“Does this Look Like A Kid’s Story to You?”: Alice and Adaptation

For this week’s highlight list, I have chosen a few of my favourite Alice adaptations, versus the indirect adaptation I have been discussing. These are projects which do something unique with the Alice in Wonderland story, or those which consciously participate with the legacy of Carroll’s work.

Alice (2009)

This miniseries does an excellent job of balancing the original Alice story and revising or challenging our expectations of that story. The show focuses on a grown-up Alice who is inadvertently sprung into a dark version of Wonderland. While on a quest to save her boyfriend, Alice encounters many strange characters and environments and eventually leads a rebellion against the corrupt Queen of Hearts. What makes this adaptation unique is the way it incorporates Carroll’s “Walrus and the Carpenter” story and makes Wonderland a commercial enterprise.

For those unfamiliar, the “Walrus and the Carpenter” is about a Carpenter and Walrus who trick a group of young oysters into coming to lunch, and then devour them while crying. Most argue that the horrifying story is an allegory for the industrial revolution, and the industries which ‘devour’ children (or the worker) by working them to death.

Alice (2009) takes a different approach with the story and turns this harvesting motif into Wonderland’s primary import. Wonderland has been stealing humans, who they call Oysters, and harvesting their emotions to sell as elixirs. They keep humans in a sedated state and leave them in a bizarre casino which sucks out their feelings. The implication is that Wonderland has become so devoid of wonder that it needs to outsource. 

Like many other Carroll based adaptations, this Alice is forced to prove herself as ‘The Alice’ to save Wonderland. I think this motif of being ‘The Alice’ is so prevalent because of the identity issues in Carroll’s original work. Alice was never entirely sure if she was Alice in Carroll’s text, and so it makes sense that these identity politics continue to appear in later works. The easiest way to incorporate this identity dynamic is to use the Hero’s Journey, which is a literary/cinematic convention where the hero must prove themselves, train, and face adversity. Carroll’s text is too meandering to have a hero’s journey, as Alice never learns any lessons or morals, and is simply confused for the entire story. This does not necessarily make for good TV, and so the Hero’s Journey is an appropriate and easy way to revise Carroll’s text while maintaining its basic plot.

If you are still looking for a reason to check this miniseries out, Tim Curry is in it. 100% worth your time.

Alice in Wonderland (1999)

So, I cheated a little on this list. This is a strict and direct Alice adaptation, but it is also severely underrated. I would argue this is the best Alice adaptation we have. While it was made for TV, the film boasts an incredible cast including Whoopi Goldberg, Gene Wilder, Ben Kingsley, Robbie Coltrane, Christopher Lloyd, Martin Short, and Miranda Richardson. Likewise, while it is a direct adaptation, it is a unique kind because it actively rejects the Disneyfication of Alice. 

Disney’s 1951 Alice in Wonderland had a huge impact in how we recognize Alice. Everything from Alice’s blue dress to the combination of Carroll’s two Alice texts comes from Disney. I bet many people never knew that Tweedledee and Tweedledum are not actually in Alice in Wonderland, as they instead appear in the second book, Alice Through the Looking Glass. Because of Disney’s popularity, it is extremely difficult to make an adaptation of Alice without referring to Disney’s version of the story. That is where this adaptation differs.

This project is strictly an adaptation of Carroll’s work, not Disney. It even returns to Alice’s original yellow dress, instead of the more popular blue from Disney’s version. Although the film combines the events of both of Carroll’s texts, as Disney did, it also focuses on characters who are often neglected by adaptations. It is not just interested in figures like the Mad Hatter and Queen of Hearts, as we also meet the Mock Turtle and Duchess. What makes this project so fantastic is that it is interested in revisiting Alice from our modern perspective while also actively avoiding some of the preconceptions we have around Alice.

Although it is difficult to find this version, I highly encourage that every Alice fan watch it. I would also say the Whoopi Goldberg remains the greatest Cheshire Cat in history.

Malice in Wonderland (2009)

As you can tell from the title, this film is preoccupied with being a dark and gritty version of Alice in Wonderland. What I find interesting about it is that it picks up on the way Alice has been incorporated into our contemporary culture. Although Carroll’s text focuses on childhood, it has come to represent a lot of darker attitudes. Today, many associate Wonderland with drugs, pedophilia, insanity, and violence, similar to the video game series American McGee’s Alice. The nonsensical aspects of Alice’s journey leave enough ambiguity for a variety of close readings, including this darker kind.

Malice in Wonderland is intriguing because it is not an adaptation of Carroll’s work, it is an adaptation of what Carroll’s work has become. It argues that the story of Alice is one way to interpret modernity and society’s dark underbelly. By framing drugs, sex, and violence using Wonderland, the film acts as a commentary on our society. In doing so, it turns these violent aspects into something we can recognize and understand, and then potentially deal with. For instance, by turning the White Rabbit into a taxi driver/drug trafficker, the film turns something we know potentially little of into something we learned about as a child. Thereby, it gives us insight into the way our world operates, while also critiquing these orders.   

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (2013-2014)

It is disappointing that this series never received a second season. While it was never as successful as its sister series, Once Upon a Time, this spin-off continued to combine famous stories while focusing on Wonderland. Because Once Upon a Time had already introduced the Mad Hatter and Wonderland, this later show continued to take bits from the original and work them into an independent story. For instance, it incorporated magic into Wonderland and included characters from multiple classic stories, essentially combining Wonderland with the world of Aladdin.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the show was its literal version of the Queen of Hearts. In this universe, it is possible to remove someone’s heart and control them with it. This means that the Queen of Hearts is in fact a Queen of hearts, as she has a vast collection of hearts which she can manipulate. It’s things like this that make the show unique, as it was able to focus on a separate storyline from Once Upon a Time, while also taking some of the best elements of that show.

Gotham – Mad Hatter (Season 3, 2016-2017)

It is no secret that many of Batman’s greatest villains come directly from public domain projects, and so it should be no surprise that Batsy had a few encounters with Wonderland. My favourite of this comes from Season 3 of the acclaimed tv show, Gotham. One of the primary villains for the season was the Mad Hatter, a hypnotist able to access the deepest represses of a person’s mind and control them. We first meet the Mad Hatter when he hires Jim Gordon to find his sister Alice, who he has an incestuous fixation with. While the Mad Hatter can control the mind, his sister is able to control the body, as anyone who encounters her blood is driven to perform their most extreme desire. For example, one character becomes obsessed with hunting down ‘bad guys’ and killing them in brutally violent ways.

When the Hatter accidentally kills his sister, he is driven mad and begins to recreate the Alice in Wonderland story with different Alice’s, thus becoming a Carroll obsessed serial killer. I enjoy this version of the Mad Hatter because it again focuses on the legacy of Alice. The Hatter is just a normal person who used Carroll’s work to understand his powers and his relationship with his sister. He essentially did what many of these adaptations have done, as each have taken aspects of Wonderland and use them to reformat reality into something more familiar or palatable. This means that Wonderland functions as a type of coping mechanism, an environment where issues of identity, violence, and introspection can be safely performed.

Dreamchild (1985)

Unlike the other projects on this list, Dreamchild focuses on the legacy of Alice from the perspective of the real-life Alice. Carroll based his work on an actual girl named Alice Liddell, who many have argued he had a pedophilic interest in. Dreamchild tells the story of how an 80-year-old Alice Liddell traveled to the United States to celebrate the centenary of Lewis Carroll.

During her journey, Alice begins to hallucinate about her childhood and the creatures in Wonderland. In one scene, she finds herself again at the table of the Mad Hatter, only to find it a violent and crude space. The Mad Hatter scene becomes a metaphor for dementia, as all the Hatter’s questions concern what time it is, when is it, where are they, etc. In Carroll’s work, the Hatter was interested in impossible riddles. Now, the riddles are about mundane things which Alice can no longer understand or remember because of her dementia.  

The film also focuses on the alleged abuse from Carroll’s unnatural obsession with Alice, which I think many adaptations have incorporated in less direct ways. Whether or not the abuse happened, it has become a fixture in Alice lore. Many read Alice using this lens, and I think its one of the reasons Alice has so many dark connotations today. As such, this film provides a useful look into the life of Alice Liddell and how she dealt with the immense popularity of Carroll’s work. It is very much a story of two Alice’s, and the way these two came together to form one of the most popular stories of all time.

Alice (1988)

Jan Svankmajer’s film is perhaps the most disturbing Wonderland project there is. It follows Carroll’s text precisely, often using direct quotes, but what it does with these references is truly unnerving.

Svankmajer is a Czech surrealist who was interested in the psychoanalytic potential of Carroll’s work. The film primarily uses taxidermy stop motion, and it is tries to be as unnatural as possible. There is very little dialogue, the characters don’t move their lips when they speak, and when Alice talks, the camera cuts away to an extreme close up of the human actresses mouth saying the words. It is all very disturbing.

The film emphasizes the subconscious by focusing on duality. Because it is so abstract, the film divides its audience into two agents: the viewer and the participant (or the one trying to understand what is happening in the film). It is sort of like a Rorschach test, where your interpretation of the film relates to your internal state.

Alice represents this duality because she symbolizes the tension between internal and external selves. She has two conflicting personalities in Carroll’s work: her reality self and her Wonderland/dream self. This makes her a dual figure who alternates between socially acceptable and problematic behaviour during her time in Wonderland. Often, she talks to herself as though she were two people, and occasionally she wants to punish and hurt one of her selves. This violent duality has been incorporated into many projects, but I think Svankmajer’s film is most conscious of this dynamic.

As an example, at the end of the film, Alice switches heads with various Wonderland creatures while quietly chanting “Which one?” before returning to reality. There are two implications from this scene. First, Alice has undergone a complete identity breakdown. Second, Alice has become all the characters from Wonderland, as her final line in the film is “He’s late as usual, I think I’ll cut his head off”. This line suggests that Alice has become the Queen of Hearts, and in doing so, has combined the violence found in Wonderland with her reality. This makes the film even more uncomfortable, as it suggests that reality is just as frightening and threatening as the film’s version of Wonderland.   

I choose this film because it uses Carroll’s work to discuss complex issues around selfhood and introspection. This usage further demonstrates that Alice is a tool we use to question uncomfortable and contemporary identity politics.