It has been too long since my last post, so what better than a writing challenge to clear the blogger’s block and put my keyboard (read ‘ink well’) to good use. I’ve decided on an A to Z theme, which isn’t particularly limiting, but provides an encouraging structure for a 6-month post-a-week challenge. Twenty-six letters, twenty-six weeks, you do the maths.
So, welcome to Week A!
Alice in Wonderland (dir. Tim Burton) is a film I’ve intended to see since its 2010 release, but it wasn’t until I found out that a friend of mine stars as an extra that I actively sought out the DVD, by adding it to my LOVEFiLM rental list. Unfortunately I never identified my friend amongst the crowd of beige-clad guests at the garden party of the opening scenes, but I did discover a very enjoyable film.
Burton’s film is neither a remake of nor a sequel to the original film or book. He takes the characters created by Lewis Carroll and gives all of them – including the eponymous Alice – a new adventure. He probably likes to think of it as an ‘improvement’, and I can’t say I disagree.
My first reaction to the news that this revival of Alice was to be directed by the iconic Tim Burton was ‘but of course!’ Lewis Carroll, best known for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is famed for the depth, brilliancy and ridiculousness of his imagination. Similarly, Tim Burton is known for his quirky fantasy films, and so the match seems perfect. In respect to the Carroll-Burton partnership, and with their shared peculiarities in mind, I particularly liked the film’s attitude towards ‘madness’:
The Mad Hatter: Have I gone mad?
Alice: I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.
It only seems natural that Burton should defend the eccentric style he has in common with Carroll.
The main difference in the treatment of this bizarre story, as identified by renowned critic Roger Ebert (who sadly passed away only last week), is that Burton brilliantly interprets Alice as an “adult hallucination”, rather than as a reality of pure nonsense.
In Burton’s film, Alice is no longer simply a little girl seeking to avoid boredom through her vivid imagination, but a young woman who accidentally falls into a world that she believes to be her recurring childhood dream. When Alice arrives in ‘Underland’, she is unaware that she has ever been there before in reality and so is convinced she is dreaming again.
Burton’s approach blurs the line between imagination and reality in a way that has repercussions for other aspects of the film, as I shall return to later. The renaming of Wonderland as ‘Underland’ underscores the persistence of Reality’s battle against Imagination throughout. Wonderland is no longer a place simply of wondrous imagination, but a fantastical place with a harsh reality.
Part of this harsh reality – and what I believe to be one of the major strengths of the film – is Alice’s destined involvement in the overthrowing of the cruel Red Queen (played, of course, by Helena Bonham-Carter). In Lewis Carroll’s book, Alice’s adventure in Wonderland is more or less a discovery of its peculiar inhabitants, whereas Burton structures his film with a plot that incorporates Carroll’s brilliant inventions.
By introducing a stronger narrative, the film produces a closer bond with the characters and an emotional investment in their welfare, which Burton has quoted his motives. The ‘prophesy’ that identifies Alice’s important role in the politics of Underland, a world that has been thrown into darkness through the reign of a cruel but powerful woman, is a successful strategy, but unfortunately smacks a little too much of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
However, by giving Alice this new purpose, not only an adventure, Burton introduces the ever-touchy subject of gender roles. From the very first scenes of the film, Alice is characterised as a young woman who hasn’t accepted the stifling manners and expectations forced upon her by society. She refuses to wear a corset or stockings, much to the distress of her well-refined mother.
The reason Alice finds herself in Underland is that she is running away from an unwanted marriage proposal that everyone expects her to accept. As many girls would appreciate, Alice feels disinclined to be forced into a loveless, purely ‘convenient’ marriage; she has witnessed the unfaithfulness of her sister’s husband, and shuns the prospect of being similarly abused as a woman and a wife.
In Underland, as in reality, Alice’s identity is called into question; Tweedledum and Tweedledee (two perfectly chubby portrayals by Matt Lucas) debate whether she is “the right Alice”. The role of “the right Alice” is a stereotypically masculine role – she must act as champion for the good White Queen and slay the Jabberwocky, champion for the evil Red Queen.
By escaping reality just as she is proposed to, Alice enters a world where she is undefined by her femininity. As a consequence of the tension between reality and dreams in Underland, it is difficult to determine whether this gender-neutrality is being represented as a far-fetched ideal, or as a genuine possibility.
Either way, when Alice returns to the garden party from whence she came, she has found the courage to make her own decisions and not be pressured by the presumptions of society. She kindly and confidently refuses the proposal of marriage, but I do wish the extent of her epiphanies ended there. As she turned to members of her family and imparts some of her newfound ‘wisdom’, I suppressed a veritable cringe.
As I believe has been identified by many others, the proposal for Alice to become an apprentice of her late father’s company is somewhat anachronistic, considering the Victorian setting. Alice’s masculine role within Underland is accepted on the basis of its unreality and also because Underland is a timeless place; its presence in ‘reality’ is only objectionable in terms of its historical inaccuracies.
Aside from a few such niggling instances in which my critical stance drew me out of the drama, I enjoyed the extent to which I was submersed in the plot that Burton fashions for his Alice. Whilst I adore the wonderful and puzzling tales in Carroll’s original books, I can’t deny that Burton’s reworking is a successful one.