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.