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