Goth Movies, Fairy Tales, & Teen Love in the Era of “Twilight”
“Beastly” and “Red Riding Hood”
When we consider fairy tale films, we commonly think of children’s fare: Disney’s Snow White and Beauty and the Beast, for example, or the recent Rapunzel-inspired Tangled. In 2011, however, two films appeared that signaled how fairy tales are being co-opted by teens and goths.
The first of these is Beastly (CBS Films, PG-13), based on Alex Flinn’s young adult novel of the same name. A version of “Beauty and the Beast,” the film centers on Kyle Kingson (played by Alex Pettyfer) who is a handsome and vain jerk who attends a Manhattan high school where he insults a goth classmate (Mary-Kate Olsen) who is actually a witch, and she transforms him into a grotesque covered from head-to-toe in Maori tattoos and bejeweled piercings. The curse is that he will remain in his changed state unless he can find someone to love him within a year’s time. Fortunately, before the deadline and despite his unpromising looks, he wins the heart of his attractive but nerdish classmate Kendra (Vanessa Hudgens).
Sadly, we arrive at this conclusion by clumsy plot contrivances that beggar the imagination. For example, embarrassed by the way his son looks, Kyle’s wealthy father tells him he no longer needs to go to school and provides the boy with his own, super-cool apartment in Brooklyn (along with a maid). In an equally convenient happenstance, Kyle is able to woo his classmate Kendra because she comes to occupy an attic (full of chintz and Victorian antiques) just above his own macho-cool-designer apartment.
What are the dreams of fourteen-year-old boys?
But story is not what this film is about. Beastly is really about High School Dreams. And what are the dreams of fourteen-year-old boys today? The film provides a catalog. You live in New York. Your high school looks like the Apple store in Manhattan. Your friends are never seen in class because they are busy texting on really neat smart phones. You have your own designer apartment in Brooklyn. No parents are around to bother you. You don’t have to go to school. You have a maid. Your girlfriend lives with you. And when you want to go for a ride in the country, you hire a limo.
The other film that does a young-adult take on a fairy tale is Red Riding Hood (Warner Brothers, PG-13) directed by Catherine Hardwicke who also directed the film Twilight, that teen favorite which mixes romance and vampires. In this reinterpretation of the well known story, the girl in the red cape is sent down the path in the gothic direction of Twilight but instead of meeting a vampire, she encounters a substitute: the fairy tale’s wolf is now a werewolf. That premise is not so farfetched; Neil Jordan experimented with this kind of retelling in his terrific film classic The Company of Wolves.
Like Jordan’s film, this movie opens in the Middle Ages in a rustic village surrounded by woods where we are introduced to the maiden in red (Amanda Seyfried). Valerie, as she is known, is torn between two heartthrobs: the hunky Peter whom she has loved since childhood (Shiloh Fernandez) and the wealthy Henry (Max Irons) whom her parents prefer. Meanwhile, the village is ravaged by a giant wolf who kills inhabitants until they summon the legendary werewolf hunter Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) who advises them that the creature is a human by day and hiding in their midst. It falls to Valerie to discover and confront the beast among her neighbors and loves. And when it comes to providing a film summary here, let me add: That ain’t even the half of it.
Red Riding Hood suffers, alas, from an overly complex and shifting plot apparently created by indecision and improvisation. Moreover, the film doesn’t really engage the classic “Little Red Riding Hood” in any interesting way but only uses the tale as a kind of furniture to create what is finally a Werewolf Whodunit positioned within the boundaries of the Twilight franchise.
Boys prefer empowering metro realism, while girls opt for high fantasy and better costumes
But there is this to say in the film’s favor. If Beastly reveals the dreams of fourteen-year-old boys, Red Riding Hood unveils the air castles of fourteen-year-old girls in its presentation of a fantasy first seen in Twilight and repeated here: There are always two males (the one you like and the one your parents prefer) and you are always in danger of being assaulted (but find a way to remain virginal and aloof, popular yet chaste). In the end, Hollywood seems to say that the difference between the genders and their wishes amounts to this: Boys prefer empowering metro realism, while girls opt for high fantasy and better costumes.
Apparently, this trend will continue. As I write, news stories have appeared indicating that the films in our future will include–and I am not joking — three Snow Whites (one with Julia Roberts as the evil queen and another with the dwarves as warrior monks), a sequel called “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” (where the siblings are bounty hunters), and “Jack the Giant Killer” (where, in addition to his obligations up the beanstalk, our hero now needs to make peace with giants and rescue a princess). Given these two recent fairy tale films, we can only hope for better.
For related musings, see: “Making Kids’ Stories “Dark”: Who Is Disney’s “Into the Woods” For?” And by the by, Jerry Griswold has written a relevant book: The Meanings of “Beauty and the Beast.”