Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

Terrance Riley, Bloomsburg University

49. Alice in Wonderland - You're InvitedLewis Carroll’s Alice novels are rarely regarded as frightening, but they probably should be. Both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are virtual catalogues of nightmares that make their first appearance in childhood: falling into dark places, metamorphic bodies, anthropomorphic monsters, and homicidal mothers. One of Carroll’s motives was to teach children to be brave in the face of dangers, and his Alice is a model of poise and grace. But readers who return to the book as adults often find themselves recalling those early fears in vivid and unpleasant detail.

American director Tim Burton has established a substantial and successful record in exploring the human psyche and engaging with its deepest fears: Edward Scissorhands (1990), The Nightmare Before Christmas (as writer, 1993), Sleepy Hollow (1999), The Corpse Bride (2005), and Sweeney Todd (2007) are saturated with images of deformed and violated bodies, re-animated corpses, and sudden malevolence, but rendered with a comic exaggeration that diffuses alarm – the very tactic that Carroll used. In 2010 Burton brought his peculiar gothic preoccupations to Carroll’s Alice, combining elements of both stories in an allegory of an adult returning to Carroll’s Wonderland and struggling with unresolved childhood anxieties. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton’s Alice is a privileged nineteen-year-old girl facing a marriage of convenience to a repulsive suitor. Alice has no love for the man, but neither does she have any prospects of her own, or even any hopes. In a moment of distraction and delay, she spots a rabbit in a blue vest and runs away from her engagement ceremony, chasing the rabbit into a hole under a tree (“escaping,” as she had years before, from the real world into a fantasy, just as a reader escapes by falling into the world of a book).

The adult familiar with the original texts will recognize Wonderland. Burton and Woolverton take many liberties with Carroll, but the setting, the iconic objects, and the central characters are inspired directly by John Tenniel’s original illustrations. Woolverton stages her most important textual intervention early on: as Alice and the reader are rediscovering Wonderland, the characters are debating whether this is the Alice they remember. Unaware she’s being observed, Alice speaks her signature line “Curiouser and curiouser.” The White Rabbit announces to the others, “I told you she’s the right Alice. . . . I’ve been up there for weeks trailing one Alice after the next” (“Alice in Wonderland (2010)/Script”). The “right Alice” is the only one (according to the Oraculum, the history of Wonderland’s past and future) who can end the Queen of Heart’s reign. In Woolverton’s allegory, the adult Alice is the only one who can conquer her own childhood fears.

Burton’s film includes most of the fears found in Carroll’s text and a few new ones (like the sexually predatory Knave of Hearts and the toothy, bearish Bandersnatch, mentioned but not represented in the novel). But the fears are chiefly collapsed into two menacing adults, the insane Queen and the Jabberwocky she uses to maintain her power. Burton highlights the Queen’s role as a monstrous mother: she adopts Alice during one of the latter’s giant (and consequently nude) phases, clothes her, and sets a place for her next to the throne. But she flies into a rage (“Off with her head!”) whenever her will is thwarted. Burton’s Jabberwocky is not human, but he walks more or less upright and speaks in the orotund tones of actor Christopher Lee, whose presence in the film evokes the horrific adult males Lee is known for onscreen. Tenniel’s illustration also suggests a dragon at least capable of bipedal motion, and possibly speech. The Jabberwocky could stand in for a dreadful grandfather, then, or the sinister neighbor down the street, but in any case a creature uttering nightmarish threats, like the Queen.

Alice slays the Jabberwocky. The playing card soldiers lay down their weapons, and the crown is returned to the White Queen, who sends the Red Queen and the Knave into exile. Alice has restored peace and order. Adult readers who return to the Wonderland of their childhoods can find there a place for confronting and overcoming the adult world’s insane and reckless violence, thus restoring internal peace and order. As in the original, Burton’s Alice decides not to stay in Wonderland, but to return to her world, knowing she has the courage to create a future for herself. The final scene shows her confident and purposeful, sailing off on a commercial expedition to China, another land of wonders, with the caterpillar Absolem, now a butterfly, perched on her shoulder, thus confirming Wonderland’s capacity for transformation.

Questions for Discussion:

Lewis Carroll’s Alice rarely seems afraid, despite all of the alarming situations she finds herself in. What kind(s) of courage does she display? Is “courage” the right word, or what alternatives might be better?

In the film, Alice continually insists that she is just dreaming. Berated by the other creatures for being the “wrong Alice,” she objects, “Wait, this is my dream. I’m going to wake up now and you’ll all disappear.” And facing an angry Bandersnatch, “It’s only a dream. Nothing can hurt me” (“Alice in Wonderland (2010)/Script”). Why do you think screenwriter Linda Woolverton includes these lines? What do we learn about Alice, if all of Wonderland really is her dream?

In Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat for directions:

“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked. “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here.” (Carroll 49)

Where is “here”? That is, what place or condition is represented by Wonderland? Is it the same place in the film as in the book?

In an interview shortly after the film opened, Tim Burton said, “If you go back to Tenniel, so much of his work is what stays in your mind about Alice and about Wonderland. . . . Alice and the characters have been done so many times and in so many ways, but Tenniel’s art really lasts there in your memory” (Boucher, par. 3). Which features of Tenniel’s illustrations does Burton draw on most directly? What is useful or memorable about Tenniel’s visual conception of Carroll’s texts?

Further Reading:

“Alice in Wonderland (2010)/Script.”  Alice in Wonderland Wiki,

http://aliceinwonderland.wikia.com/wiki/Alice_in_Wonderland_(2010)/Script. Accessed

26 July, 2018.

Boucher, Geoff. “John Tenniel and the Persistence of ‘Wonderland.’” Los Angeles Times, 1

March, 2010, http://herocomplex.latimes.com/uncategorized/john-tenniel-and-the-persistence-of-wonderland/. Accessed 24 July, 2018.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland. Edited by Donald J. Gray, Norton, 2013.

Falconer, Rachel. “Underworld Portmanteaux: Dante’s Hell and Carroll’s Wonderland in Women’s Memoirs of Mental Illness.” Alice beyond Wonderland: Essays for the Twenty-  First Century, edited by Christopher Hollingsworth, U of Iowa P, 2009, 3-22.

Moawad, Heidi. “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome.” Neurology Times. 10 August, 2016.

http://www.neurologytimes.com/headache-and-migraine/alice-wonderland-syndrome. Accessed 26 July, 2018.

Newman, Kim and Mark Sinker. “Go Ask Alice.” Sight & Sound, vol. 20, no. 4, Apr. 2010, pp. 32-34.

Susina, Jan. “Alice in Wonderland.” Marvels & Tales, vol. 25, no. 1, May 2011, pp. 181-183.

Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon’s Goblin Market

by Sharon Aronofsky Weltman, Louisiana State University

Though Christina Rossetti’s powerful 1859 narrative poem Goblin Market might seem an unlikely source for a Broadway hit, Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon’s Goblin Market opened at New York’s tiny Vineyard Theater on October 17, 1985, starring Terri Klausner and Ann Morrison, to such good reviews that six months later it moved to Circle in the Square (a larger venue in Manhattan) for a successful run. A chamber opera requiring only two singer-actresses and a four-piece orchestra, Goblin Market has enjoyed continual production in both regional and college theaters. Most of the lyrics come almost directly from Rossetti’s luscious and memorable verse. The result is a captivating entertainment that—depending on directorial choices—works for a range of ages. Rossetti’s poem has generated a wide variety of interpretations: a Victorian children’s fairy tale, a metaphor for sexual desire, a Christian allegory, a saga of addiction and recovery, a story of sisterly affection, a representation of incest, a portrayal of prostitution’s ruthless market economy, a psychological investigation into the divided self, a portrayal of anorexia, and a feminist glorification of Sisterhood (with a capital S). In addition to being a work of theater that succeeds on its own, Pen and Harmon’s adaptation to the musical stage provides yet another way to examine Rossetti’s work.

The play is framed by a flashback. Dressed in mourning, the adult Lizzie and Laura return to their girlhood home, entering their old nursery to remember what may be a childhood game or may be something more. Once the frame is established and they have removed their black crinolines to reveal white petticoats and pantaloons, the drama follows the poem’s plot closely: Laura succumbs to the goblins’ tempting fruits and nearly dies; virtuous Lizzie saves her sister by bravely tricking the goblins into yielding the antidote without actually eating the forbidden fruit. Each actress speaks or sings her poetic character’s lines. But because there are only two actresses, each girl also plays the goblins in turn.

The play eliminates most lines that are typically used to support lesbian interpretations of the poem, such as “eat me, drink me, suck my juices / squeezed from goblin fruits for you” (lines 468-9). Unlike the poem, Lizzie brings back the physical fruit to Laura so that no live actors lick juice from the skin of another. But the possibility of a homosexual reading is reinstated through cross-gender performance. When Lizzie plays the goblins, they seduce Laura. Laura in turn plays the goblins throughout their violent assault of Lizzie.

The show’s readily available cast album and libretto work well for class discussion. Among the selections most useful for teaching is “Here They Come,” which is Pen and Harmon’s rendering of the poem’s metaphorical rape scene (lines 340-446): the women chant in disorienting counterpoint, harshly repeating the word “bite” as they rise to a feverish crescendo for an intense experience of how music can fortify poetry. Another song is “The Sisters,” a cheerful tune by Rossetti’s contemporary Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). The duet supplies the poem’s sense of the girls’ striking similarity, replacing lines often cited to back a lesbian reading of the poem (“Golden head by golden head, / Like two pigeons in one nest /. . . Cheek to cheek and breast to breast / Locked together in one nest” (184-198)) with words translated from Brahms: they are “like as like can be, / As eggs are like each other, . . . / Or one star like another, / You can’t tell her from me.” For four verses of the song, the girls sing in harmonious thirds emphasizing their supportive relationship, with Lizzie taking the higher vocal line. In the last verse, the girls’ voices become progressively discordant as they sing new words, “Now who is the loveliest one? / I am, I am, I am, I am, I am!,” with Laura repeatedly trying to get the upper hand as she grabs the higher note. The concluding “I” is sung only one note apart, gratingly. Rossetti’s poem is not often interpreted as about sibling rivalry, but this song humorously helps us to consider that possibility.

Listening to cuts from the show pairs well with looking at illustrations of the poem (beginning with the original wood cuts by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti’s brother) to compare visual and musical adaptations with Rossetti’s words.

Discussion Questions:

What is effect of framing the fantasy of Rossetti’s poem in a realistic setting in which grown women return to their childhood home after a funeral? How does providing the sense of an adult world outside the magical nursery space where goblins sell fruit change the how we interpret the story?

In much of the show, Pen and Harmon set Rossetti’s poetry to music almost exactly as Rossetti wrote it, while manipulating the words through repetition, as in “Here They Come.” How does musical embellishment serve as an interpretation of the poem, affecting our understanding of the poetry? In what ways do performance and staging also operate as an interpretation?

Pen and Harmon have written or interpolated some songs that are not based on Rossetti’s poetry. One example is “The Sisters,” emphasizing the girls’ sibling rivalry. How does the addition of these lyrics change our understanding of Lizzie and Laura’s characters? How does it affect their relationship? In what ways does it alter the meaning of the whole poem/play?

Further Reading:

Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. Christina Rossetti and Illustration: A Publishing History. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2002.

Pen, Polly and Peggy Harmon. Goblin Market. Dramatists Play Service. 1985.

Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems. Ed. Betty S. Flowers. London and New York: Penguin, 2001.

Weltman, Sharon Aronofsky. “Performing Goblin Market.” Essays on Transgressive Readings:  Reading over the Lines. Ed. Georgia Johnston. Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter:  The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997: 121-143.

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book

By Jen Cadwallader, Randolph-Macon College

graveyard-book-coverOne of the challenges facing any instructor of Victorian literature is helping students see how studying the concerns and values of the past helps them better understand their lives in the present. This same preoccupation engages Neil Gaiman in The Graveyard Book (2008), where Nobody “Bod” Owens must learn to negotiate between the values of the graveyard, where he is raised by ghosts long dead, and the contemporary world of the living, with which he must interact. Adaptation in multiple senses thus becomes a central focus of the novel. More specifically, The Graveyard Book adapts – although “resurrects” might be more fitting – the Mowgli stories from Rudyard Kipling’s two Jungle Books (1894, 1895). Major characters such as Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo, and Shere Khan are recognizable in Gaiman’s Bod, Silas, Miss Lupescu, and the man Jack; readers of both works will see similarities between a number of minor characters as well. Gaiman’s episodic structure (each chapter is a story about Bod set roughly two years after the previous one) recalls the format of Kipling’s Jungle Books, though not all of Kipling’s stories focus on Mowgli. A difficulty in pairing The Graveyard Book with the Jungle Books are the number of stories in Kipling’s collections, some of which have not held up as well as others. Faculty interested in the stories most closely related to The Graveyard Book might want to limit the assigned readings to “Mowgli’s Brothers,” “Kaa’s Hunting,” “Tiger! Tiger!,” “Letting in the Jungle,” and “The King’s Ankus.”

TJunglebookCoverhe Graveyard Book, which won both the Carnegie and the Newbery Medals (notably the first novel to do so), is a richly layered narrative with much material for stimulating discussion. In addition to the issues of continuity and temporality that Gaiman’s novel raises through its juxtaposition of the past and present, the dead and living, pairing it with Kipling’s work may help students reflect on the nature of the Victorian bildungsroman. Kipling’s Mowgli famously helped inspire the creation of the Cub Scouts and embodies the “romanticized child” of the late-Victorian era. Bod’s journey toward adulthood reimagines the qualities of masculinity and innocence inherent in Victorian concepts of childhood. Alternatively, faculty may be interested in focusing on the Jungle Books’ participation in the boys’ adventure genre, with its stress on nationalism and empire. The Graveyard Book, as scholars have noted, steers clear of less palatable imperialistic ideology while still providing ample material for discussions of identity and community and cultural exchange.

Questions for Discussion

In The Graveyard Book, Bod is granted the “Freedom of the Graveyard.” How does this compare to the “Law of the Jungle” in Kipling’s stories? How do the behaviors associated with Gaiman’s “Freedom” and Kipling’s “Law” reflect shifting cultural perceptions of childhood?

Gaiman transforms the Indian jungle into a neglected graveyard and instead of wild animals peoples his novel with ghosts, ghouls, vampires and werewolves. How do both settings capture their eras’ ideas of fantasy worlds or spaces outside of their readers’ day-to-day lives?

Much contemporary debate on child-rearing focuses on the dangers of childhood: should children be allowed the freedoms of earlier generations, or do they need to be more protected in a world that has grown more dangerous? Should children be exposed to the idea of these dangers, or should we “sanitize” the material we place before them? The first sentence of The Graveyard Book – “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife” – which stands alone on a page illustrated by Dave McKean, immediately invites discussion of this controversy. Looking particularly at Bod and Scarlett’s adventures with the Sleer (and her parents’ reactions) how else does Gaiman challenge contemporary notions of what is suitable for children? Do Mowgli’s adventures reflect any of the same concerns about childhood?

Both Mowgli and Bod must make places for themselves in the world outside the jungle and graveyard. How do both protagonists navigate this transition? What particular values from their upbringings help them critically examine the societies they enter?

Further Reading

Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Boston: Houghton, 1985.

McBratney, John. “Imperial Subjects, Imperial Space in Kipling’s Jungle Book.” Victorian Studies 35.3 (1992): 277-293.

McStotts, Christine. “The Jungle, the Graveyard, and the Feral Child: Imitating and Transforming Kipling Beyond Pastiche.” Neil Gaiman in the 21st Century: Essays on the Novels, Children’s Stories, Online Writings, Comics, and Other Works. Ed. Tara Prescott. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. 65-82.

Randall, Don. Kipling’s Imperial Boy: Adolescence and Cultural Hybridity. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Robertson, Christine. “‘I want to be like you:’ Riffs on Kipling in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 36.2 (2011): 164-189.