Friday, December 31, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Late in his article on Hollywood’s gutting of children’s classic literature, Sam Adams expresses displeasure with Tim Burton’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (2010). He accuses director Tim Burton of turning the novel into a “tepid Joseph Campbell myth.”[1] I disagree. Tepid the film is not, and though one may detect the presence of Campbell and Jung and others, they are not a distraction. Reviews of Burton’s Alice were mixed. I found it an ingenious, visually creative, and fairly entertaining jaunt into an overworked narrative. I don’t think that many people have actually read Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. I think many people like the idea of Alice more than the book itself. And their readings of the book are largely filtered through various Hollywood adaptations over the years, along with watered down and simplified children’s versions of the story.

Burton weaves many of the elements of the original novel into a new tale, wherein Alice, now a young woman, falls into the rabbit hole a second time, just after a fairly uninteresting Lord has proposed. She can’t remember having visited “Wonderland” before, but she has dreamt about it since early childhood, never sure of where the dream is coming from. She even wonders if she is going mad.

In Burton’s film, Alice is the daughter of a brilliant thinker who dies shortly before the film begins. Her mother is worried for her daughter and through various means unexplained arranges for a marriage to a relative. Alice is a strange character—her face is pasty white, she is clumsy, she doesn’t feel naturally drawn towards the rigidly prescribed social patterns for a Victorian woman of her age--marriage and subordination to a man’s will. She doesn’t really know what she wants, or who she is. When she falls down the rabbit hole a second time, she begins to learn the answers.

She is greeted by many of the characters from Carroll’s novel—the creepy twins Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, the caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat. The Red Queen still reigns as a ruthless tyrant who orders the lopping off of her subjects’ heads at any whim.

In this film, the characters from the novel remember Alice from her first visit to Wonderland, but are not sure they recognize this newly grown Alice. Part of the thrust of the film is for Alice to discover who she is, to convince others and herself of who she is. The Wonderland narrative then becomes a struggle between the fate Alice is supposed to fulfill—that of slaying the Jabberwocky and defeating the Red Queen. She is convinced she can’t play this role; others are convinced she can, and others just don’t know.

Visually this film is interesting and off-kilter, in exactly the way you would expect a Tim Burton film to be. Burton seems especially fond of showing the out of proportion sizes of various characters, as well as the large head and coiffure of the Red Queen. Alice becomes an increasingly engaging character as the film progresses, and the narrative gradually congeals and gains force (there are some dead spots).

Alice is about a young woman’s search for self-definition (individuation, to use C. G. Jung’s term), her struggle to know whether she should conform to social expectations or to go her own way. I enjoyed it. It is hardly unusual that a young woman on the verge of adulthood and independent life would be trying to decide who she is and what road to follow—building this version of Alice around that search is hardly an artificial imposition.

Johnny Depp was especially good as the Mad Hatter, who plays a major role in the film. The voice of Alan Rickman (known to many as Severus Snape) is just right as the blue caterpillar. Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen brings more vigor to the story than anyone else in the film. Anne Hathaway as the White Queen seems congested and without effect. Mia Wasikowska does a fine job as Alice. I don’t think this film would work for young children, but for young adults and adults in general who enjoy narratives that run away from their sources yet at the same time pay them vigorous homage, it may work well.


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