promotional shot of Mia Wasikowska as Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, 2010
I didn’t write about it at the time, but a while ago I – like so many others – took the time to go and see the latest take on Alice in Wonderland, that questionable offering from odd-bedfellows Disney and Tim Burton. I was, I regret to say, rather disappointed. Of course it was beautiful – stunning, really, in parts – and the costumes were quite divine (which is usually enough to sell me on a film), but there was so much CGI that it overshadowed everything else; and let’s not even go into the atrocious details of those awful moments of ‘Disney-fication’ (if you’ve seen it I’m sure you know the ones) that, I suppose, must have come with the contract, and rather spoiled the mood of the piece entire. Then again, I knew from the outset that it was going to be about as far a cry as possible from my favorite version of the story to date, one Alice (1988) by Czech director Jan Svankmajer.
film still of Alice and the Mad Hatter, from Jan Svankmajer’s Alice, 1988
I first saw Svankmajer’s Alice some two years ago, drawn in by the name, and the promise of puppetry and stop-frame animation, and the film far exceeded my expectations. Not only does it utilize the tactile, old-school (retrospectively, that is) cinematic techniques to which the Alice stories lend themselves so beautifully, but it embraces the underlying discomfort I have always sensed in the original books, and which so many more romantic, beautified versions (consciously or unconsciously) overlook. I love the look and feel (and, lets face it, the unsettling nature) of the film as a work in itself, but more than that I appreciate the fact that it is actually one of the most faithful cinematic renditions of the book that I’ve yet encountered. It is, undoubtedly, creepy; but then again, when you think about it, isn’t Carroll’s original, too? Leaving aside the dubious interactions of the author with his underage muse, Alice in Wonderland is, when considered objectively, far from a wholesome and uplifting childish tale. It has much more in common with the grim reality-pushed-to-the-edge-of-nightmare style of storytelling that one finds in un-sanitized fairytales, than with the brightly coloured, watered-down fluff so often pushed at children today.
Alice, by John Tenniel, from the 1865 publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
When you strip away the various pancake parlor and pastel-princess makeovers, Alice in Wonderland deals with some pretty disquieting issues. For a start there’s that socially uncomfortable oral fixation (usually bred or beaten out of children – particularly girls – by the time they learn how to dress themselves, but very much alive and well in Alice); I don’t think I know of any other heroine so prone to putting unknown substances in her mouth. But there are also a number of other, less obvious themes, more commonly dealt with in texts on psychoanalysis and the more gruesome of crime novels than your average children’s classic.
film still of Alice going down the ‘rabbit hole’, from Jan Svankmajer’s Alice, 1988
First there’s the constant stream of unpredictable metamorphosis, not only of the hero herself, but of her surroundings, companions and dietary staples, causing constant instability (though admittedly of the variety commonly more distressing to adult readers than children). Then there’s the consumption of sentient life-forms – those poor oysters, for example – which hints at cannibalism, or at the very least that squeamish feeling most people get when confronted with the realities of meat-as-living-creature, capable of experiencing pain, affection, etc. Hallucination plays another starring role, and though the whole story is sometimes argued as nothing more than a dream-sequence, Alice’s active engagement in it distances the fiction from the type of subconscious ramblings most readers are more familiar with. The heroine herself is also rather unsettling – even unacceptable, as girls go – on account of her highly antisocial behavior, and the nonchalance with which she encounters one odd and potentially dangerous person or situation after another. She has none of the anxiety and concern for her bodily safety so necessary to instill in girl children for the happy maintenance of western patriarchal society; Alice is one of those rare, rare creatures, a truly fearless heroine (another reason, in my view, why the Disney/Burton collaboration wasn’t up to scratch). She requires no hand-holding, no company in the dark; she gets up on her own, crawls through tunnels and into unknown spaces without fear (of unknown persons or unknown filth); feels safe and at ease enough with herself and her body to chase after and interact with strange (often male) creatures and persons, and consume – or rather, taste, that most underutilized and feared of the senses – anything that appears in her path. This act of consumption is in itself disturbing in a female-bodied character. Women and girls are, typically, that which is devoured – not the other way around. And let’s not forget the worrisome tumbling of little girls into dark, confined spaces, bare of protective influences or external aid. It may have been gussied up by Disney twice, now, but all the technicolour in the world won’t save Alice from being, at her core, a rather unsettling breed of hero.
conceptual art for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, 2010
And unlike the other versions I’ve seen, Svankmajer’s Alice shies away from none of this. However, that shouldn’t suggest that it’s any darker than Carroll’s original, because for all that it is true to the book’s more unsettling elements, there is also a sense of that quiet naivete that is always present, in its most extreme form, in those children prone to play by themselves, immersed in worlds of their own making. It has, more than anything, a quality that is not so much ‘dreamlike’ as ‘make-believe’, and though the difference is subtle and often missed, any imaginative child will tell you that there most definitely is one. Though the content of Alice in Wonderland – whether written down or portrayed in poignantly jerky stop-motion – is disturbing, seen through an adult lens, the genius of it is that, really, one suspects this could be true of many a childhood imaginary game. And ultimately, what disturbs us most is, I think, that what we – adults, readers, critics – find alarming, Alice takes surely in her stride, and more than that, into her control.