By Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Angela Carter’s fairy-tale retellings contained in the anthology The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories take traditional stories we’ve heard a dozen times (Snow White, Bluebeard) and spin them around, challenging the role of women within the traditional narratives. Similarly, the movie adaptation of the short story “The Company of Wolves” (included in the Bloody Chamber) takes what could at first be a simple case of exploitation (Little Red Riding Hood with sex and werewolves) and produces a movie that is a masterful exploration of adulthood, the female body, sexuality, love, and dreams. Many paranormal romances reduce the relationship between the werewolf to a modern version of a bodice-ripper, with the emphasis placed on the “wild” qualities of the male werewolf. Of course, vampire books also do this and, if you’ve seen a recent episode of the Vampire Diaries or Twilight for that matter, it is not that odd to find the male monster watching (obsessively, we might add) the object of his desire or engaging in outright violence (biting, attacking, hypnotizing) against a nubile female. How many shots of a woman in a white, low-cut nightgown, walking through the fog, only to be attacked by a man in a dark cape did Hammer give us?
“The Company of Wolves”, in its original short story form or later as a film, stands in stark contrast to these expected representations of women, men, relationship and sex.
The original story is only a few pages long. It is a non-linear tale, narrating several episodes involving werewolves (a witch who turns the lover who spurned her into a wolf, the young bride whose groom returns and reveals his beastly nature, the youth who turns into a wolf when he applies an ointment) and finally culminating with Little Red Riding Hood meeting a hunter, a “fine fellow” who turns out to be a werewolf.
The encounter, however, does not go as you might expect. Instead of being devoured or conveniently saved by a man, the nameless heroine “burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.” She rips off the young man’s clothes (“if you burn his [the werewolf’s] human clothes you condemn him to wolfishness for the rest of his life,” the story explains), flings them into the fire and, naked, both of them fall into bed.
The last line of the story reads: “See! Sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.”
Thus, the story obliterates the old roles prescribed for the characters (victim, victimizer) and the old moral of the story. And, like the werewolf, a new creature rises from the skin of the old one.
The script of Angela Carter’s radio adaptation of “The Company of Wolves”, which was broadcast in 1980 on the BBC, appears in the collection, The Curious Room. It takes the seven or so pages of the original and expands it into radio format, adding some narration and dialogue while maintaining the essence of the story. Grandmother tells Little Red Riding Hood several tales while she knits her a red cape; later on, Little Red Riding Hood meets with the wolf. While the grandmother appears for only a brief bit in the short story, her role is expanded in the radio play. She interacts with Little Red Riding Hood, warning her about the dangers of the forest.
Grandmother is a symbol of the patriarchy, even if she is a woman. Her tales are meant to induce horror and fear in Little Red Riding Hood, ensuring she will follow the straight path through the woods. She is a Scheherezade of moral prohibitions and the men in her stories are always the source of corruption, always dangerous, always wolfish, while the women in the tales are the victims. However, Little Red Riding Hood is curious and does not display the prerequisite fear she should when her grandmother speaks.
“I would be sorry for the poor thing, whatever it was, man or beast,” she says when she listens to the story of a wolf that is killed by a villager. When Grandmother speaks about a girl just about Red Riding Hood’s age who was eaten by a wolf, the girl thinks, “I don’t bleed. I can’t bleed. I don’t know the meaning of the word ‘fear’. Fear?”
Sounds sensible to me. When I was a kid, I didn’t need to read Bruno Bettelheim to figure those fairy tales had some pretty adult undertones and I seldom bought the moral at the end of the story. It’s not that hard to see why Little Red Riding Hood is not buying the virginity propaganda bit, either.
The original movie script written by Angela Carter builds further upon the radio play and continues with Grandma and Little Red Riding Hood’s contrasting attitudes towards the wolf stories, though there are some differences (the beginning, the ending, a narration by the hunter, etc.) with the BBC broadcast.
Unlike the radio play and short story, the movie script opens in the present, with a story-within-a-story format. A teenage girl is asleep, “sulking” in her room. She dreams of a fairy-tale forest. The script makes it obvious that the girl’s dream-world comes from the objects strewn around her room, including books on fairy tales, a poster of Lon Chaney as a werewolf and “pulp romance novels, one with a gothic ‘woman in peril’ screaming from the paper cover”. In the script, the sleeping girl is called “Alice” and she dreams of herself being chased and devoured by wolves, then dreams on about a girl named “Rosaleen”.
The final product, the movie, directed by Neil Jordan and entitled The Company of Wolves, alters the narrative slightly: the dream-girl’s sister is the one chased and eaten by wolves at the beginning of the movie in a nod to the obvious sibling rivalry existing between them. There are also shifts in dialogue and some scene changes.
Visually, the film is striking and brings Carter’s ideas to life vividly. Set in a bizarre forest that houses gigantic toys and mushrooms, it has so much symbolic meaning that it is literally exhausting to try and enumerate the many things that pop on screen: an egg that cracks open revealing a tiny, weeping baby inside (childbirth and motherhood), mirrors (duality, adulthood), and even a triple-role for Rosaleen, who appears in a werewolf story driving a modern car and serving as the Devil’s chauffeur. It’s chock-full of stories within stories, all nested like a Matrushka.
The protagonist of The Company of Wolves is even bolder in the movie script, and even much more so in the final movie, often contradicting her grandmother’s moralizing. When Grandmother concludes a story in which a long-lost wolf-groom returns to find his bride re-married and is summarily dispatched by the new husband, Rosaleen says, “I’d never let a man strike me.” While grandmother has been busy emphasizing the beastly nature of the male, Rosaleen has taken a different lesson from the tale (mainly, that both of the husbands were rather awful, abusive people).
At her sister’s funeral, Grandmother says, “Your only sister. All alone in the woods and nobody there to save her,” to which Rosaleen replies, “Why couldn’t she save herself?”
While Grandmother begins as the storyteller, the one with power to wield the narrative, by the end of the movie, Rosaleen has taken up the role and tells two stories. One is a revenge tale of a witch, the other one a tale of kindness towards a wolf. Both offer a markedly different perspective compared to her Grandmother’s stories. While Grandmother is fixated on the predator-prey aspects of the narrative, Rosaleen is able to see beyond the usual tropes.
The original script had the hunter telling a story of his own about “the tenderness of wolves”. The movie excises this segment, choosing to make the narrators female: the folk story is a woman’s domain.
In the film, the hunter, dressed in gentleman’s clothes, sporting a hat and a rifle, emerges from the forest to meet the protagonist. He looks poised and well-groomed. He is charming and very different from people her age. Rosaleen remarks on this, saying, “They’re clowns, the village boys.” They chat and strike a wager, competing to arrive at granny’s house. It’s a deliciously-filmed seduction sequence, with the hunter silkily promising he’ll “bet you your heart’s desire”. The original script cut to an image of Rosaleen in a ball-gown, using the hunter as a human footstool, when he said the word “desire”. The movie simply provides an electric charge by focusing on Rosaleen and the hunter, their faces close together as they speak.
The next time we see the hunter, night has fallen. His hair, previously pulled back in a pony-tail, hangs loose around his shoulders as he approaches the house. He smears the blood of a pheasant against his lips and makes his entrance. The blood might serve a ritualistic purpose, and emphasizes the twin elements of danger and desire. It also mirrors Rosaleen’s actions, who previously put on lipstick and admired herself in a mirror.
When Rosaleen finds the hunter, he is sitting in a rocking chair, looking a lot less like a gentleman and a lot more like a predator. Is seeing really believing? Do our senses not deceive us? How can one know the wolf from the man? Especially when “some wolves are hairy on the inside.”
Rosaleen asks the wolf if he is a man only when he wears human clothes. Spurred on by Rosaleen’s query, the hunter decides to demonstrate this point, takes off his shirt and kisses her. She then grabs his rifle and shoots him. This is different to the three other versions (short story, radio play and original script) which have Rosaleen stripping, taking off his clothes and then the hunter transforming for this reason.
In the movie script, the wolf asks Rosaleen to take off her clothes. She complies: “First she hides her breasts from him. Then, with a defiant gesture, she suddenly displays them to him…she blushes furiously and covers herself up with the blouse again.”
In the final movie, the hunter voluntarily strips off while Rosaleen remains fully clothed (although she does toss her riding hood into the fire) and the transformation is brought on by violence: Rosaleen firing the rifle.
After the wolf transforms (in a wild, very-well-done sequence), Rosaleen comforts him by telling him a story. In the morning, her parents arrive looking for her. They are startled when a wolf emerges from the cottage and runs off. Inside, they find another wolf wearing Rosaleen’s silver crucifix. Rosaleen’s father attempts to shoot it, but her mother stops him and Rosaleen, in her new wolf form, rushes out, into the forest, where she joins a pack of wolves. They run through the forest and into the house of the dreaming Rosaleen, who wakes up screaming as the wolves burst through the windows and walls.
I’ve heard people complain that the ending (with Rosaleen screaming in horror) undermines what we’ve seen on screen before by giving the connotation that the “invasion” of wolves (sexuality) is something to fear. However, the film has been clear in building a relationship between pain and change. The werewolves, when they transform, seem to experience a horrifying metamorphosis. The same could be said of puberty and the changes that overcome us: they can often be the stuff of nightmares. One day, you’re just a kid playing on a swing and the next – boom, menstruation and pimples and hair all over your body. The wolves (adulthood and sexual maturity) invading Rosaleen’s day world are simply a natural occurrence, but not one we may greet with a smile.
There is also the thought that the wolves may be “killing” Rosaleen in that final scene. While not a literal death, I do believe this moment signals the “death” of Rosaleen the child, who has been playing at being an adult (putting on her sister’s lipstick, dressing up) and the birth of Rosaleen the adult.
The original ending, as written in the movie script, had the floor in Rosaleen’s room turning into water and Rosaleen diving in to it. A metaphor for being “swallowed” by the subconscious. When she disappeared, the she-wolf and he-wolf entered the room. It was too expensive to film, so it was changed. As it stands, the modified ending works and has a thrilling quality with the escape sequence through the forest culminating in the destruction of the house and the “real” world.
The Company of Wolves is a story about the Other and about one girl’s journey to become the Other. Ultimately, Rosaleen has a happy ending: she finds liberation in her wolf form and grasps the positive aspects of sexuality. She reveals herself as an equal to a man and will not be allowed to be dominated or objectified by him.
I’ve heard angry opinions from reviewers who have said the film wasn’t scary (it’s not meant to be) or too obtuse (it has some complexity to it, but is not so obscure it becomes a chore to watch). These negative reviewers have been unilaterally male. The women I’ve spoken too have always seemed fascinated by the story.
To be blunt, The Company of Wolves really is a sexy movie and very much a woman’s tale. For those who think a woman’s tale means a chick flick with Meg Ryan, it proves those assumptions wrong. Darkness, violence, sex can all be part of the stories that compel female viewers.
If Labyrinth was the flick that single-handedly kick-started my puberty, The Company of Wolves was the movie that made me wonder what the hell the whole “growing-up” thing might mean. And you want to know a secret? I strayed from the forest path and it was soooo much more fun.