I am a huge Lewis Carroll fan. The Alice stories (In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) are among the best ever written. To my thinking, they are worthy of analyzing and revisiting many times over, always with something new to be discovered.
Because the original work is presented with a good deal of abstract symbolism, readers often misunderstand, or are completely baffled by the text. (Especially if they are trying to decipher it on an adult level.) Hence, film makers tend to go ‘over the top’, often presenting the story with a lot of bells and whistles that were not included in the original story. (Tim Burton and Disney both did this.)
It is, at its core, a story about questioning authority. Carroll pokes fun at just about every Victorian institution. His attack at child rearing, for example, is evident in the fate of the baby that turns into a pig.
You may recall, the Duchess, and mother of the child, tortured him with peppery soup, threw plates at him, and firmly believed in “speaking roughly” to children and beating them for disruptive behavior, such as sneezing. Alice does the only sensible thing — takes the baby away from his chaotic home. Once in the forest, the baby turns into a pig, then runs away. The baby had a hard time in the Duchess’ household, and we might assume he will be happier in the wilds. Alice even claims he makes “a rather handsome pig.”
Carroll pokes fun at the school system, evident in the “reeling and writhing” classes of the mock turtle. The “lessons” also lessen daily, starting with ten hours the first day and steadily decreasing. (Although he was an Oxford don, Carroll himself once taught secondary education, finding it so tedious he could not wait for the day to end.)
He makes fun of he British monarchy. “Off with her head” is a reference to its once frequent be-headings a la Henry VIII and his unfortunate wives. The temperamental Queen orders a beheading at least once an hour. Later the Gryphon informs Alice that none of the be-headings are actually carried out. The Queen is, in fact, clueless about her own administration.
The Wars of the Roses is also mocked, with the servants painting roses from white to red, representing York and Lancaster dynasties. The Queen ( a Red Queen) wants red roses and the servants have planted a white rose bush by mistake. Their solution is to paint the roses red before the angry Queen finds out. The Lancaster dynasty was symbolized by red roses, and the York by white. The Wars of the Roses was a devastating English civil war, its bloody battles spanning over thirty years.
The court system is also criticized in the Knave of Hearts’ trial. The characters present a plethora of silly witnesses and a nonexistent crime. In Through the Looking Glass, in a bizarre sequence of time reversal, the punishment for a crime is given before the crime is actually committed! Hence we find the Mad Hatter serving time in jail, although he has not yet committed his crime.
There is a message about being controlled by schedules in the rabbit’s obsession with his watch — he lives in fear of “being late”. The idea of “beating time” is later discussed by the Mad Hatter. Alice mentions that she must beat time to play music, and the Hatter reprimands her, saying Time will never cooperate with her if she beats him.
The Alice books show a test of one’s ability to adapt. Alice finds herself in the strangest of circumstances and tries her best to fit in. In the end she discovers the Wonderland creatures are “nothing but a pack of cards” and thus no better than she herself. They are, in fact, lower than she herself, and she overcomes them simply by standing up to them. In this case, literally standing up — as she is much taller than them, but symbolically Alice also stands up for her own rights and her own opinions.
As in any quest for knowledge, and as is frequently the experience of one ‘growing up’, Alice often becomes ‘too big’ for her own surroundings.
She may be terrified at the changes within her own mind and body – frequently the experience of adolescents and young adults. And yet, as the frog footmen, the lizards and rabbits scurry about, Alice is aware of their silliness, much in the same way an enlightened being becomes aware of the triviality of the world.
Perhaps most importantly, the books teach self actualization. Alice is frustrated, but in the end she realizes her nuanced opinions have some validity. Her experience is just as important as anyone else’s.
No wonder Wonderland became so popular! First published in 1865, it has never been out of print. The first fans of the Alice books included Queen Victoria and Oscar Wilde. The Alice books are also reportedly the most quoted books in the English language, right up there with the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.
Carroll was among the first to use a dream sequence in a novel — a technique that became more popular with the work of Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century. Today dream sequence in film is almost passe’. We have seen it a hundred times, and it is frequently uses as a cliffhanger, or to ‘trick’ the viewer. But back then it was certainly innovative.
Ironically, although Carroll is frequently accused of drug use, the kinds of drugs they associate him with were not discovered until much later. For example, ‘magic mushrooms’ were discovered in 1955, and LSD was first synthesized in 1938, which I guess proves that Carroll had a brilliant imagination.
So, forget Tim Burton and all other fabrications. Here I give you a movie which is actually very close in sentiment to the Real Alice!
This 1972 film, directed by William Sterling, captures the intent of Lewis Carroll. Using most of the book’s original dialogue, script writing owes credit to Carroll as well as Sterling. The talented cast includes Fiona Fullerton, Dudley Moore and Peter Sellers.
Although the film is lacking in super-duper mind blowing special effects (it was, after all, made in 1972 on a limited budget) it nonetheless does a great job of capturing Carroll’s ideas.
Running time is about 1 hour 30 minutes. Hope you get a chance to watch it!