The wolf as a motif has had an extremely varied history in mythology; sometimes it is portrayed as a master hunter, sometimes as a loyal protector, sometimes as a villain. In more recent history, the wolf has definitely been a symbol of fear: along with Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster, the Werewolf completes the triumvirate of classic horror film monsters that so terrified early cinema-goers. Yet I would argue that the role of the wolf, and in particular the mythological werewolf, has changed again and is presented in a very different light in contemporary film and literature.
I feel this is particularly true of media aimed at young adults and teenagers. In recent YA literature, the werewolf has, amazingly, become something of a romantic figure. This is something that has never gone before – although the stories of Count Dracula and vampires may have always contained an erotic undertone, stories of werewolves have generally been more straightforwardly violent and frightening. There have been occasional attempts to inject humour into the genre – such as the Michael J. Fox film Teen Wolf – but, on the whole, the transformation of a human into a wolf-like creature has been presented as horrific, and these characters as uniformly evil. However, in modern works such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, the werewolf is not the villain, but is rather shown as a sympathetic character and a potential love interest for the protagonist. In other works, like Maggie Stiefvater’s The Wolves of Mercy Falls books and the BBC television series Being Human, the state of being a werewolf (or ‘lycanthropy’) is shown as being a painful affliction for the characters affected. It is something that they loathe about themselves and seek to control and overcome, because these characters are good people who do not wish to harm anyone while in their beast-like state. Their struggle to overcome the wolf part of them is presented in a poignant and poetic way, and may be intended as symbolic of man’s perpetual struggle with his more base nature.
Another example of the changing perception of the wolf in modern media is the character of Remus Lupin from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Infected with lycanthropy as a child, Lupin is nonetheless a heroic character, but is required to drink a magical potion every full moon to prevent himself from becoming violent and dangerous in his werewolf form. Rowling is quoted as stating that she intended for Lupin to be a metaphor for people infected by HIV, which would make this incarnation of the werewolf a symbol of the unfair prejudice society inflicts upon people whose condition is beyond their own control.
There is also the 2011 American TV series Teen Wolf, a very loose adaptation of the afore-mentioned 1980’s film, though largely omitting the film’s comedic elements. Here, werewolves as shown as being very similar to humans in that some are good and some are not, and it is in fact that werewolf hunters who are presented as the true villains due to their inability or refusal to make that distinction.
It is undeniable that, like vampires, werewolves (and, by extension, wolves themselves) have become much less threatening figures in contemporary media. I think the fact that, in these modern stories, it tends to be normal humans who are the villains speaks volumes about what we are afraid of now compared to our predecessors, who viewed the supernatural creatures as the danger and the humans as the heroes.
Meyer, S., 2005, Twilight
Stiefvater, M., 2009, Shiver
Rowling, J.K., 1999, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban