introduction to it was a pretty safe version, one where the Wolf merely locked Granny in the closet and the Huntsman chased him away before he could eat anybody. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I was given a book that was truer to the Grimms’ text, vore and all. While I’ll always find the story nostalgic, I find Faerie Tale Theatre’s truer-to-text depiction…interesting.
Our heroine is a young woman named Mary who lives with her parents, a woodcutter/cabinetmaker and a homemaker, at the edge of a forest. Mary’s life is extremely sheltered; the only freedom she’s allowed are strictly scheduled visits to her grandmother. Even though much of her arc is evenly spread throughout the episode, I’m getting my grievances with how they go about it out of the way right now. Mary is played by Mary Steenburgen, who does a fine job with what she’s given. The thing is, a girl or a teenager yearning for a life of intrigue beyond her parents’ confines I can buy. A thirty year-old woman? Not so much. In fact, picking an older actress for a younger-written part and giving her this past makes her story much more unsettling. Here we have a lady held prisoner by her own family in an isolated near-Stepfordian existence. Her mother Helen seems far too happy when Mary mentions she has no friends to invite to her birthday party and she’s obsessed with cleanliness in order to keep her husband happy (she even takes her time picking out individual pieces of firewood so she can dust off the logs first).
Then there’s the matter of Mary’s dad, Walter, who’s a piece of work on his own.
At first Walter seems like your average caring father figure who shows affection in a typical blustery patriarchal manner, but that all evaporates when his new apprentice, Christopher, comes on to the scene. Mary, who’s hardly seen another person her whole life let alone a man, is instantly taken with him; for his part Christopher is a shy and sweet guy if a bit bumbling, but sincere and adorkable in all the right ways. The second she mentions striking up a friendship, however, Walter drags Christopher outside to tell him he’s not good enough for his little girl. When Mary expresses interest in learning his trade, he calls her ambitions ridiculous and and does everything to discourage her dreams, even accusing her wanting to get closer to Christopher. He finally gives some good advice after Mary pushes back and declares she wants to travel the world and let strangers take her in like in the books she’s read; real life doesn’t work like that and people can’t always be trusted. Sure would have been nice if they opened with that so he didn’t come off as a self-centered patronizing “father knows best” kind of jerk. I understand what the episode is trying to do, show that Mary is naive and needs to learn that people could take advantage of her trusting nature, but I wish it didn’t come at the cost of her being infantilized by nearly everyone around her.
Mary goes to visit her grandma (Frances Bay), who’s in the midst of preparing her birthday present. Mary laments how she wants to be treated as an adult but lacks the experience she craves. Granny assures her that everyone matures in their own time in their own way. It’s a really sweet moment and it’s what made me realize where I’ve seen this cool grandmother before:
On the way home Mary just misses crossing paths with a devilish vain wolf named Reginald Von Lupin (“Reggie” to his friends), played by Malcolm McDowell –
Yeah, McDowell is a trip in this, a scene-stealing over-the-top delight in a furry cosplay and cockney accent. Reggie was kicked out of his pack for refusing to share his kills and now he’s a lone wolf ready to strike it out on his own. But three days later without any food and he’s looking gaunt and losing his fine gray fur.
Reggie is so hungry that he swears to devour whatever comes down the road next, and wouldn’t you know, it’s Granny on her way to Mary’s birthday party. He corners her, but Granny gets the drop on him good and beats him with her cane.
Mary’s party goes as well as it can with two stuffy adults, one senior, one cute guy and no booze. Granny gives her her present, a red cape with a matching hood, and as she tries it on everyone starts calling her Little Red Riding Hood.
Christopher and Mary escape outdoors for a bit and bond over how Walter treats them like idiots. They admit their attraction to one another and kiss. But Walter spots them and boots Christopher from the party, informing him that he’s fired.
No helicopter parenting can keep Mary and Christopher apart, however. He visits her while her father is out working, but it’s mostly to inform her that her grandmother’s caught a cold. He’s too afraid of Walter to act on his feelings again. Mary goes to visit Granny wearing her new riding hood with a basket of her favorite foods – and instantly attracts Reggie.
Mary recalls her father’s warnings about wolves, but Reggie’s convivial attitude and charms win her over. Mary tells him where she’s off too and Reggie susses that it’s the same Granny who pummeled him the other day. After much cajoling, Mary lets him lead her off the path to a clearing of flowers she can pick for Granny. Once her back’s turned, he books it to “the old scag-bag”. Reggie fakes his way in by pretending to be Mary, but just when he’s got Granny right where he wants her, she introduces him to a friend named Old Betsy.
Unfortunately for her, the gun stalls, and a galvanized Reggie closes in for the kill.
One lady down, one to go. A very full Reggie picks out a nightgown and hops back into bed. Mary arrives and you’d think this is where they’d jump right into the “Grandma what big ears you have” bit, but no – Reggie asks her to join him in bed first.
Believe it or not, this was actually a detail from the Perrault version, not something the writers made up to make the proceedings needlessly tense; though when he says “The better to EAT you with!” and pounces on top of her, it looks like…ummmmm…
ANYWAY, Christopher pops in as Reggie is sleeping off his meals. As if the previous moments weren’t ghastly enough, this scene takes a nosedive into horror movie territory: Christopher surveys the damage done to the house (via a handheld camera) with a synthesizer score that will put you on edge as the tension grows. He finds Reggie snoozing – but his bulging stomach is moving, and he can make out the sounds of muffled screaming inside. Realizing what’s happened to Mary and Granny, Christopher grabs some scissors and cuts Reggie open. Thankfully we are spared the sight of a half-digested Granny and Mary; they were just swallowed whole, apparently. They climb out none the worse the wear (at least physically; I’m certain they’re going to put their therapist’s kids through college).
Walter shows up and Mary fills him in on what’s happened. He’s ready to finish off Reggie with his axe, but Mary gets the idea of filling his stomach with stones instead, thus preventing him from ever eating another living being again. Walter finally comes around to Christopher, and allows him to walk Mary home. Mary grows from her experience and never lets a stranger lead her from her path again. And Reggie is stuck with a full belly for the rest of his days, or at least until he gets good at shitting rocks.
Not spitting rocks, I said…never mind.
Faerie Tale Theatre’s Little Red Riding Hood has some things going for it, but also a lot against it. The acting is solid all around and I appreciate the attempts to build upon Mary and the Wolf’s stories to flesh out their characters before they meet, but the patronizing of Mary throughout and her over-controlling father gave me flashbacks to Rapunzel. There’s also tons of padding, mostly scenes of characters standing around talking to themselves about things of little consequence. Will Granny leave the house without a shawl? Is Reggie really losing all of his hair? How much housecleaning does Mary’s mother need to finish?? The excitement leaps off the screen!
If there’s a savior to be had in this episode, it’s in Frances Bay’s sweet and feisty grandmother and Malcolm McDowell’s scenery-chewing lupine. They deliver the best lines and make the proceedings far more entertaining whenever they’re on screen. Otherwise, I don’t have very strong feelings regarding this outing.
- Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen were married at the time this episode was filmed; paints their scenes in quite a different light, doesn’t it?
- The book Granny lends Mary is The Boy’s King Arthur illustrated by Andrew Wyeth, whose artwork loosely inspired the look of Rumpelstiltskin.
- The Wolf theme from Peter and the Wolf is incorporated in the score during some of Reggie’s scenes.
- One of my favorite touches is that Reginald has a set of sharper fangs he puts in before chowing down on Granny. It’s both practical and plays into his extreme vanity.
- When Granny has to stash Mary’s cape from her before it’s ready, she tries to stall her from entering the house by saying she’s naked…(sigh) Play the clip.
- I’d like to add one last special note regarding a previous episode, which I’ll be including there as well: when it came to the artist who inspired Sleeping Beauty, Kay Nielsen, I mentioned that he had left Disney before work on their Sleeping Beauty feature began – and it turns out I was wrong! Nielsen created some artwork and character designs in the film’s early developmental stage. Some of his drawings were included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest exhibit, a tribute to Walt Disney and some of the classical European art that inspired his fairytale films (and Beauty and the Beast). The day this review is posted, March 6th, is the VERY last day it will be there, so if I were you and in New York right now, I’d drop everything and book it to the Met stat if you don’t want to miss out.
Hey, Was That…: Walter is played by John Vernon, whom you might remember as the hardass Dean from Animal House (which explains a lot). His wife Helen is Dianne Ladd of Chinatown and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Christopher is played by Darrell Larson. The episode was directed by Graeme Clifford, the director of dark dramas Frances and The Last Don.
Who’s the Artist?: According to some sources, the artist in question is Jennie Harbour, a brilliant art deco illustrator who also did children’s books (including Red Riding Hood), though the VHS artwork brings to mind the pointillism of Georges Seurat.
Better Or Worse Than…?: Remarkably, I’ve seen few adaptations of Little Red Riding Hood that play the story straight. Most of them tended to be fast-paced lampoons, like Tex Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hood and various Looney Tunes parodies, which are nothing short of animated classics. I also have a soft spot for Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child’s retelling which updates the setting to China. Then there’s Red’s character reimagining in Once Upon A Time where she doubles as the Wolf (plot twist!) but I don’t think that’s enough to really count. Finally we get a short, complete but fun retelling as part of the musical Into The Woods. An uneven mix overall, but then again this episode is uneven itself. I wouldn’t say it’s the worst, though it’s not much better than what I’ve listed.
Ranking: This is a tough one as the sum of this entry’s parts are greater than its whole. Some aspects I like more than other episodes, but as a complete package I can’t say I recommend it. For now it gets the number five spot between Jack and the Beanstalk and Rumpelstiltskin.
I’ll leave it to Stephen Sondheim and Danielle Ferland to reiterate the takeaway from this story.
Next time on Faerie Tale Theatre Reviews, it’s over the river and through the woods to a certain gingerbread house with Hansel and Gretel.
Thank you for reading! Faerie Tale Theatre reviews are posted on the 6th each month. Special thanks to my patrons Amelia Jones, TylerFG, and Sam Flemming for their contributions. Those who join the Patreon party get special perks such as sneak previews of reviews, requests and more!