Alice in Wonderland : Lost in Adaptation
Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is not meant to be a faithful adaptation but rather a furthering of Lewis Carroll’s original story, but the film attempts to do too much and succeeds too little. The childlike, insatiably curious Alice is reimagined as a young woman whose story is neither entertaining nor particularly inspiring despite the film’s apparent insistence that this is a story of heroism and fulfilling one’s destiny, two themes that neither Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland nor Through the Looking Glass ever forced upon their readers. Alice’s story is, ultimately, a children’s story, and although a number of directors, songwriters, authors and other adults have gleaned deeper meanings from her nonsensical escapades, Burton’s attempt to reconcile his own unique storytelling and thematic style with Carroll’s original is a wide miss despite the prevalence of Burtonesque visual effects.
There is a way to adapt a children’s story with a more grownup feel, such as is achieved in Jan Svankmajer’s stop-motion and vaguely disturbing Alice, but such adaptations work because the naiveté of childhood is juxtaposed with the perils of the adult world – simply making the titular character older and sticking her back in Wonderland is not enough unless Alice has never been there before and is essentially experiencing the quintessential nonsense of human chess and mad tea parties through older eyes. Even the much more adult retellings such as Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Lost Girls” or Simon Fellows’ film Malice in Wonderland succeed in presenting a different Alice because they are not marketed to children, unlike this PG-rated Disney production. Where Tim Burton’s film fails is the fact that his Alice has been to Wonderland before and spends more than half the film believing that she is having a recurring dream from her childhood, casting her lethargic, jaded gaze over the amazingly striking scenery and cast of anthropomorphic, borderline psychotic characters. Everything is fuzzily familiar to her but not in a way that endears “Underland” to her teenaged self, and when she discovers that she is expected to serve as a savior, Alice balks rather than playing along with what she believes is still a dream. In her defense, Underland has become a much more sinister, harrowing place in her absence, but this too is a peculiar decision for a children’s film.
J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and its animated Disney adaptation present Neverland as a fantasy haven in which no one ever grows up – in a similar vein, Lewis Carroll designed Wonderland as a silly, upside-down world where nothing quite makes sense but works out nevertheless. For Tim Burton to have crafted Underland as more of a war-torn, divided landscape is almost unthinkable in the tradition of childhood escapist fantasies, and much of Wonderland’s original appeal is derived from the fact that this is a place where one can be safe from either the burdens or the banalities of reality – in the original Alice’s case, it is a place to escape boredom and the structure of a Victorian childhood. Where Carroll’s books strengthen themselves as children’s stories with universal appeal is the reminder that we cannot remain in our fantasy lands forever – just as Alice’s courtroom cast turns back into a deck of cards, so too does Burton’s Alice need a way back to the real world. Burton-Alice’s way home is by drinking the blood of the vanquished Jabberwocky, which is neither a satisfactory crossover between fantasy and reality nor an effective escape route since we are left wondering how exactly the blood transported her home.
This theme of blending fantasy and reality and paralleling the escapist world with the real world is prevalent in the books as a way to do one of two things : either to present the idea that Wonderland is entirely a construct of Alice’s imagination or to leave Wonderland as its own separate world where Alice can take what she’s learned and experienced back to her own universe. Burton’s film opts for the latter, but where Carroll’s books had frequent crossovers such as the chess pieces coming to life and the mad tea party parodying a polite Victorian affair, the film makes a halfhearted attempt by superimposing Alice’s fiancée’s face onto Tweedledum and Tweedledee before Burton and his graphic designers seemingly forgot their initial concept and devoted the rest of their time to inflating Helena Bonham Carter’s head. Because Underland is arguably a real place within the context of the film, evidenced not least of all by Alan Rickman’s heavily drugged caterpillar returning as a butterfly in the real world, there is little room for Alice to act upon her own whims or relieve the frustrations of her real life. As Ed Gonzalez writes in his review of the film, “because Burton scarcely even makes superficial parallels between the creatures of Underland and Alice’s family and friends, the character’s dream life never deeply reflects her real-life anxieties” (Gonzalez). Underland is not quite Alice’s dream life, as the characters and her own injuries eventually convince her that she is in a waking world, but it is true that her experiences down the rabbit hole are less an extension of her actual issues and more a side-trip that gives her the confidence to take charge of her life when she returns home.
This confidence is an ironic and almost mystifying outcome because of the film’s heavy emphasis on preordained destiny and swallowing your objections for the sake of others – such a lesson should have taught Burton’s Alice to accept Hamish’s proposal since the marriage had already been arranged for her and would have put her mother’s mind at ease. Slaying the Jabberwocky imbues Alice with a renewed sense of independence and determination, and as Phillip French notes, “the pay-off back in the real high Victorian world is that Alice has achieved the right to become a high-ranking imperial adventurer, establishing major trade links with China” (French). However, Alice’s decision to finally face off against this fearsome monster (who, in the original books, is nothing more than an unseen character in a poem), is already foretold on the Oraculum and really no great feat of her own. The Jabberwocky even comments that his true opponent is not Alice herself but the Vorpal Sword, “my old foe,” as he refers to it.
The difficulty in adapting a timeless story that has already seen its share of adaptations and reboots lies in the decision of whether to remain faithful to the source or to attempt a revision that uniquely differs from its predecessors – Tim Burton has built his career on films that embody the gothic and the ghostly, featuring ashen characters and striking landscapes in more shades of grey than should rightly exist on the color spectrum. These cinematic characteristics could have worked, probably should have worked in his retelling of Lewis Carroll’s classic if he had kept to the greys and a uniformly Burtonesque setting – 3D notwithstanding, there is an inordinate amount of fake color and special effects that speak less of Beetlejuice and more of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Burton’s other atrocious adaptation of a beloved childhood classic. Some critics chose to ignore the plot and feast on the digital eye candy : Mark Monahan gushes that “Wonderland, as Alice calls it, is gloriously realised: not entirely unlike Avatar’s world, in fact. It is just as beautiful, but more sombre (in that oh-so-distinctive knotted, gnarly Burton manner), and somehow rather more charming” (Monahan). “Somber” is not the best word to describe the scene in which a ten-inch high Alice must climb over a moat full of severed heads, and there is nothing “charming” about colorful foliage being mowed down by the frumious Bandersnatch, another creature whose literary existence was limited to the Jabberwocky poem. Visual effects aside, Burton is also known for giving established literary characters a new backstory, such as Willy Wonka’s daddy issues in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but as is the case with poor Mr. Wonka, Alice and her companions are demystified to an unnecessary and completely unsatisfactory result. The madness of the Hatter is no longer in his hat, no, now he is the schizophrenic victim of post-traumatic stress disorder. But to what end? Making fictitious, fantastical characters more relatable should not be the aim of a director who wants to retain Carroll’s original otherworldly charm, as Burton’s eye-popping CG and sweeping landscapes would suggest.
Taking Alice out of her childhood self and giving her a backstory is risky but not necessarily a doomed concept if her former curiosity and adorable pompousness has matured into an equally satisfying set of teenage flaws – Burton’s Alice could have been endearingly awkward, but instead she is sullen and monotone, her imagination understated and limited to imagining men in dresses during the quadrille. Alice is allowed to grow up and keep the audience on board, but in the unofficial, universally accepted parameters of “other” worlds (think of Robin Williams in Hook), time is not allowed to pass in Wonderland. Time itself is featured in several of the books’ jokes as a ‘him’ and an entity that can be manipulated – during a discussion at the tea party, Alice admits that she has never spoken to Time but that she knows she must beat it when she learns music, to which the Hatter replies “Ah! That accounts for it… He wo’n’t stand beating” (Carroll, 71). This is an example of the silly logic and matter-of-fact humor that Burton has translated into weird, off-putting characters who are rarely funny and virtually unlovable until Anne Hathaway’s White Queen finally makes her appearance, swishy and kindhearted and blessedly free of CG mutation.
Ultimately, the heavy reliance on aesthetics and visual splendor is marketable, modern, and not where Burton’s film fails – it is Alice herself and her universally-known story that are sacrificed to this adaptation. Burton seems unable to strike the right balance between the original sources and how he would have written the books, usurping Alice’s past, present and future rather than incorporating a more respectful nod to Lewis Carroll’s tale. An adaptation that does not acknowledge this particular source is less an adaptation and more an arrogant reworking of a classic that fans can recite from memory, suggesting that Tim Burton should have written and directed his own story of a young woman who falls into a mysterious world and allowed himself the liberty to create rather than adapt.
Carroll, Lewis. The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll. Barnes & Noble Publishing, 2005. Print.
French, Phillip. “Alice in Wonderland.” Observer (2010): n. pag. Web. 7 Jul 2011.
Gonzalez, Ed. “Alice in Wonderland.” Slant Magazine (2010): n. pag. Web. 7 Jul 2011.
Monahan, Mark. “Tim Burton’s Magical Alice in Wonderland in 3D.” Telegraph (2010): n. pag.