Sunday, July 25, 2010

Film Review: Alice in Wonderland

I really had no desire to watch the Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland. His films are, of course, always visually stunning, but I am just not nearly as impressed with them as I'm supposed to be. While I love Johnny Depp's acting, Burton's need to put him in film after film is a bit grating, especially because it causes Depp to play on the same facets of his acting toolbox. The Mad Hatter certainly looked like a re-hash of his Willy Wonka persona to me.

Fortunately, this time, Mr. Burton pleasantly surprised me.

About the Books
I read both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass last year, and was unimpressed with them, as well. I was aware, from various adaptations over the years, of all of the various characters and events, but reading them as they were originally laid out just did not resonate with me. They were nonsensical, and the books had no theme, moral, or even plotline as such. That's fine, of course, given the period in which the books were written ... but it just doesn't work for me.

And the fact that there are two books is also puzzling, because they're similar on so many levels but also have dramatic differences. Alice from one book doesn't seem to remember the events of the other, and the worlds are just different enough to be distracting. It was like Lewis Carroll thought of his premise - a young girl named Alice is magically transported to a fantasy world - but then came up with two different ways of writing the story. Instead of picking one, he instead just wrote both of them. It's a curious way of going about storytelling (although I can think of a few times in the Bible where a similar narrative strategy seems at work - like the multiple tales of Abraham & Isaac trying to pass their wives off as their sister).

Back to the Film
So we had a film by a director I was unimpressed with based upon source material that I was unimpressed with. The result: I really was not expecting to like the film. I put off renting it, but finally, when it was the only even remotely-desirable option at our nearby Redbox (and I had a promo code that would run out in a week if I didn't use it), I opted to rent Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.

And, overall, I am quite pleased that I did. Burton seems to have realized all of the same flaws that I had with the original material (which is surprising, since the nonsense of the original source material is somewhat similar to the nonsense that Burton spewed out in his "masterpiece" Big Fish) and sought to "remedy" it ... which is needed, because a film that was a faithful re-telling of Alice in Wonderland would have been a failure with any audience that was not using mood altering chemicals.

Of course, for people who loved the source material, changing it can be a serious point of contention. (See this Orson Scott Card review, for example, though he did ultimately enjoy the film.) For me, though, this worked wonders, because it made a bit of sense of things. He did take the story and make it more relevant (though Card is right that Burton added more than his fair share of failures to the venture, as well).

First of all, Alice has been to Wonderland before. It's not really explained how often, but this provides a means to explain the two books if the film is viewed as the third story in the series. First comes Alice in Wonderland (the book), then Through the Looking Glass, and then Tim Burton's film, which should honestly have been named Alice's Return to Wonderland or Alice's War for Wonderland or something like that.

This meant that Burton was free to use all of the characters, events, or themes from either of the books freely, but could also tell an actual story. Not only that, but he actually had a theme, and a good one, about belief in oneself.  In both of Lewis Carroll's books, the character of Alice is merely an observer who goes through no changes from beginning to end. It's a random series of entertaining encounters ... end of story.

Burton took the story from one of pure whimsy to one of growth, by introducing a character arc that was wholly absent from the original source material.

I won't discuss the specifics of the plotline, other than to say that it provides the characters that do show up much larger roles. Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter (one of the few characters other than Alice to appear in both of the Lewis Caroll books, but only for one scene per book) is given a major role, and he gets nearly as much screen time as Alice. (Card's review gives away more details of the storyline, for those who are interested.)

The fact is that this is still an Alice in Wonderland story, and the storyline doesn't (and shouldn't) completely eclipse the wonder of discovering this mystical realm. Still, there does need to be a storyline, because modern audiences are not yet so immune to storytelling that they will sit through a series of random events and feel satisfied.

So, in my take, Burton's film succeeds on almost all levels. Yes, there are some serious problems with his portrayal of Victorian society in the "real world" parts of the book, and there were also some problems with the interpretation (misquotes of poetry lines and such) which made it seem that Tim Burton himself may have been screaming "Off with their heads" to any English Literature consultants working on the film. But as someone who didn't particularly care for the books, or enjoyed them only as amusing little pieces of drivel, I thought it was great.

It was a fun film, visually stunning, and it actually had a good character arc. That's better than you get with a lot of films today.

Time in Wonderland
One personal disappointment was that I'd hoped for there to be some discussion of the curious behavior of time in the film. In Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen actually experiences time backward, which appears to have been completely ignored by Burton, though it could have provided some interesting material in the film.
Note: When a call went out for Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy, I proposed an article on the nature of time in Lewis Carroll's stories, but the editor passed on the idea. I still think it's an idea I might get back to sometime.

Modern Kid Lit: The Looking Glass War
The film made me think of a series of books that I'd stumbled upon a while back, but haven't yet read, called The Looking Glass War by Frank Beddor. It's a three-volume series which goes on the premise that Alice (called Alyss in the series) actually traveled to Wonderland, and that her stories were the basis of the classic books. The Mad Hatter plays prominently in the series, as some kind of agent who can travel between the worlds. Hatter has now come back to bring Alyss to Wonderland to stop a war that threatens both realities. (There also appears to be a Hatter M series of graphic novels, which looks as if it's something of a prequel to the novel trilogy.)

As I've said, I haven't actually read these books yet, so I cannot honestly recommend them. They did catch my eye, though, and I'm looking forward to having the time to get to them. If you've watched the film, or read the original books, and are interested in seeing more about how this subject matter is being adapted for modern audiences, these books may well be something you'd be interested in reading.

And if you have read them, please leave a comment letting me (and other readers) know whether they're worth our valuable time and money!
Looking Glass War trilogy

Hatter M graphic novels

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