Red Riding Hood: Book Review by Sam Franzway

08 April 2011 | Reviews, Scape Blog | , |    

Red Riding Hood by Sarah Blakely-Cartwright and David Lesley Johnson has all the appearance of a book for teenagers. However, it is no such thing. It is an AU$18.99 McHappy Meal Toy with an ISBN (978-1-907410-82-6) and nothing more. It looks like a book (pages, ink on pages, pages stuck together along one edge, etc) and it contains words placed sequentially in order to give the impression of narrative, but it lacks many, many of the elements necessary in a book. A point, for example.  This may seem like overly harsh criticism for a book meant to entertain, but the pointlessness of Red Riding Hood will be revealed in due course.

Unless the reader has managed to avoid bus-stops for the month of March, he or she will be aware that Red Riding Hood is also a film. This fact is also advertised on the front cover by a sticker trumpeting its directorial link to Twilight. If the link to Twilight wasn’t enough to convince fans of that franchise to jump on board this new one, the trailer for Red Riding Hood contains many a recycled shot of grimly handsome teenagers blundering about the woods, unable to stand upright under the weight of their own foreheads.

The book recycles the Twilight series’ distinctive red and white on black cover, but instead of Twilight’s chaste sexual longing, the authors of Red Riding Hood have removed the chastity and appear to have spent too much time high-fiving each other for that stroke of marketing genius to produce a book. The sexuality in Red Riding Hood appears to have been distilled from a Mills and Boon using some kind of chemical process designed remove all titillation and excitement. In place of any of the positive or interesting  aspects of sexuality is something which the target audience might recognise as ‘grrrooossssss!!!’ Observe this quote from page 186: ‘Valerie was horrified to see Rose swaying against Peter, seductively grinding her broad hips.’  Apparently hip-grinding, an activity popularised in 20th Century strip-clubs, has its roots in the harvest dances of the small farming communities of the middle-ages during which Red Riding Hood is set. For further proof of grossness, prepare to wince through this line from page 326: ‘With each stride of Henry’s galloping steed, Valerie, who’d never needed anyone, felt a tiny hollow open and expand within herself.’ Rest assured, Valerie and Henry are riding an actual horse.

The story of this Red Riding Hood has little to do with the original fairy tale. There is a red cape, a grandma and some woodcutters in one bit. They also use the line “what big eyes you have”, inserted to give a knowing wink to the audience. Anyone who has ever been given a knowing wink by someone who cannot wink will have some idea of its success. Instead, the story revolves hopefully around a quite promising werewolf whoisit mystery. A farming town has been terrorised for generations by a wolf, to whom they offer sacrificial goats. The wolf kills someone. The town sends for help. Help arrives in the form of a werewolf-hunting priest and his posse. The priest reveals that the wolf is in fact a shape-shifting town member. Mayham and intrigue ensue. The main character, Valerie, is linked somehow to the wolf and also to two desirable (and, no doubt, heavy-foreheaded) suitors. Romance and mystery ensues.

At this point, this review must take into account the fact that the book was written concurrently with a movie that appears to have been designed to cash in on fans of Twilight. There is no escaping this fact. The introduction, written by the director of Twilight, Catherine Hardwicke, describes the initial process of designing the movie’s look and feel and her realisation that the movie’s characters were too complex to fit into a movie. A book was commissioned. A friend of Hardwicke’s would collaborate with the screen writer. Creation ensues. “Enjoy” (p. iii).

Each of the main characters appears to have been conceived, not by a singular mind or a creative duo, but by an experienced creative marketing team working on a movie aimed largely at teenage girls. One can imagine a director standing in front of a blank whiteboard telling their team ‘We need to identify with how the teenage girls in our audience feel. We need a main character they can identify with.’ A hand goes up. ‘Teenage girls can feel isolated and alone. Different from everybody else.’ The director writes ‘Different’ on the whiteboard. And, after a pause, ‘Isolated’.

‘Are these good things or bad things?’

‘They have to be both. Different is good because it means that you’re special and unique and boys will like you. But it can be bad because it means you’re not fitting in and that means that nobody likes you.’

‘So …’ our director draws a line on the whiteboard above the word ‘Different’ and writes ‘Individual (Good)’ and ‘Loner (Bad)’ at either end. ‘So … we want our main character to be an individual, a loner, unique in the world, special …’

‘But still have friends,’ chips in a co-writer.

‘And get all the guys,’ adds another.

After some thought a cross is placed on the line at about the half way mark. ‘Good work, everyone.’

So, here we have the main character, Valerie. She’s different, special, can hear and see things that others cannot, she has a more beautiful sister and tomboy ways … but she has no less than four close girl friends and the eyes, hearts and loins of the two most desirable young men in town. Henry is the wealthy, desirable son of the blacksmith over whom all the girls in town (apart from Valerie) are seen to be ‘losing it’ (p. 30). Peter could have been drawn straight from the Teen Heartthrob Handbook: ‘a heart-stoppingly handsome, dark-haired young man. He looked wild and haunted, wearing all black, like a horse that could not be tamed.’ (p. 39). But of course, looks aren’t everything: ‘He understood Valerie’s impulses. He understood adventure; he understood not following the rules.’ (p. 7).

Valerie’s friends are as interchangeable as they are forgettable. There’s a prudish one and one who’s defining trait is her décolletage. They exist purely to validate Valerie’s popularity with their jealousy over her betrothal to Henry.

None of this is the fault of the authors, not really. They’re riding on the back of a big budget Hollywood movie and they have to make do with what they have been given. Lemonade from lemons and all that. There are points in the book where one imagines that the movie might not be all that bad, if the director knows what she’s doing and if the actors can keep straight faces. This is, after all, sort of the point of a movie tie-in: to allow the audiences to re-experience and re-imagine the motion picture. It can be quite an opportunity in the right hands. These hands are not those. Although the setting and exact period are never made distinct, the text is rife with anachronism and outright oddity contained in both narration and speech. The hip grinding above is joined by characters with eyes which are ‘electrified’ in a culture which has no electricity. At one point Valerie likens herself to a hermit crab emerging from its shell, much having been made of how neither Valerie, nor the generations before her have ever left the village, let alone visited the seaside and its adorably domesticated inhabitants. ‘You’re like a tough-girl china doll’ growls a character who has almost certainly never heard of the nation nor its eponymous porcelain.

Word length prohibits this review from listing all of the narrative nasties. The two stand-outs are ‘a cottony land where the skies were marbled yellow, blue, and pink, like watercolors’ and ‘like being inside the panelled chambers of an oak kaleidoscope’. An oak kaleidoscope! Imagine the thrill: brown, brown, brown, brown, light brown, brown, brown …

If the previous 1200 words have not conveyed the nature of Red Riding Hood, then perhaps these last two elements should make up the potential reader’s mind: the story (and film) contain an elephantine version of the medieval torture instrument known as the Brazen Bull – a life-sized, hollow bull made of brass into which victims were locked and cooked while their screams were heard through a series of pipes exiting via the bull’s mouth. That’s in a story aimed at teenagers.

The beginning of this review stated that this book has no point. This remains true: it has no point because it has no ending. By the final page, there are at least three plotlines yet to be resolved. However, the final page reads: ‘Is this truly the end of Valerie’s story? Visit [Red Riding Hood publisher’s website] to find out.’

Now that is pointless.

Review first published in ViewPoint: On Books for Young Adults.

Sam Franzway is a writer and Creative Writing PhD student at Flinders University, which are not the same thing. Not by a long shot. He lives the life of a rock star monk with a death wish and a wacky sense of humour and is now the subject of a full-length feature film called ‘Pork Rind Stone Cowboy’.  Sam blogs at

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