Page to Screen: The Company of Wolves (1984)

The Company of Wolves
based on the short story by Angela Carter


If I never hear the phrase “the book is always better!” again, it will be too soon. True, the book is often better (that’s why the author wrote a novel, not a screenplay), but sweeping generalizations make my teeth itch. It assumes that the book and the film can be directly compared against each other, instead of being two different expressions of the same story in two different mediums. I often enjoy one over the other, but still: apples and oranges. Case in point: Neil Jordan’s 1984 adaptation of Angela Carter’s eponymous short story, The Company of Wolves.

Actually, it takes a few elements from “Wolf Alice”, also collected in The Bloody Chamber, as well as from Carter’s own adaptation of the short story to radio in 1980. The power of the stories in The Bloody Chamber—and in fairy tales in general—is the short, sweet punch that they have. (Where’s that Kate Bernheimer essay I always link to when I talk fairy tales? Ah, here it is.) To adapt a short story for a feature film, the usual solution is simply to expand, but Jordan and Carter, who wrote the screenplay in tandem, elected instead to create what Jordan called “a Chinese box structure”. While the core of the story is that of Rosaleen, our Red, learning about werewolves, there are other stories: the story of a girl negotiating becoming a woman, the stories of werewolves, and the stories of husbands.

The result is a dreamlike film—quite literally, as the frame story shows us modern Rosaleen restless in her bed, slathered with stolen make-up, dreaming and groaning. It not only makes brutally clear the subtext of “Little Red Riding Hood”, but it also accounts for the limited budget of the enchanted forest. Not that the seams show too much; Jordan works very well within the limitations of the production, save one.

Well, calling it a limitation is harsh. It’s hardly Sarah Patterson’s fault she was twelve during principal photography. While she’s a little subdued, she applies herself with aplomb, asking for stories, overpowering werewolves (I would just like to point out that she forces a werewolf to strip at gunpoint), and trying to negotiate what her society wants from her with her own desires. But, as I was saying to Jodie, I’m fascinated by the unnamed protagonist in the original short story because of how her fearlessness stemmed from her carelessness—both an indulged child and, to put it mildly, horrible granddaughter. Because Patterson is so young, Rosaleen lacks that sharp-eyed capriciousness, which makes her ultimate fate fall a little flat. Rather, her small fearlessness stems from trying (and often failing) to reconcile all the opposing messages she’s getting, especially concerning werewolves and men.

Interestingly, these werewolves are not only othered by being supernatural nasties, but also by nationality. Before encountering her own real, live werewolf, Rosaleen hears stories about two other werewolves—the first, and more working class, is played by the Irish Stephen Rea, while the second, while played by the British Richard Morant, appears to be French. (It’s a whispered line of dialogue and, when possible, I often default French, same way I default female. Welcome to my world.) And then, of course, Rosaleen’s werewolf, the beautiful Micha Bergese, is German. Rosaleen’s struggles with her confusing and emerging sexuality require two levels of metaphor to get her safely through the night.

While I am not a horror aficionado by any stretch of the imagination (Teen Wolf is about as hardcore as I get),The Company of Wolves deserves especial notice for its beautiful violence and special effects. There’s a moment, in the first werewolf story told, where a husband chops the head off of a werewolf. The wolf’s head falls into a large pail of milk, turning the milk pink as it bobs up human. It’s a beautiful image. Later in the film, we see a werewolf transformation up close. It perfectly embodies what Rosaleen means when she asks if, perhaps, the werewolves can’t help being werewolves and wish they were human instead. Her werewolf looks tormented as his skin bursts open, uncomfortable as either man or wolf. Of course, the special effects budget dictates that there’s never an in-between, as is the norm for screen werewolves, but the implication is there. And it’s quite welcome.

Bottom line: The Company of Wolves is a dreamy, moody adaptation of Carter’s short story, stumbling slightly only due to the young age of its lead actress. A very interesting take on the subtext of “Little Red Riding Hood.”

I bought this DVD from Barnes & Noble.

You can read my review of The Bloody Chamber here.

2 thoughts on “Page to Screen: The Company of Wolves (1984)

  1. Pingback: At The Movies: Byzantium (2012) | The Literary Omnivore

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