“You’ve lost your muchness”: Carroll and Burton in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland
(Walt Disney Pictures, 2010)

“Good books make bad films,” they say, but not in the film industry, which has adapted almost every classic in existence — after all, how can you lose money on a well-known and much-loved story? Jane Austen in particular has brought flocks of bonnets and whole ballrooms of corsets to our screens in recent years and has turned a great many film producers into single men in possession of a good fortune — for instance, Joe Wright’s 2005 film version of Pride & Prejudice earned $121 million at the box office. But to ensure that commercial success, the film had to make some changes from the original text, most notably changing the ending in the American version to show the newly married Darcys enjoying a romantic evening at Pemberley. It is true that there is nothing more annoying than seeing a favourite book mutilated to make money, though at the same time, an entirely faithful adaptation offers nothing more interesting than the sight of actors re-enacting the outer shell of a story the viewer already knows, but without the ideas and emotions that the original book inspired in you. As Virginia Woolf put it “the brain knows Anna (Karenina) almost entirely by the inside of her mind — her charm, her passion, her despair, whereas all the emphasis is now laid upon her teeth, her pearls and her velvet.” The best adaptations are those which preserve the spirit of the original book, but add enough of the director’s own vision to create an interesting story in its own right, that everyone can enjoy whether they have read the book or not — David Lean’s 1965 film Doctor Zhivago is the classic example, cutting out the novel’s long philosophical passages that would not translate well onto the screen, and adding the clever device of narrating the film in flash-back by Doctor Zhivago’s brother.

…an entirely faithful adaptation offers nothing more interesting than the sight of actors re-enacting the outer shell of a story the viewer already knows, but without the ideas and emotions that the original book inspired…

By those criteria, then, does Tim Burton’s recent adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s beloved children’s classic Alice in Wonderland succeed? Burton makes no attempt to follow the plot faithfully, instead depicting Alice (Mia Wasikowska) as a nineteen-year-old at a garden party where she is expected to accept a proposal of marriage from aristocratic bore Lord Hamish (Leo Bill). Then she sees a white rabbit with a watch (voiced by Michael Sheen) whom she dimly remembers from what she thinks was a childhood nightmare, escapes Hamish to run after it, and falls down a rabbit hole into “Underland.” She soon finds out that the terrifying Red Queen (Burton’s partner and regular artistic collaborator Helena Bonham Carter) has seized power from her sister, the saintly White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and, with the help of Stayne, the villainous Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), a trio of terrifying monsters from Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” — the Bandersnatch, the Jub-Jub Bird and the Jabberwock — and a frequent cry of “Off with their heads!” tyrannises over the inhabitants. The White Rabbit, the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, another Burton regular) attempt to convince Alice that it is her destiny to slay the Jabberwock and restore the White Queen to the throne.

Burton’s Wonderland certainly looks the part. The wild imagination he has shown in all his films combines with Carroll’s to create a bizarre fantasy-land where any child would want to get lost. Every shot glows with vivid colour and surreal details — an insect which turns out to be Carroll’s “Rocking-Horse fly,” flowers with faces. This film won me over to the benefits of 3D animation, because in Burton’s hands it is more than a gimmick. He uses 3D animation to lend texture to his world that really does make the viewer seem a part of it — when Alice falls down the rabbit hole you share her excitement and fear as your stomach falls with her.

Alice in Wonderland

FROM Alice in Wonderland
BY Lewis Carroll
John Tenniel (1865)

Similarly, the strong supporting cast breathes new life into Carroll’s eccentric creations, although Mia Wasikowska’s Alice is too bland to capture Alice’s lively, questioning spirit. Her vocal and facial expressions do not have much range, and she does not seem entirely confident acting with animated characters. Carroll defied the conventions of children’s literature at the time (which depicted good children who docilely obeyed the grown-ups) by having Alice constantly question the world around her. Linda Woolverton’s screenplay tries to expand this idea by portraying the adult Alice as a rebel against the strictures of a Victorian society — ironically, someone who would have scandalised the extremely conservative Carroll. There is a very funny exchange near the beginning in which she shocks her mother by refusing to wear a corset, but otherwise the film’s attempts to handle a quasi-serious theme are awkward and unconvincing. At one point in the film, the Mad Hatter tells Alice, “You’ve lost your muchness” and she never regains it. As often happens, the villain outshines the heroine. Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen (who in fact resembles more closely the Queen of Hearts, the only character in the original Alice books who says “Off with their heads”) is the most terrifying character in children’s cinema since Robert Helpmann’s Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Johnny Depp’s nervy and completely barmy Mad Hatter is another lively, memorable performance while Stephen Fry as a suave, languorous Cheshire Cat and Matt Lucas, voicing both Tweedledum and Tweedledee as endlessly squabbling brothers, bring their very different but very British comic styles to a very English story.

Linda Woolverton’s screenplay does for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland what her work on The Lion King did for Hamlet: it steals the basic idea but strips it of everything that made it great. Alice’s battle with the Jabberwock seems crow-barred in to turn the film into a Hollywood blockbuster, but the plot is meandering and lacks excitement, while not spending enough time on the impressive supporting cast. However, faithful adaptations are not the answer either. Clyde Geronimi’s 1951 animated version reproduces all the most famous incidents from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and comes across as a string of vignettes with no recognisable plot, leaving the viewer bored and frustrated. The Alice books have very little narrative structure, but they are loved for their otherworldly charm and intricate wit. These qualities are too elusive to pin down on celluloid, and while it makes a strong attempt, Burton’s film doesn’t capture them. For a parent hoping to introduce their children to an unforgettable story, there is no substitute for the original book. Recently my mother started reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to my little sister. She loved it, which gives me hope that in a hundred years’ time, even though children may not be watching Burton’s film, they will still be reading Carroll’s book.

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