I don’t normally post a lot of original work on this blog, but as you can probably guess from the title (and the (possibly unnecessary) attempt at a copyright symbol (is that needed? Probably not, I never know the protocol with those thing)) that that’s exactly what this is.
I wrote this essay during my first year of university. It was the best grade I ever got that whole year and it’s the essay I’m probably most proud of in my entire school career. Something I did a lot when I was in school was read essays people posted online. I often found it helped me understand the material better and often helped inspire me. So I decided to do the same.
“The Alice of Three Different Wonderlands”
Since its first publication in 1865, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been the basis for many adaptations. From books and movies to television shows and video games, Alice in Wonderland has had a huge influence on popular culture today. While many of these adaptations are very different, something most of them have in common is the darkening – both actual darkness of the scenes and the attitudes of the characters – of the story. The differences in the characters, adaptation of setting, and the varying plot all show how the innocence of Carroll’s novel is a thing of the past. Instead, the many variations based on this novel have become something far more sinister.
In the original novel, the characters in Wonderland are shown to be magical and completely mad. However, in later adaptations, the characters have undergone some changes that makes them evil and corrupt. The first character this is present in is Alice herself. Introduced in Carroll’s novel as being an innocent little girl, recent versions have turned her into be a hardened young woman. In the original novel she is first shown to be sitting with her sister and wondering what the point of her sister’s book is if there are “no pictures or conversations” (Carroll 17). Even though her age is never directly stated, her thoughts about how a book must have pictures and conversations shows that she is only a child. This childish innocence is shown again when she first falls down the rabbit hole. Upon arriving in Wonderland, Alice realizes she is much bigger than everything and tries to find a solution to his. She finds a bottle that reads “DRINK ME” (Carroll 21), but she is unsure if she should do as it says. Alice decides to check if the bottle is poisonous and when she discovers it is not labelled as such, she drinks it. This shows the level of childish innocence Alice still possesses as she believes that if something is not right – like a bottle containing poison – then it will say so. Her belief that the poison will be labelled shows that she is still young and oblivious to the true evils of the world. This is not the case for the Alice that is presented in Tim Burton’s 2010 film. Rather than being a little girl, the Alice in Burton’s film is a young woman preparing for marriage. She is gloomy and sullen, much the opposite of the happy, curious girl in Carroll’s novel. However, this is a somewhat expected change as these characters traits and ones similar to them are common in Tim Burton films. The way Burton changes the stories is explored in Alison McMahan’s book, The Films of Tim Burton: Animating Live Action in Contemporary Hollywood. In her book she calls the films Burton makes “a hybrid genre” (McMahan 71). As he does not make a typical film in which there are good characters following a steady plot and a happy ending. Instead, he “combines two structures – fairy tale and horror” (McMahan 71) and uses this to change what is considered a children’s story into a new form that is meant for an older audience. In Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland, Alice is angry at everyone she meets and resents the world around her. This is shown before she even enters Wonderland through the way she acts towards other people. Near the start of the film, nineteen-year-old Alice is with her mother – her father having died some years earlier – on their way to a party. The pair argue and from their attitudes towards each other as they do, it becomes obvious this is just one of many fights they have had. This idea is further explored in a thesis paper by Finn-Henning Johannessen entitled Alice in Wonderland: Development of Alice’s Identity within Adaptations. In Johannessen’s paper the author says that “Alice has a small quarrel with her mother about her attire” but that it “ends abruptly when Alice mentions that her father would have laughed, if he were there” (Johannessen 18-19). Johannessen’s observation about how the argument ends at the mention of Alice’s father suggests that much of Alice’s anger and resentment stems from that event. Alice has not even entered Wonderland yet and already Burton is presenting her as being a much more morose character than Carroll created. This characterization is taken even further in American McGee’s Alice. Unlike Carroll’s novel or Burton’s film, American McGee’s video game does not start with her falling down a rabbit hole. Instead, this psychological thriller starts with a fire that Alice barely escapes from and that burns down her home, killing her family in the process. In this game she is neither a little girl dreaming of a magical place nor a young woman getting ready for marriage, but rather “a patient in a mental asylum, tormented by the fire and the death of her parents” (Johannessen 23). The change of Alice’s character in the game is laid out in great detail in the casebook written by Greg Roensch. The casebook is told from the perspective of the doctor who is treating Alice at the asylum and is meant to depict what is happening outside of Alice’s mind. The doctor’s first description of Alice states that she “seems to cling precariously to life” and that she is “[d]eaf, dumb, and blind to all stimulation” (Roensch 2). McGee’s Alice introduces a character who remains comatose to the outside world for ten years, but inside her head she is waging a war in Wonderland. This is the complete opposite of the Alice in Carroll’s original novel who is full of life and colour and the Alice in Burton’s film who is angry at everything, but still full of spirit.
Another character that changes significantly is the Mad Hatter. In Carroll’s novel, he is both very excitable and nervous at the same time, living up to his title of ‘mad’. When the Hatter is first introduced he is having tea with the March Hare and the Dormouse. There are many instances after Alice joins them at this tea party that shows how the Mad Hatter is truly mad. One of these instances is when he asks Alice “‘why is a raven like a writing desk?'” (Carroll 67) and then states that “[he hasn’t] the slightest idea” (Carroll 69). Later in the novel, The Mad Hatter is brought before the Queen of Hearts as witness to a crime. When she starts questioning him he “turn[s] pale and fidget[s]” and keeps “shifting from one foot to the other, looking uneasily at the Queen” (Carroll 103). This is drastically different from the Mad Hatter who was originally introduced and was so excitable. This further proves how he truly is mad when he goes from overly excitable to incredibly nervous within a short space of time. Despite all of this, Carroll’s version of the Mad Hatter is still the most innocent version of this character. In Tim Burton’s 2010 film, Alice arrives at the tea party to find that instead of drinking tea and singing songs, “the [Mad] Hatter, the [March] Hare and the Dormouse seem to be asleep” (Johannessen 33). Also unlike the novel, the Mad Hatter is not sitting with the others, but is “in a far more majestic chair than his companions, [suggesting] his superiority over [them]” (Johannessen 33). Burton has changed the sarcastic, cowardly character into a figure who instead appears to be both a leader and a depressed servant. Like Alice, the elements of the Mad Hatter that are presented in Burton’s film are further enforced in McGee’s video game. In Johannessen’s paper, he discusses the drastic changes in the Mad Hatter’s character. The Hatter in American McGee’s Alice is far more evil than many of the other characters. Alice and the Hatter officially meet when she is kidnapped by him and locked away in a mock asylum. Johannessen comments in his paper that “the walls [of the mock asylum] are filled with clocks, which either are going backwards, fast forward, or standing still” (Johannessen 37). He goes on to explain how the idea of time is futile in the asylum which shows how the Mad Hatter truly has control over those he kidnaps. If time has no meaning then it is because there is no escaping from the Hatter’s asylum so things just go forever and the only end is when the Hatter decides it.
The final character that has undergone serious changes between the novel, the film, and the game is the Queen of Hearts. In Carroll’s novel she spends most of her time shouting “off with their heads!” (Carroll 78) and scaring her card soldiers into doing things for her. The Queen is first introduced when she is getting ready to play croquet with her husband, The King of Hearts, and many others. However, as soon as anyone does anything she does not like she shouts for them to be executed. Despite this, it is shown that not many of those sentenced to execution are actually executed as her servant cards lie and say the job is done even after they could not find the accused. Even though she still orders people to be executed, Carroll’s version of the Queen is the least evil version of this character. In Burton’s film, the Queen of Hearts has no husband and rules Wonderland alone. Unlike the novel where she rules the land that is rightfully hers, in the film she is queen of the land she stole from her sister, The White Queen. Not only is Wonderland not rightfully hers, but the executions she orders are not just threats, but are actually carried out. The Queen of Hearts proves her evil when she kidnaps the Mad Hatter, forcing him to make hats for her. In the film Alice goes to rescue the Hatter, but she must first cross the border which “is represented by the moat in which the heads of those the Queen has beheaded float” (Johannessen 40). While this shows the true evils of the Queen in Tim Burton’s film, this Queen could almost appear innocent when compared to the changes she undergoes in American McGee’s game. In Alice the Queen is feared by everyone except for Alice and the rebels who are waging war against her. She is murderous and kills anyone who gets in her way, including the Cheshire Cat when he begins to tell Alice something important. It is later revealed that the Queen is not actually the Queen, but is the “evil Alice, the one inside the monster” (Johannessen 44). The thing the Cheshire Cat was going to tell Alice was that in order for her to gain back her sanity and leave the real-world asylum, she has to kill the Queen as the Queen is a representation of Alice’s own inner evil. This shows how the three variations of Alice in Wonderland are drastically different. Carroll’s novel uses the characters to present the idea of childish innocence, Burton’s film tiptoes on the edge of evil with more sinister characters, while American McGee gives over fully and presents a physical embodiment of evil.
Characters are not the only major difference between the different adaptations of Alice in Wonderland that show how it has become more sinister over the years. Something else that displays this is the setting described or shown in the novel, film, and game. In Lewis Carroll’s book, he uses vivid descriptions of colour to bring out the life in the setting. When Alice first falls down the rabbit hole, she looks through a tiny doorway and sees the “loveliest garden” and wishes to “wander among [the] beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains” (Carroll 20-21). Carroll’s description immediately offers up the image of a brightly coloured garden that is full of life. Continuing throughout the novel is this brightly coloured setting from the flowers growing around the Caterpillar’s mushroom to the white rose tree growing in the entrance to the “beautiful flower garden, among the bright flower-beds and the cool fountains” (Carroll 74). The setting in Carroll’s novel is very different from the setting presented in Tim Burton’s film. While there is still life and there are still gardens, there is dismal life and virtually no colour. However, both these things are typical of Burton’s films, as is described in Anna Kérchy’s e-journal article. In a Hungarian e-journal entitled “Changing Media of Enchantment: Tracking the Transition from Verbal to Visual Nonsense in Tim Burton’s Cinematic Adaptation of Alice in Wonderland,” Anna Kérchy describes how the bleak and foreboding aspects of Burton’s films are what make them distinctly his. This includes the changes made to Alice in Wonderland that turns it from children’s fairy tale to a film “full of explicit violence, social critical commentary and sexual innuendo” (Kérchy par. 6). Instead of gardens full of brightly coloured plants, it appears as if the colour has been drained from everything. Most things are shown in varying shades of grey and what little colour there is appears to be bleak and dreary. Burton does not even call this world Wonderland, choosing instead to call it Underland. In changing the name, Burton changes the idea of the entire place. Wonderland makes it sounds magical and everything a little girl like the Alice in Carroll’s novel could dream of. In calling it Underland it comes across as being a place where no one would want to venture, especially a child. The setting of Wonderland changes even more in American McGee’s Alice. As Alice is locked in an asylum, the Wonderland she visits is all a creation in her mind. While she is comatose to the world around her, in her mind she is waging war in the dystopian world that is Wonderland. Created out of her insanity, Wonderland is a place full of horrors where massacre takes place. Unlike the brightly coloured flower gardens in the novel and the bleak forests in the film, American McGee’s game contains places like Village of the Doomed and the Vale of Tears. It is while exploring these places that Alice is kidnapped by the Mad Hatter and “sees the tortures people within Wonderland’s asylum” (Johannessen 65). There are no gardens in this Wonderland, only monsters and characters twisted by evil living in a world of madness. McGee creates a setting completely different from the classic novel and turns Burton’s Underland into a children’s fantasy. In changing the setting, Burton and McGee transform Alice in Wonderland into a horror fantasy instead of the classical novel it once was.
Not only are there significant changes made to the setting, but the plot itself varies between the three forms. In the novel, Alice’s curiosity gets the better of her and she follows the white rabbit down the rabbit hole. When she arrives in Wonderland, Alice has no mission or goal other than to find her way home, though this soon proves to be difficult. Alice wanders through Wonderland trying to find her way home, but instead she meets many characters who only manage to confuse her further. One of these characters is the Queen who rules the land with her husband. The Queen orders for Alice to be executed and when her soldiers – who are entirely made of cards – “r[i]se into the air, and [come] flying down upon [Alice]; she g[i]ve[s] a little scream […] and [finds] herself lying on the bank with her head in the lap of her sister” (Carroll 114). It is revealed here that Wonderland was entirely a creation of Alice’s mind while she was sleeping. This shows how Carroll’s novel was a children’s tale because as soon as it became too scary for Alice she woke up, allowing her childish innocence to remain. While Alice may not have had a declared mission in the novel, this is not the case for Burton’s film. While it may seem like Alice falling down the rabbit hole was an accident, it was actually because the creatures in Underland wanted her to. When Alice is at the party with her mother “she notices the White Rabbit beckoning her to follow him […] Eventually, Alice arrives to the rabbit hole. She carefully peeks into the hole and accidentally falls into it” (Johannessen 19). The occupants of Underland had wanted Alice to return because the timeline of Underland stated that she was the only one who could save them. The Mad Hatter informs her that “the plans for slaying of the Jabberwocky need to continue” (Johannessen 34). It is revealed here how, unlike Carroll’s novel, Alice does have a mission in Burton’s film. She has been brought to Underland to defeat the Queen of Heart’s beast, The Jabberwocky. In slaying The Jabberwocky she will defeat the Queen of Hearts and Underland will be restored to the White Queen. Similar to this, American McGee’s Alice also presents an Alice who has a specific mission in Wonderland. McGee’s game includes a connection between the Queen of Hearts and Alice, though it is not revealed until the end what the connection truly is. Alice’s mission in the game is that she must defeat the Queen of Hearts to free the occupants of Wonderland from her wrath. However, Alice discovers that the reason she must defeat the Queen of Hearts is so she can save herself. In Johannssen’s thesis paper, he explains how Alice in the game “understands that she is responsible for the changes that have made by the Queen’s influence on Wonderland’s discourse” (Johannessen 75). Alice comes to this understanding after realizing the Queen is the embodiment of her own guilt and that “she needs to destroy her feeling of guilt” (Johannessen 75) in order to restore Wonderland to the way it was before. Unlike the novel where Alice has no mission, and the film where Alice’s mission is to slay the Queen’s pet, in McGee’s game Alice must slay the part of herself that has kept her locked away in her own mind for so long. From novel to film to video game, the plot of Alice in Wonderland has changed significantly over the different adaptations.
Alice in Wonderland was first published over a hundred years ago and is now considered a classic children’s novel. Due to its continuing popularity, many people have taken it upon themselves to create their own versions of this story. These versions, including Tim Burton’s 2010 film and American McGee’s game, have all become a much more sinister form of Carroll’s novel. Through the changes made to the characters, the setting, and the plot itself, Alice in Wonderland has been significantly altered. Carroll, Burton, and McGee have turned one idea into three very different stories.
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