By the Book: Alice in Wonderland

Between all the books I’ll tackle in this series, Alice in Wonderland (correctly Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) is a very special case. Because, if you ask me: This book is not translatable and it is not adaptable. I don’t even think that the common English reader would nowadays should read it without a ton of footnotes added to the original text, because it is full of in-jokes and references to a very specific time in British history. I doubt that many people even know why the Hatter, the March Hare and the Cheshire Cat are mad (and if you don’t know either, you just proved my point – if you do, congratulations to your knowledge of English idioms and sayings). Or that the mouse keeps falling asleep because she is a Dormouse. A lot in this book basically consists of a play with language (it’s a gold mine for linguists, really). At one point for example Alice encounters a “school of fish” (a word play on the fact that fish who are swimming together are “schooling” or “shoaling”) in which the fish have shorter lessons every day, because, naturally lessons have to become “less”. Any movie adaptation has to fall short, simply because it’s impossible to put this level of language play on screen – for the most part. But let’s see open the door and find out how Disney fared with their attempt.13 doorknob

1. The Setting

In contrast to Disney’s Peter Pan, there is no doubt that all we see is just in Alice’s mind. And what a strange mind that it. I said in m last review about Peter Pan that Neverland works on children’s logic. The Alice novels do something similar, but they are not really trying to explain the world of a child, but how a child’s mind sees the adult world with it seemingly (and sometimes really) arbitrary rules. This aspect is mostly lost in the Disney movie. You still get a glimpse of it when Alice encounters the Queen of Hearts, but all in all, the movie lacks the referential character of the book. It works more like an experience. Instead of arbitrary rules, there are no rules at all, everything can happen.

2. The Animation

The animation underlines the bizarre character of the world we enter. There is a constant play with colour and darkness, with light and shadow and an abundance of weird angles. When the colour pops, it really pops, but this makes the darker scenes even more unsettling.

3. The Characters13 Alice

There isn’t really much to say about the characters in Wonderland. Most of them just turn up and are gone just a moment later, and really, the only true important character is Alice. The biggest change Disney made was switching the colour of her dress from red to blue. Otherwise she is simply a curious child who explores her unfamiliar surroundings. Her reactions are, for the most part, believable, and even when they are not, this is her world, and everything which didn’t make sense at the beginning surely makes sense towards the end, when it’s revealed that this is actually a dream. In the original books some aspects of the characters she meets are a little bit more fleshed out, but that’s a matter of simply having a little bit more time for them. The only big change occurs concerning the Queen of Hearts. In the book it’s mentioned that her death sentences are rarely carried out (thanks to the king). The movie omits this detail, making her a much more terrifying tyrant (and the king more of a push-over).

4. The Plot

There isn’t one. And that’s not a criticism, there shouldn’t be one. After all, Alice in Wonderland is purposely filled with nonsense stories, so the movie shouldn’t be any different. Disney just picked what they liked the best of the whole Alice series and then edited it down to just the right length for this kind of movie – the result is quite a mixed package. Some of the segments are so short, you are barely have time to think about them. Like the caucus race, which could have been a commentary on politics, but is over way to fast to have a lasting impact. I doubt that many people even notice that the group walking around a rock through the tides is singing about nothing being “dryer” than a caucus race, before the conversation of the Dodo with Alice about getting dry starts.

Personally I have a love/hate relationship with the segments when she changes size. I don’t know why, but the very idea terrified me as a child. I’m fairly sure that the part when she is stuck in the house is meant to be comical, but I truly fail to see the humour in this. Though it’s nice to know that Billy the Lizard apparently survived being blown in the sky and later on became a villain in Ratigan’s gang…. But I digress. Let’s tackle some of the stand-out segments.

The first which comes to mind is the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter. Mostly because it is a really strange premise that in the middle of the story Tweedledum and Tweedledee just turn up to tell another, totally unrelated story. And a really messed-up one, that is. I mean, really, the poor mother of the poor little oysters. In the book the (slightly different) story results in Alice trying to determine, who was worse, the Walrus or the Carpenter, but whenever she comes to a conclusion Tweedeldum and Tweedeldee reveal another detail about them which makes her change her mind.

13 caterpillar2Then there is the caterpillar. This was always my favourite segment, even though it really looses in the translation. Now, from the eyes of an adult (and knowing the original), I can appreciate it even more. I think this is the part which captures the book the best, because it translates the word-plays on screen, quite literally. 13 madhatterWhat everyone remembers is naturally the mad tea-party. What can I say about it aside from it being utterly nonsensical?

13 Queen of HeartsAlice meeting the Queen of Hearts is naturally the last stand-out segment, and the longest. In a way, the movie has a shift in direction when Alice is alone in the woods. Not only is it a very sad scene, it’s the moment the movie stops being so directionless. Up to this point Alice was simple following the White Rabbit. She was just experiencing Wonderland. Now she decides that she wants to go home and follows the advice of the Cheshire Cat to apply to the Queen of Hearts for help. For the first time, her actions have a purpose, and while the plot still makes some unexpected twists, from then on the segments are no longer interchangeable. Disney also made the situation way more dangerous than in the book. There it’s not Alice who is on trial, she is just one of the witnesses, she doesn’t shrink again and there isn’t chase scene, she simply wakes up. But I guess even a nonsensical movie needs some sort of climax.13 white rabbit

5. The Soundtrack

If this were a more conventional movie, I would complain about the use of music in it. Some of the songs add something to the story, but most of them have the tendency to get off some tangent. But that is exactly the point.

None of the countless songs in this movie are bad by any stretch of imagination, but they all are very short and very 1950s. If someone starts singing the tune, you will remember them, but I doubt that anyone would remember the songs without prompting. The exceptions are – at least in my case – “All in the golden Afternoon”, “The Unbirthday Song” and “Painting the roses red”.

6. Conclusion

I am not really a fan of “Alice down the Rabbit hole” stories, I prefer character development and a plot which makes sense in a world which rules I understand. But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t an interesting approach to story-telling, or that I can’t appreciate the animation and creativity which went into this movie. The animators made an effort to keep the linguistic aspects whenever possible, and while I wish they had done more in this direction, especially in the lyrics, what is there is fairly enjoyable.

Nevertheless, the movie misses the Meta aspect which makes the book special. But then, this is true for all adaptations of the story I know. Like I said, I don’t think that the book is truly adaptable, something will always be lost. But of the attempts out there, Disney’s might be the best, despite the fact that allegedly Walt Disney himself didn’t really like the movie either. He said that it had no heart. But what it does have is a sense for the nonsensical. Too many adaptations try to change the story into a cohesive plot, but that’s simply not what this story is about. If it does have a deeper meaning, you’ll find it in the Meta which mostly refers to a reality too far in the past, to be fully understood nowadays. This in mind, Disney’s “let’s see which animator can come up with the strangest scene” approach does the material more justice, than any other take I’ve seen so far.13 cheesire cat


2 responses to “By the Book: Alice in Wonderland

  • The Animation Commendation

    I could have sworn you did this already in your “By the Book” series…

    But anyway, you have me wondering why the Hatter, March Hare, and Cheshire Cat are mad! I know of the idioms to be “mad as a hatter” and “mad as a march hare”, but I assumed they came about due to the book. So did they precede the book? And then what’s the connection with the Cheshire Cat?

    I gotta re-read these books now as I was only quite young when I read them before.

    • swanpride

      They precede the book. It is full of plays with language and idioms. It’s actually quite a difficult read for someone who is not a native speaker, so much gets lost in translation. One figure for example which turns up in the books but not in the movie is the “mock turtle” which is naturally a play on “mock turtle soup” which doesn’t contain any turtle at all.

      The By the Book series is a repost from my fanpop account, so it is possible that you have read a version of it beforehand. But this article is longer and more detailed than the first version (which, for example, doesn’t cover the soundtrack).

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