After I finished reading and analysing the books, I decided to have a little movie marathon to see how they film adaptations compared. I made cocktails for my mother, my sister, and myself, and we sat down to watch.
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Having finally read the book, I must say that the beloved Disney classic is a very mild version, both of Alice and Wonderland. You catch glimpses of Alice’s Foot-in-Mouth Disease in scenes like the Mat Tea Party when she mentions her ‘c-a-t’ with the Dormouse, and how fond she is of eggs to the mother bird, but for the most part, Alice is a pretty sympathetic character. She’s not such an aggressive know-it-all as she is in the first book, and the other citizens of Wonderland are much easier on her, as well. Obviously, in the interest of time and similarity of character, a number of the more memorable characters were left out, most notoriously the Mock Turtle. But I also enjoyed the Duchess and her pig baby, as well as the White Knight, who would have been fun to have around, as a possible nod to Carroll.
It’s odd to me now, looking at it with different eyes, how ‘Wonderland’ has become a byword for a magical fantasy world, where everything in the garden is lovely, when in the actual book (and if you look closer at the movie), Wonderland is not a place where Alice enjoys being. Nothing makes sense, which frustrates her. The ‘land of her own, where everything would be nonsense’ gets old really quickly to her; in fact, she doesn’t seem to enjoy much of anything there. The other characters either dismiss and belittle her as a foolish child or annoying trespasser, or ignore her outright as though she weren’t even there. She winds up in all sorts of uncomfortable situations that are difficult for her to escape, and she more than once pines wistfully for the comfort and security of the real world that she was so desperate to escape. I think it rather highlights the loneliness of the Victorian childhood, where even if your fantasy world, you’re an outsider. And when she tries to ingratiate herself with her hosts, she is inevitably insulted about something, and when she does assert that she is educated and can recite her lessons, they’re different from the ones in Wonderland, making her look silly. It’s no wonder she loses her temper.
The chaotic absurdity of Wonderland is softened by Mary Blair’s dreamy, whimsical style. She is known for such other Disney classics as Cinderella, Peter Pan and the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland. And thank goodness she did, too, because even as saturated as it is, if Disney had gone the direction of John Tenniel, who did the original illustrations in the books (you can see some of them here), it would have had a much more grotesque, if possibly more accurate, feel. Mary Blair’s style pairs well with the music, which, in typical Disney fashion, is catchy and mostly peppy, belying the very real danger. It’s the constant battle between reality and fantasy, even within Wonderland.
In fact, the only song Alice sings alone in Wonderland is, ‘Very Good Advice,’ the lowest part of the movie, where she relinquishes her assertiveness and buckles to the criticisms of those around her. (It’s interesting to not that that scene is entirely absent from the book. There are no shovel-bill birds, or any of the rest of them. Pure Disney imagination) Even at this point, when she is broken down and finally accepts her place, that she is finally given what she has wanted this whole time, which is to see the lovely garden. But even after all of her misfortune, even after accepting what everyone says about her, even after accepting the way things are in Wonderland, she is still not accepted, and faces her worst challenge yet. She is tried, convicted, and chased out of Wonderland. The kid can’t catch a break.
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
The 2010 Alice in Wonderland is far from what I expected, which I’m not sure is a compliment or a criticism, if I’m honest. I went into it hoping that Tim Burton’s romantically creepy style would more accurately reflect the book than Mary Blair’s, and it did…in a way.
However, it wasn’t as faithful as I had hoped. I worried it wouldn’t be. Between you and me, the only Tim Burton film I like is Nightmare Before Christmas because the style fits the story, whereas I feel all of the other films of his I’ve seen, the story is beaten into submission to fit the style. They are, in my view, unnecessarily weird, for the sake of it, and I’m frankly tired of seeing the same faces making the same expressions over and over, no matter how much I may like them.
The story of this version of Alice takes place about ten years after the first one. Alice is haunted by her dreams of Wonderland (which is actually called Underland), which turn out to have been memories. She is something of a Chosen One, who is destined to fight the fabled Jabberwocky and win, thereby restoring hope and light to the kingdom. The kingdom, meanwhile, is split between the exiled, vapid and floaty White Queen, and the grotesquely misshapen Red Queen (once again, equated with the Queen of Hearts), who lead a coup against her younger sister to gain the throne. No explanation is given as to why these sisters look nothing alike, why the Red Queen’s head is so big (though it is mentioned half a hundred times), or why she didn’t inherit the throne to begin with. Her whole motivation seems to be that she was the first-born and therefore, rule is rightfully hers, which…yeah, it checks out. Why was she passed over for the White Queen? I guess it doesn’t matter as long as we can laugh at her huge head and the cosmetic enhancements of her courtiers.
The film begins with Alice to a party which turns out to be an engagement party (duh), where she meets a number of characters who hamfistedly foreshadow characters in Underland, setting up the ‘and you were there, and you, and you’ Wizard of Oz ending. She even had a poorly explained Fast Pass back to the real world in the form of Jabberwocky blood. Does she drink it? Sniff it? Just kind of…hold it? Unclear, but somehow she made it out.
In Underland itself, it was nice to see a number of characters absent from the book (like the White Queen, who was actually just as bossy as the Red Queen, originally), the Jabberwocky, the Jub-Jub bird, the Vorpal Sword, and the Bandersnatch, almost all of which exist solely in the poem, Jabberwocky and don’t have a role in the story. After Alice follows the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole, she is confronted by half of these characters in the same scene: the Dormous, the talking flowers, Tweedledee and Tweedle dum, then very soon after, the caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, then the Mad Hatter, and the March Hare. It’s like Tim Burton was trying the entire book in one scene at the same time.
Also, all of these characters have names now, which…I have to assume was an attempt at giving Underland some realism, but it really just gummed it up for me. That plus the dark storyline of a great reckoning with a battle and a face-off was just too much to try to pull off and just made kind of a mess. The whole point of Wonderland in the book is that there is no cohesion, it’s just nonsense. Obviously, this is an updated version for a modern audience, but one that completely does away with most of the source material, while also somehow sticking to all the bits of the original and 1951 adaptation that don’t work. I’m getting really annoyed with the Red Queen/Queen of Hearts being the villain. It was cute once, but in the book, pretty much every character minus the White Knight, is a bossy, dismissive jerk to Alice, especially the Red Queen and Queen of Hearts, but also the White Queen and the Duchess. And none of them really have power in Wonderland, so there isn’t really a villain, besides Alice’s own impetuosity.
The score, however, was top notch. Danny Elfman never disappoints. A++
Through the Looking Glass (2016)
Through the Looking Glass, as my sister put it, is more fun than Alice in Wonderland…but that’s about it.
Again, we have a situation where there’s almost nothing relevant to the books, besides the character names, which are also different. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is centred around cards, while Through the Looking Glass relates to chess. However, these two movies are about fighting the Jabberwocky to restore the Red Queen to the throne, and finding the Mad Hatter’s missing family.
I didn’t expect either of these films to be carbon copies of the book, but some attempt to reflect the source material would have been nice. And this film does at least offer some explanation for the Red Queen’s predicament, though they are both flimsy and frankly irritating.
There were two bright spots, however. Time, who was an offstage character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, becomes a central antagonist. He’s the sort I like–the one who is actually right, and who must act like a bad guy because the hero of the story does something out-of-her-mind stupid and he has to fix it. In a way, Alice is the villain, and Time is the hero, leaving his gothic steampunk fortress to chase her across the Sea of Time to fix everything she screwed up. He is a kind of Swiss Cyborg Iron Man, portrayed by Sasha Baron Cohen, who always does a good job. Time’s first appearance is a pratfall, yet he does have a stately gravitas, even in comedic scenes, which I really like. And at the end, he and Alice come to an understanding, and it’s all very cool.
So that was good.
Also, there is a scene where the Red Queen shakes up an anthill, cackling, and screaming, ‘EARTHQUAKE!’ Probably the only time in two movies that I actually laughed out loud, and I don’t know if it’s because it was genuinely funny, or if I just have a sick sense of humour and really hate ants. Because I do, really.
There are a lot of questions raised and never answered, but I came very quickly to expect that. Honestly, my general impression of both of them was that the writing and directing were half-assed at best, but the actors and graphics team made up for it where they could. Except the Hatter. Normally, I’m a fan of Johnny Depp, but the Hatter is a miss for me. He’s not so much mad as snivelly and dribbly. I think they were trying to give him some heart and a sympathetic, gentle, childlike air, but a) that’s not how the Mad Hatter was, and b) they hit the pedal too hard and made him wet and weak. Plus his purple contour and white eyelashes give me rage nightmares. He looks like a corpse with contacts, even when he’s ‘healthy.’
Cool pin cushion ring, though.
But, film criticism aside, the idea of Wonderland has hung on in our collective cultural consciousness for over a century, and it’s not going away, no matter how much trite backstory and weird makeup we throw at it, so why not have fun with it?
The internet is bursting with cocktail recipes (of which I’ve tried a few), party favours, costumes, and more, and I intend to add to it! Join my mailing list, here, and very soon, I’ll send you some of the ideas I’ve cooked up in my own kitchen!