Little Red Riding Hood and Angela Carter
Initially “The Company of Wolves” was a short story in the fairy tale retelling compilation The Bloody Chamber, first published in 1979.1 Carter would later go on to re-mediate “The Company of Wolves” from its short story origins into a BBC radio play, and finally into the screen play that director Neil Jordan used to make The Company of Wolves (1984). The film was produced by Palace Productions and wound up being a small success. Echoing the sentiments of Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Carter writes about the effects of jumping from one medium to another:
Indeed, radio remains a challenging medium, because so much is possible in it. I write for radio by choice, as an extension and an amplification of writing for the printed page; in its most essential sense, even if stripped of all the devices of radio illusion, radio retains the atavistic power, of voices in the dark, and the writer who gives the words to those voices retains some of the authority of the most antique tellers of tales.2
Aware of the strong oral tradition of fairy tales and folk narratives, Carter would strive to retain this aspect of story telling in her radio play treatment of “The Company of Wolves” which was first aired on BBC Radio 3 on May 1, 1980. Angela Carter first met the Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan in Dublin in 1982 where they discussed adapting her recent radio play “The Company of Wolves” for the screen.
It would be the radio play specifically, and not the short story, that would serve as the foundation for the film adaptation. However, Jordan found the radio play too short for a feature film and suggested to Carter that they use a Chinese box structure, inspired by a film they had both seen, The Sargasso Manuscript.3 The nested narrative structure was then used to integrate Rosaleen’s dream with the connecting points of granny’s storytelling.4 Jordan recalls Carter being excited about the adaptation process:
The visual design was an integral part of the script. It was written and imagined with a heightened sense of reality in mind. She was thrilled with the process, because she loved films, and had never really been involved in one. Subsequently, we tried to find other projects to work on together, but tragically things didn’t turn out that way. At the time of her illness, we were discussing Vampirella, another of her radio plays that could have been a feature film.5
For the medium of film, unlike radio, the theme of metamorphosis would need strong visual aids and would become a controversial topic for those involved with the production. The animatronics used for the werewolf metamorphosis in the film would draw criticism from feminist writer Maggie Anwell for trying “too hard” to appeal to market forces in mainstream cinema.6 Carter seems to reveal her awareness of this issue in the task of moving the story from the medium of radio to that of film when she writes in the appendix to The Curious Room that “the transformation of man into wolf is, of course, the work of a moment on radio and no werewolf make-up in the world can equal the werewolf you see in your mind’s eye.”7 The film’s producer Stephen Woolley would later admit that they set out to achieve notoriety with their “literal” transformations of man into wolf with the use of expensive animatronics.8
At first glance, it would seem odd that Carter would lean on the Charles Perrault version of “Little Red Riding Hood” as a starting point for a fictional re-imagining that she would turn into “The Company of Wolves.” However, as Jack Zipes takes note of in his 2008 introduction to the Penguin Classic reprint of Little Red Riding hood, Cinderella, and Other Classic Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, were it not for Carter having translated Perrault’s Histoires ou contes du temps passé avec des moralités (1697) in 1976, she likely would not have conceived of the stories that made their way into The Bloody Chamber.9 Zipes goes so far as to suggest that in her translations of Perrault she has appropriated his work with a brazen and individual style making them her own in the process. Using “Little Red Riding Hood” as a vehicle for her unique brand of feminism, Carter would write a screenplay with Jordan that explored darker aspects of the human psyche, focusing on what Jung would call the anima. In an interview with Marxism Today, Carter would exclaim, “Well, we are animals after all” in response to some people’s anthropocentric conservatism about the film.10 Jordan worked closely with Carter on the film’s production and together they would design the mise-en-scène to recreate Perrault’s 17th century context, a creative decision that may go unnoticed by most, but is surely a nod to the script’s origin.
The film starts out with Rosaleen’s family arriving at their country manor by car. The older sister races upstairs to Rosaleen’s bedroom and wraps on the door repeating “pest, pest, pest, open up” in a bid to have it opened. Rosaleen is asleep, she is dreaming, and it is this anchor in the narrative with which Jordan launches into the main body of the film. There is a chase scene and the older sister is killed in a wolf attack. It is at her sister’s funeral that we realize Rosaleen is Little Red Riding Hood. Jordan uses three retellings as third layer in the Chinese box structure of the film to move the story forward, two of these are narrated by granny, and one by Rosaleen in conversation with her mother. None of these scenes are inherently based on the Perrault version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” but have their origin in single paragraphs from “The Company of Wolves” that were expanded upon in the BBC radio adaptation. It is in the final section of the film that the traditional Little Red Riding Hood narrative is encountered. Rosaleen is on her way to grandmother’s house, traveling through the woods, where she bumps into a handsome man. They have a picnic and he lays the moves on her, resulting in a bet to see who can make it to grandmother’s house first–the wager, a kiss. All goes as planned, the wolf eats granny, and is waiting patiently for Rosaleen to arrive. This is when Carter throws in a twist and uses the werewolf metamorphosis motif on Rosaleen, the film ends with her transformed into a wolf escaping into the woods with her lover. The Company of Wolves would later be the subject of a retelling itself, when Twilight (2008) director Catherine Hardwicke made her own version of the story with Little Red Riding Hood (2011).
Cole, Jarrett. “Little Red Riding Hood and Angela Carter.” Winnsox, vol. 1 (2020).