The Wrong Alice?

A note on Tim Burton´s 2010 film version of Lewis Carroll´s “Alice´s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There”

“Alice´s Adventures in Wonderland” (better known as “Alice in Wonderland”) is a classic of British literature and probably one of the most reflected stories ever: the story was so often picked up and reflected in different ways that there is barely someone (at least in the western world) who hasn´t heard about Alice and her fabulous adventures.

Numerous filmmakers likewise tried to rebuild this fascinating, complex and diverse world created by Lewis Carroll (whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) in his novel of 1865. One of the more recent examples is Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”, released in 2010.

The film lasts 108 minutes and consists of one main plot line while representing a typical fantasy drama structure: Alice turns out to be the hero figure that has to solve different problems to combat the Red Queen and thereby free Wonderland from evil. By doing so, the protagonist changes her character by changing her thinking about herself and evolves into a self-confident young woman.

To understand how the original novel was adapted in Tim Burton´s film version, Carroll’s 1871 sequel entitled “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There” is also particularly relevant.

Thus, comparing the novel and the 2010 film adaptation, the viewer will certainly notice that the film version consist of parts from both “Alice´s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There” and, in doing so, creates a totally new “Alice in Wonderland”.[1]

One striking aspect for this conclusion is already the initiation of the film. In “Alice´s Adventures in wonderland”, Alice gets “…very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do…”. She then sees the White Rabbit running nearby and follows it in another moment “…down a large rabbit-whole under the hedge.” In the second part of Carroll´s story “…Alice was sitting curled up in a corner of the great arm-chair, half talking to herself and half asleep…” while the black kitten was playing with a ball of worsted. Alice then speaks to the kitten, asking it if it would like to live in a Looking-glass House: “Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty. […] She was up on the chimney-piece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist. In another moment Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-glass room.”

In the film version, Burton interprets the beginning differently by depicting Alice as a child telling her father that she was plagued by nightmares where she falls down a dark hole and sees strange creatures. A nearly twenty-year-old Alice, contrary to declaring to be only seven and a half in the second part of Carroll´s novel, then appears to follow the White Rabbit to escape from a dumb would-be fiancé named Hamish[2] whom was chosen for her to help her family escape bankruptcy.

There are also many other moments showing the fusion of the two novels in the film such as the characters, e.g., the evil Red Queen (played by Helena Bonham Carter), who is both the Queen of Hearts from “Alice´s Adventures in Wonderland” and the Red Chess-Queen from its following part, which certainly may be seen as a reference to levels of character and storyline of Carroll´s portmanteau-words explained by Humpty Dumpty. The White Queen is the White Queen of Chess appearing in the novel´s second part. Both the cards from the first novel and the chess figures from the second meet in the film version as the armies of good and evil.

Other figures from both novels also appear in the film, which is on the one hand not surprising for certain characters appearing in both books such as, of course, Alice herself, Tweedledum, Tweedledee and Humpty Dumpty.

humpty
C. Pavlova: Humpty Dumpty, sketch, graphite on paper, 2012

On the other hand, there are characters appearing only in either the first or second novel who “meet” in Burton´s film version (e.g., the Cheshire Cat and the Caterpillar, who only exist in “Alice´s Adventures in Wonderland”). Moreover, other characters such as the Knave of Hearts take on a totally new role in the film. As merely a minor figure in “Alice´s Adventures”, first appearing in the eighth chapter (he carries “the King´s crown on a crimson velvet cushion”) and then as a defendant for a tart robbery[3] in chapters eleven and twelve, the Knave of Heart is the Red Queen’s right-hand man in the film. But even the merging of the two novels is clearly visible regarding the appearing characters and actions, the storyline seems to be based primarily on the narrative of Carroll’s Jabberwocky, a poem appearing in “the Looking-glass”:

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

`Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!‘

He took his vorpal sword in hand:

Long time the manxome foe he sought —

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

`And has thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

He chortled in his joy.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Alice herself describes the poem as “very pretty”, but “rather hard to understand”. Furthermore she says: “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.” In “the Looking-glass”, the poem doesn’t concern Alice any further, as she simply jumps up and continues to see how the rest of the house looks. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton turns this “somebody killed something” into a real hero story in which Alice is the one tasked with killing the Jabberwocky and, by doing so, she also beats the Red Queen to render an ending familiar to the audience: a happy end where all evil is conquered.

A further essential point in addition to the diverging storyline that clearly steers the film away from a loyal viewing of “Alice´s Adventures”, “the Looking-glass” or both original novels; thus satisfying the expectations of originality instead of fidelity to the originals, is the character of “Alice” per se.

Woolverton and Burton create a totally new problem that is not part of Carroll´s originals: the question about the social status of a woman and what she should or should not. Before Alice escapes to the Wonderland, she is confronted with a hard decision to be made: must a woman marry well regardless of her wishes and feelings to avoid financial ruin (her father died, her family business doesn’t run well), not to stay alone (like her old insane aunt Imogene awaiting her fiancé) or remain a burden on her mother for the rest of her life? Is her life really only perfect if she marries Hamish or at least a Lord?[4] Guided by her doubts, Alice runs away when she is obligated to answer Hamish’s proposal and arrives at the hole where she finally enters Wonderland.

At this point, it is also important to remark that Alice´s voyage to the Wonderland seems to be very real and not so much a dream as always indicated in Carroll´s novels.[5] In fact, this turns out to be a very important aspect for the fidelity of the film version, i.e., by showing the small Alice which has nightmares at the beginning of the film, the filmmakers show the spectator that the actions taking place in Carroll´s first novel took place in Alice´s childhood, and that this is now another instalment of the story. Using the same characters with some of the actions that took place in the novels, Woolverton and Burton create a totally new story.

The question whether Alice is now dreaming again or not appears in the film itself. Alice tries several times to wake up by pinching her shoulder as her father had shown her in her childhood. However, she doesn´t wake up even when the mouse stabs her in the foot with a sword. In this regard, a highly philosophical question already asked in Carroll´s books appears again, namely, what is reality and what is a dream? Such a profound question is however left behind in the film after the last conversation between Alice and the Caterpillar, where she remembers her stay in Wonderland and says, “It wasn’t a dream at all. It was a memory! This place is real! And so are you [the Caterpillar]. And so is the Hatter.”

And by realising that, she finally becomes the „right“ Alice, the one whom everyone in the Wonderland was looking for.

From the outset, the characters had doubts whether she was the right or wrong Alice. They consider her to have lost of her “muchness”. Even though the viewer may not initially understand what “muchness” means, this information will eventually be revealed in the end when Alice stops having doubts about herself and her ability to fight the Jabberwocky, remembering her voyage to Wonderland in the childhood:

ALICE

Don’t go. I need your help. I don’t

know what to do!

THE CATERPILLAR

I can’t help you if you don’t even

know who you are, stupid girl.

ALICE

I’m not stupid! My name is Alice. I

live in London. I have a mother named

Helen and a sister named Margaret. My

father was Charles Kingsley. He had a

vision that stretched half-way around

the world and nothing ever stopped

him. He would have liked it here.

(with revelation)

I’m his daughter. I’m Alice Kingsley.

THE CATERPILLAR

Alice At Last! You were just as dimwitted

the first time you were here.

You called it Wonderland as I

recall…[6]

This gain of self-confidence in the fight with the Jabberwocky gets very significant when she finally returns to maybe not “the real”, but “the other” world where she originally came from. Very doubtful and “distracted” before she went to the Wonderland, she now seems to clearly know who she is and what she wants in her life, i.e., not to marry Hamish and be a good wife, but to do business and discover the world which she does at the end by entering a ship.

Recapitulating the foregoing, it becomes clear that Burton and Woolverton did not intend to create a one-to-one film version of one of the novels, but rather used “Alice´s Adventures” as an element of Alice´s past to then show her being an adult who returns to Wonderland to find herself by passing several challenges, the biggest and most important: to find a force in herself to combat the Jabberwocky and thereby to finally know what she wants. Hence, the plot of “the Looking-glass” seems not to be as significant for the storyline as the first book except for the characters and the Jabberwocky poem.

After the film was released, many critics spoke out their disfavour by calling it “disappointing and disappointinger”,[7] mainly because it adapts so many things besides Carroll´s novels. After all the analyses made it can be noted that this statement can´t be kept up neither regarding the originality nor the fidelity. The filmmakers develop a new storyline based on both books and thus create a sequel, not an adaption. The confusion of the spectator´s expectation may have been caused mainly by choosing the title “Alice in Wonderland”, which clearly refers to Carroll´s first book and not e.g., “Alice´s Return to the Wonderland” as the title of the film, which would have prepared the viewers for a sequel.

[1] In the following explanations the title “Alice in Wonderland” will refer to Tim Burton´s film only, whereas the two original novels (“Alice´s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There”) will be called part one and part two of the story or “Alice´s Adventures” and “the Looking-glass”.

[2] When Alice and Hamish dance, it is obvious that their personalities come from totally different worlds. Alice, the fantast, is amused about the idea of ladies in trousers, men in dresses, and dreams about flying. Hamish thus considers her as being “distracted” and thinks that dreaming about such “impossible things” like flying is a waste of time. Later on, Hamish´s mother talks to Alice about her son´s sensitive digestion. Alice doesn´t listen to her and runs away following the Rabbit.

[3] The tart robbery is part of the film but is here committed by one of the footfrogs.

[4] Alice´s sister says, “You will marry Hamish, you´ll be as happy as I am with Lowell and your life will be perfect”, which some minutes later turns out to be an illusion because Alice finds Lowell kissing another woman in the garden.

[5] “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank..” according to the beginning of “Alice´s Adventures” and “…Alice was sitting curled up in a corner of the great arm-chair, half talking to herself and half asleep…” according to the “Looking-glass”, both signalising to the reader that the following part of the story takes place after she has already fell asleep.

[6] Woolverton, Linda: Alice, 28.10.2008 (Blue Revised Pages), page 71, viewed on 27.11.2015, http://moviecultists.com/wp-content/uploads/screenplays/alice-in-wonderland.pdf.

[7] Elliott, Kamilla: Adaptation as Compendum: Tim Burton´s Alice in Wonderland, in: Adaptation, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2010, pp.193-201, here page 193.

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