You are never entirely sure if Wonderland is Alice’s dream or not. Although Alice wakes up at the end of Lewis Carroll’s book, it is left unclear if she really was ‘just’ sleeping. This is because the narrative has previously suggested that Alice has two personalities: her reality self and her Wonderland self. There is a lot of conflict between these selves in the narrative, as Alice often punishes, or is punished, by one of her personalities.
I think this violent duality is something which later Alice adaptations and references have picked up on, specifically the idea that a little girl possesses two different personalities and, by switching between the two, can escape our world. This logic is the reason the original text has an ambiguous ending, as we are not sure if Alice still has two personalities, or if she has brought any of Wonderland’s nonsense back with her.
I have always been drawn to Alice films where the character learns to accept both parts of herself and work together, rather than dismissing Wonderland as a dream. My favourite example of this is MirrorMask, a Jim Henson and Neil Gaiman film which focuses on dream worlds, depression, and accepting yourself. Like Alice, the film is interested in mirrors and double worlds, but it also suggests that these worlds are strikingly similar to our own, and that the two worlds are connected to one another. This means that just as reality can affect the film’s Wonderland-like space, so too can this creative world impact reality.
The main character in MirrorMask, Helena, learns to take responsibility for her words and actions by reconciling her creative self with her reality self. Only by accepting both worlds can she balance her life.
On the night of her mother’s surgery, Helena has trouble falling asleep and is lured into the world of her imagination, a world which she has been drawing and creating for years. Because she drew on both sides of her page, she created a world of light and shadow. Like this city, Helena has two personalities, and she discovers that by entering her dream world, she has inadvertently switched places with her other self. Throughout the film, Helena catches glimpses into reality, where her ‘dark’ self is destroying her life and relationships.
At one level, the film does an excellent job symbolizing depression, as Helena is unable to stop herself in the real world because she is so busy trying to save her dream world, or her mind. It as though she had to split herself from her alter-ego in order to hide from the difficulties in reality. At the same time, MirrorMask recreates Alice’s dilemma, as Helena is never sure if she is in a dream, or if she has any control over this world, or herself.
In one scene, Helena is told that once she created this world, she fell asleep, but knew that the world would continue to extent past what she had drawn. This is one of the ways MirrorMask connects to Alice, as it suggests that although Helena is walking around in her dream, this place is just as real as her reality. Helena’s creativity is strong enough to fuel an entire world, which could also be said of the legacy of Alice. What was a children’s story has become as significant as other prestigious literary works. Alice’s little story, or dream as she frames it, is proof that fantasy is an important way to tell other, sometimes non-fantasy, stories.
Unlike Carroll’s work, MirrorMask focuses on how this dream world is Helena’s creation, and that she is the one who made it real. This relationship is never entirely clear in Carroll’s Wonderland, as things look like Victorian society, but it is unclear if Alice is the sole reason for this familiarity. Simply put, while MirrorMask is interested in meshing reality with fantasy, Carroll’s Alice tries to distance these realms.
There are plenty of other references to Alice in MirrorMask, as Helena has to use riddles and logic to solve problems, and encounters a few familiar faces from Carroll’s work. For instance, the Shadow Queen is a version of Helena’s mother, but she is also a version of the Queen of Hearts. Both are vicious, controlling, and violent, and the Shadow Queen is obsessed with capturing Helena, who represents her heart and twisted love.
As an indirect adaption of Alice, MirrorMask returns to many of the questions posed in Alice, like what is reality, who am I? In doing so, it creates a conversation between these works. This is further emphasized by the fact that the Henson company and Gaiman have other Alice projects, as both Labyrinth (1986) and Coraline (2009) feature young girls who try to escape a dark parallel world filled with riddles.
This ongoing usage suggests that Alice is a tool we use to evoke the questions and themes raised by Carroll’s original work, while also intensifying these issues, and incorporating other Alice adaptations. Simply put, our culture is still tying to reconcile Alice’s dream, Wonderland, with our own. It is though Alice, like Helena, went to sleep, and her dreams continued to live beyond her.