Despite the money that it shamelessly garnered at the box office, many of it in 3D sales, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland fails in almost every way possible to become anything other than a vehicle for Burton’s unique visual style.
Most of the blame lies with screenwriter Linda Woolverton. Her first fatal mistake, and that of most who have chosen to tackle this story on the screen, is to intermingle the distinct world of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with the equally distinct world of Through the Looking-Glass. The desire must always be strong to have the Mad Hatter cohabiting Wonderland with Tweedledum and Tweedledee, or to have the White Rabbit prancing about with the White Queen. But that isn’t simply loose adaptation. That’s not adaptation at all.
Lewis Carroll carefully crafted each world of his two Alice books with its own specific rules and dream-logic. On the most basic level, the easiest way to understand this is to view the world of Wonderland as a world of playing cards and the world of Looking-Glass as a world of chess. To be sure, Alice’s whole journey through the looking-glass is represented as a chess battle. The spaces that Alice advances in the game are even divided textually by rows of asterisks. There is no reason the worlds of cards and chess should ever meet, and in Carroll, they never do (unless, of course, you count John Tenniel’s illustrations of the King’s messengers in Looking-Glass as being intentional representations of his Mad Hatter and March Hare from Wonderland, but even then the two are cast in different roles). Woolverton’s choice to connect the two worlds as one, as if they were never even separate at all, is absurd. She even goes so far as to make the Queen of Hearts and the White Queen sisters. This only betrays her lack of understanding of her source material. And if she thinks this arbitrary mish mash is in spirit with Carroll’s love of literary nonsense, she misunderstands that, too. Nonsense, or the playful use of language to challenge a reader with a multitude of meanings, is not nihilism.
In line with Woolverton’s nihilistic approach to constructing the world of the film is her literal interpretation of Carroll’s characters. In Carroll’s books, many of the characters and objects exist as representations of verbal expressions and ideas. Thus, the Mad Hatter is a fruit of the phrase “mad as hatter.” Though the phrase may have originated as a reference to actual hatters going mad from using mercury, the Hatter in Carroll’s Wonderland is never depicted as an actual hatter. In Burton’s film, he is.
Also, Woolverton carelessly disposes of Carroll’s metaphorical language in favor of more literal Hollywood plot points. Thus, the mad tea party becomes insignificant compared to the Mad Hatter’s suffering under the cruel Queen of Hearts. The Hatter is even willing to take up the sword to fight against her for the goodly White Queen. What? And then there’s the Dormouse. A creature known for its hibernation, it was used by Milton as a metaphor for a sleepy or dozing person. For this reason, Carroll’s Dormouse continually falls asleep at the mad tea party. But in Burton’s film, for no apparent reason, the dormouse is a feisty swashbuckler, never seeming to tire at all. I can go on.
The danger in interpreting (or re-imagining) this material too literally is that the film becomes doomed to falter under a weighty seriousness that is completely opposed to the whimsical dreaminess of Carroll’s books. For one final example, take the Queen of Hearts. In Carroll, she never actually beheads anyone. But in Burton’s film, we see a river carrying hundreds of decapitated heads. It’s even suggested that the Queen ordered the King’s beheading. Why so serious?
One possible source for the problem might be that Woolverton and Burton have been influenced too much by C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. How? In their film, Alice is returning to Wonderland on the verge of adulthood after having visited it many times before as a child. This time, however, she finds the world in turmoil. The problem in attempting to craft Wonderland as a traditional “good vs. evil” battleground like Narnia is that Woolverton and Burton must arbitrarily assign the characters to sides. Thus, as previously mentioned, the Mad Hatter ends up on the side of the good, peace-loving White Queen. Why? He was never meant to exist on this sort of moral spectrum in the first place, so why not put him on the side of the evil, cruel Queen of Hearts? It’s equally absurd a choice. And what of his madness? When it does exhibit itself, it feels completely out of place in the film’s new moral context.
Despite all of these glaring problems, the most disturbing aspect of the film is its thematic inconsistency. From the beginning, it appears to be setting up the following:
Alice’s family is forcing her to live a life she does not want by insisting she get engaged to a wealthy suitor. After her time in Wonderland, we would guess, she will learn to stick up for herself and choose not to live the life that her family has written for her. She will choose not to get engaged. And that is indeed what happens. But the circumstances that lead Alice to stick up for herself are bizarrely contradictory to this outcome. In Wonderland, Alice discovers that another future has in fact been written for her: she is to slay the Jabberwocky, the subject of one of Carroll’s most well known poems from the Alice books. Here, as expected, the Jabberwocky is free of Carroll’s linguistic ingenuity and exists bluntly as a literal monster. Anyway, Alice decides that she doesn’t want to do it. She will not slay the Jabberwocky. And if the film were truer to Carroll’s vision, she wouldn’t. After a series of frustrating encounters with Wonderland’s inhabitants, she would have her “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” realization and, thus, wake up from her dream with the courage to once again refuse a future that was written for her (the engagement). But this doesn’t happen. Instead, Alice is “guilted” into giving in to the pleas of those around her to carry out the task that she would rather refuse. How is she guilted? Simple: the Narnia-inspired Wonderland is no longer a dream world, as Carroll would have it. Instead, the world is real, and the inhabitants will suffer if Alice does not make the decision to kill the Jabberwocky. If the film were consistent with its own message of independence, Alice would remain true to herself and deny this path.
I mention at the start that Alice in Wonderland succeeds only as a vehicle for Tim Burton’s visual style, and that remains true. Burton is above all else a visual artist, best known for the unique, gothic style found across his body of work from films as diverse as Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Batman to Big Fish and Corpse Bride. Here, using Tenniel’s original illustrations as simply a jumping off point, Burton adapts Wonderland and its inhabitants to his own personal brand, sometimes with compelling results: the large-headed Queen of Hearts, the grotesque Tweedles, and yes, even the Jabberwocky, to name a few examples. After suffering through the film’s narrative, however, one gets the impression that a picture book of static images or a gallery of paintings and sculptures would have sufficed. As I hope I have illustrated, Woolverton’s screenplay is where the film truly fails and collapses like the poorly built house of cards it is—or at least should have been.