Monday, April 26, 2010

The Wrong Alice

"Perhaps, in the turmoil of those last moments in the future," Alice would sometimes whisper to herself, "I was confused with Celia? Perhaps it was the Automated Alice that really came back to the past?"
And until the very end of her God-given days, my dear, sweet Alice was unable to decide for certain if she was really real, or else really imaginary . . .
Which do you think she was?

(Jeff Noon, Automated Alice)

It is one of the thorniest and most persistent questions in literature: who is Alice? Is she the dreamer of her own dream, or a bit player in somebody else's? Was she changed into Ada or Mabel when she fell through the rabbit hole, or some other girl? 'I can't explain myself, sir,' she tells the Caterpillar, 'because I'm not myself, you see.' There is a darkly tinged existential insecurity at the heart of her adventures, summed up by the title of the final chapter of Through the Looking-Glass - Which Dreamed It? - and by the brooding middle stanza in the poem that concludes her original stories:
Still she haunts me, phantomwise.
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.
It's conventional and no doubt correct to read the I of this poem as Lewis Carroll's, the pseudonymous author/screen standing in front of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but I prefer to think of both the she and the me in the first line of the tercet as belonging to Alice: Alice the dreamer, Alice the literary character, Alice the girl who is not herself, versus Alice Liddell, the young woman who peels off from her poetic self and goes on living outside of wonderland, this side of the looking-glass.

Carroll's books are not only about the ambiguity of proper names, but words in general, and their relentless play with meaning and sense, sign and image, the literal and the poetic, make Alice the perfect candidate for adaptation and creative reinvention. Of which there have been scores: Wikipedia has a typically comprehensive list, while this blog takes a more measured approach. I've read or seen a fraction of these versions of Alice, but one thing that has always struck me is that it's rare for them to fall apart completely. You can play it straight, or straighter - say, by getting human actors to play the creatures without the disguise of elaborate costumes (h/t k-punk for this rather exceptional tea-party scene from the BBC adaptation with Peter Cook as the Mad Hatter) - or depart more or less completely, using the original script as a template. The joy of the original text is such that even the most conservative, domesticated versions will have something going for them - yes, even the Disney cartoon feature of 1951 - while it's hard to conceive of truly unfaithful reimaginings. How can an Alice, any Alice, be the wrong Alice?

Here's how.

There is something quite perverse about Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Here (for those who don’t mind spoilers) a grown up Alice returns to wonderland whilst fleeing the scene of a marriage proposal only to find the place on the brink of all out war between the Red and the White Queen. It is prophesised that Alice alone can save the side of good (which happens to be the white one) by slaying the Jabberwocky on the frabjous day, but grown-up Alice is initially declared to be the wrong Alice. Thus before she can brandish the vorpal sword and defeat the Jabberwocky she needs to learn to be herself again, with the help of the Mad Hatter, the Rabbit, the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat and all the other creatures who had been incidental travel companions at best during her original adventures. Having completed her quest, a fully mature and self-actualised Alice returns to the real world, becomes a merchant trader and sails off on a ship to establish a trading post in China.

Now my strongest objections are not with the fashioning of a heroic plot out of the nonsensical rhymes of Jabberwocky, or the confusion between the Red Queen of Through the Looking Glass and the Queen of Hearts of Alice in Wonderland, or even the transformation of the Mad Hatter in a romantic foil. The pieces of the original books and of each subsequent adaptation are there to be recombined more or less at will; I’m glad in fact that Carroll’s fanbase (unlike, say, Tolkien’s) by and large is not obsessed with fidelity to the ur-text. Nor do I agree with Amy Biancolli’s contention that the film’s biggest failing is ‘that it makes sense,’ and is therefore ‘an affront to Lewis Carroll and the charms of nonsense literature’. Carroll’s books in fact make plenty of sense, they are about sense. Here’s k-punk:
In the Alice books, there is the feeling that Wonderland is Alice's world alone, yet she has no place in it. She is always late, in the way, misunderstanding what ought to be obvious ... In this way, Carroll is the precursor of Kafka, and ultimately Alice's Adventures In Wonderland has far more in common with The Trial and The Castle than with The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe or The Wizard of Oz. K's blundering attempts to penetrate the court and the castle, his exasperation and impotent acts of rebellion, echo Alice's frustrations in Wonderland. The adult world as seen by children is, precisely, a Nonsense world, incomprehensibly inconsistent, arbitrary and authoritarian, full of bizarre rituals.
As he also goes on to note, where Burton’s direction and Linda Woolverton's screenplay truly pervert Carroll’s work is by making Alice’s quest one of good versus evil. If ethics is to be found at all in the books, it's most decidedly not of the messianic variety - if anything the idea that children’s stories should have a moral is lampooned throughout, as is each and every form authority.

So the only explanation is that the change occurred in Alice herself: having grown up, she no longer finds the world perplexing, but in order to carve out her place in it she still needs to acquire something else: a steely sense of her own capacity to make the right decisions. She is to become, after all, a venture capitalist, entrusted with the money invested in her company. That is not the job for a dreamer who quibbles on the finer points of semantics. That is not the position for a person riddled with self-doubt, or indeed doubts of any sort. She has to give up wondering once and for all.

Burton’s Alice is nothing less than an ode to a mythical heroic age of capitalism, which at least makes it a far more coherent film than Avatar. Cameron tried to shout at us an anti-imperialist message using Rupert Murdoch’s megaphone, and it rang false; while Burton found in Disney the perfect corporate partner and thus their Alice - heeding the March Hare’s advice at the tea table - says exactly what she means. It’s an honest, straight-talking Alice, yet also most assuredly the wrong Alice.

Here we are again at that place where we pause to contemplate that peculiar meaning-making industry that is cinema, its unique place at the interface between commerce and fantasy, labour and pleasure, capital and the symbolic. Fantasy is its prime raw material, and the process of transformation is failsafe: gather a team of engineers, establish a schedule, license the software; feed the concept to the marketing department; design the merchandising, find the most profitable tie-ins; secure the film’s distribution and an adequate supply of 3D glasses. Almost none of it has anything to do with the fantasy itself. It is a flowchart. All that it requires is for the right decisions to be made.

Is it even possible, at that high end of cinema, to make a substantially less-wrong Alice? Would she have been safer in Pixar’s hands? I doubt it. There is no place for the slightest hint of an unintended meaning in today’s blockbusters; even the good ones are tightly controlled, like a software routine that won’t run unless it has been thoroughly debugged. And so too are the scripts - even the good ones, in fact especially the good ones - thoroughly sanitised from any stray sense-making germs. There is in fact a common objection to Burton’s film that I consider slightly misdirected, namely that it engages in very little verbal play; but that’s not the language in which I’d expect Tim Burton to be able to emulate Lewis Carroll, so I’d rather ask: where is the visual play? Where is the turn of image that enriches the meaning of a scene or illuminates a theme? Or haunts you. There is only one I can recall: the crossing of the moat in the Red Queen’s castle, that Alice completes by walking on the semi-submerged heads of executed minions. A quick look at Jan Svankmajer’s animated Alice will underscore how meagre that single tally is, how much more could have been achieved - but at the cost of confusing the flowchart and disrupting the goal-oriented logic of enjoyment that the product demands. Play is work, and work is play. So we can’t have that.

Jan Svankmajer’s Něco z Alenky (Alice), 1988

There is really only one not-wrong Alice that I could expect Disney or any other major studio to produce, and it is a failed Alice. Where somebody like Terry Gilliam is entrusted with the project, and spends three years working on the script, one year alone with his sketchpad, another two years scouting locations, then shoots half the thing, goes twice over budget and gives up or is let go. Then another filmmaker comes and rescues some of the footage and shoots a documentary about the film that almost was, and that couldn’t possibly have had the integrity of the film that wasn’t. But it hardly ever happens anymore, and those executives just won’t be haunted – phantomwise or otherwise.

Read k-punk's review and the follow-up post with his readers' reactions.
Visit Alice in Miniland at Ptak Science Books
My favourite nu-Alice


Unknown said...

1. brillante
2. luminoso
3. splendido
4. sfolgorante

You have saved me from viewing a travesty, 1. grazie
Thank you Google translator machine.

wv; inevitio, Gio do you get your wordverfs custom made?

Giovanni Tiso said...

I think it's pretty obvious that I do.

Daphne Moran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daphne Moran said...

Thanks heaps for this, I really enjoyed it. We are reading Carroll at the moment. I loved what you said about the idea of morals in the book - I love it.

I went to a great talk last year by Byran Boyd about Nabokov the translator. Boyd mentioned Nabokov had translated Carroll and I remember thinking, 'Of course he did.' They seem such a match to me. My favourite factoid was that Nabokov had turned some of the double puns to triple ones.

Giovanni Tiso said...

For a brief moment I thought he might have translated them into English, Nabokov being Nabokov.

I also want to register that we have a(n English) friend who insists that Monty Python is funnier in Czech.

Lyndon said...

if anything the idea that children’s stories should have a moral is lampooned throughout

And quite directly; all the poem except the Jabberwocky are parodies of the kind of recitation poem it was felt were Good For Young Children.

(Much indebted to The Annotated Alice [Hey, that's an idea - an Alice with annotative tatoos...])

Giovanni Tiso said...

Without forgetting the Duchess' passion for finding morals in Alice in Wonderland or the pre-emptive justice doled out in the kingdom of the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass.

`What sort of things do you remember best?' Alice ventured to ask.
`Oh, things that happened the week after next,' the Queen replied in a careless tone. `For instance, now,' she went on, sticking a large piece of plaster on her finger as she spoke, `there's the King's Messenger. He's in prison now, being punished: and the trial doesn't even begin till next Wednesday: and of course the crime comes last of all.'
`Suppose he never commits the crime?' said Alice.
`That would be all the better wouldn't it?' the Queen said.

rob said...

Thanks Gio- very cool commentary on this Not-Alice.
I did wonder if another reason they made Alice older was because y'know, they were worried about the Dodgeson-and-little-girls thing.
But yes, the Manichean aspects of C S Lewis and Tolkein that carry through to Harry Potter (and this film) are fascinating- not least because they seem to relate to the immense, tidal popularity of the works.
I can thank 'literature' for a strong belief that more nuanced characterisation and world-views are ultimately more satisfying. But they are harder work, and generally less popular.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I did wonder if another reason they made Alice older was because y'know, they were worried about the Dodgeson-and-little-girls thing.

Oh, I doubt that very much. It's Carroll's scholarship that is positively obssessed with that thought, but Dodgson is not a character in the book (unlike in Automated Alice, incidentally) and doesn't have to feature. But I don't have a problem with Alice being an adult per se - Beckinsale was in the latest major film adaptation, and it worked fine. It's the kind of adult that Burton's Alice is.

Samuel said...

"Hey, that's an idea - an Alice with annotative tattoos..."

I'm now envisioning this as some kind of gender-switched Victorian *Memento* on acid. Which I could totally get on board with.

ECW said...

great post, obviously. But now you've got me thinking about Jeff Noon again. Which means that you've got me thinking about droidlocks and streets filled with broken glass. Again.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Now you won't believe this Evan but I've just marked a page of Falling Out of Cars as "must send to Evan". Which I will do this week.

Unknown said...

The only question is...who is to be Queen...
There is a great degree of alchemical allusion in AIW and LOTR...

pocal, annotated poetical.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I'm now envisioning this as some kind of gender-switched Victorian *Memento* on acid. Which I could totally get on board with.

I suspect it would make my head explode. But in a good way.

Unknown said...

Exploding heads mmmmmmmmmmm

Megan Clayton said...

Alice in the Sinking Garden

A tender adder, luminous after rain,
leaves dew-bound tail traces in the grass
that grows and doubles over by the seat,
itself the old gatekeeper of the sinkhole.

That boggy, grotty circle just three feet wide
rises and drops unaligned with night or day.
A deeper indentation just past the centre
still marks the place where once she lost a boot.

Carl said...

Re: Monty Python funnier in Czech, Laurel and Hardy are very much funnier in Italian.

I'm fascinated that Burton and Depp have become / were always? / Victorian moralists. As if the Enlightenment never unwound, and the absurd is just a foil for right thinking.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Monty Python funnier in Czech, Laurel and Hardy are very much funnier in Italian.

Heh, well, yes, it was freaking Alberto Sordi who dubbed Hardy! I think Oreste Lionello trumps Woody Allen too, in fact Allen would probably agree (he almost nixed Italian release of one of his films when the local distributor threatened not to get Lionello to do the dubbing).

digitalben said...

She is to become, after all, a venture capitalist

Perfectly written - that line's almost physically jarring.

The poster strapline could easily have been 'Time To Grow Up'... or even 'The Dream Is Over.'

metrsyco - A Delaware-based corporation with interests in processed meat, office projector accessories, geriatric care and experimental battlefield robots.

Unknown said...

...using another Liddell, Henry George, to root the name, Alice=alys(Gk)=listless(E). list(E)=desire,=t/le(s)t/l(letra)=tletl=fire.
so, listless Alys/Alice=no desire, or simply,
atle/atley/atlein(N)=nothing/no fire.
...other words in the greek string have the meaning of chain, distress, anguish, flee, shun, a plant to check hiccup, a fountain to cure rabies/Alysson(Arcadia).
...listo(sp)=ready, intelligent.
...revisionists have tried to slander both
Dodgson and Alice by projecting their own
smutty minds over the matter, but that was exactly their relationship: mind over matter.