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Alice in Wonderland revisited...again
One Rabbit Hole, Three Different Worlds
By Samantha Highfill
It seems that each time Alice falls down the rabbit hole, she ends up in an entirely different world. Perhaps that’s the beauty of adaptation. Or maybe it’s the product of too much creative license. Either way, an adaptation is often defined as a film derived from a source text. No two adaptations are identical. When Lewis Carroll originally wrote, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I doubt that he imagined that his book would be made into movies for decades to come. I also doubt that he thought a huge movie star named Johnny Depp would one day play the Mad Hatter. Of course, Carroll was dead before Depp was born, but you get the point. Every individual film adaptation is at the mercy of its writer and director. One story means endless interpretations and impossibilities.
Most children are introduced to Alice through the 1951 Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. In this squeaky clean version, the blonde haired, blue eyed, animated character falls down a rabbit hole into a world full of inanimate objects that sing and generally exhibit some kind of speech impediment. Alice is a happy character, tenaciously finding the good in things. She smiles as she falls down the rabbit hole and she sings along with the Mad Hatter and the March Hair. Disney only allows Wonderland to get so dark, as any time a character might seem even slightly menacing they break into song. The story ends with the realization that Wonderland is nothing but a dream - yet another way to keep from scaring all the kiddies. The evil queen isn’t real, children; you can sleep tight.
However, the year 1988 brought about a surrealist interpretation of the story, directed by Czech artist Jan Svankmajer. The blue dress is gone and so are all of the bright colors that once illuminated Disney’s innocent Wonderland. The White Rabbit is no longer a cartoon, but rather a real rabbit that has been stuffed with saw dust. Instead of following the rabbit down a hole, Alice follows him into a drawer, after which she rides an elevator down to Wonderland. Wonderland appears to be covered in cobwebs and other Halloween-like memorabilia. Even the White Rabbit has lost some of his joy as he proceeds to attack Alice. Not to mention, this film doesn’t even have a Cheshire-Cat. How depressing.
Syankmajer finds the dark side of Wonderland. Alice narrates her own story, as she fights against skeleton-like creatures and meets a Mad Hatter that is made out of wood. Words are few and far between, as Alice makes her way through a dark and dreary land. When she shrinks she becomes a porcelain doll, and when she meets the queen it is the rabbit that decapitates people with a pair of scissors. The concept is brutal, and perhaps an inspiration for a scene in Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Maybe children should not be watching this adaptation at all. After all, the movie does end with Alice picking up the pair of scissors and contemplating cutting off the head of the white rabbit. Remind me - how is this similar to the Disney classic?
As he often does, Tim Burton decided to take it upon himself to revamp yet another classic, but he decided to do it with real actors and in 3D. Putting a unique twist on the story, Burton’s film is Alice’s second visit to Wonderland when she’s a little bit older. However, the basics of the story are still prominent and as captivating as ever. The White Rabbit is friendly again, and the Cheshire-Cat makes his triumphant return. The blue caterpillar is reunited with the hookah, though this time he isn’t blowing the smoke to form the letters of the alphabet (thank you for that, Disney). Wonderland is a magical place – a place filled with endless possibilities and possible friendships. Burton’s film particularly excels in its portrayal and humanization of the Mad Hatter, a character that was once (or twice) portrayed as nothing more a “crazy” prop. The relationship that is formed between Alice and the Mad Hatter makes Wonderland seem that much more magical.
By adding well-known actors, a witty script, and by removing the singing objects, Burton finds the balance between a kid’s movie and an adult action picture. He goes for the all-encompassing blockbuster, as opposed to Svankmajer’s surrealist art or Disney’s children’s classic. But what does all of this say for the story of Alice in Wonderland? Must Alice wear the blue dress? Should the viewer feel fear or excitement when she falls down the rabbit hole, or crawls into a drawer? Of course, the drawer was a little scary for claustrophobics everywhere.
However it is told, Alice enters a fictional world, and the rest of the story is based on perception. If you don’t like your options, create your own perception. But, if you make it into a film, please don’t have Alice shrink into a porcelain doll . . . that was just disturbing.
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