Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a familiar story of a girl named Alice that falls down a rabbit hole and finds herself in a nonsensical fantasy world inhabited by many colorful and peculiar creatures. Ever since the book was published, there have been numerous adaptations made after it, among the most recent being the 2010 Disney film Alice in Wonderland directed by Tim Burton. The Disney film is loosely based on the popular novel as well as its sequel Through the Looking Glass.

2010 Film DVD Cover via Wikipedia

In this postmodern adaptation, a much older, fetching, independent nineteen-year-old Alice, who is troubled by nightmares of ‘Wonderland’ (or as Burton calls it, Underland) returns and embarks on a quest filled with adventure, humor, violence, and even terror. The obvious changes made to the story, combined with the distinct design of Burton, generated a great deal of controversy as critics accused that the version was too significantly untrue to the spirit of the original works. However, while his storyline and stylistic elements diverge from the original tale immensely, Burton addresses many of the same themes as Carroll, although in a different and unique vision/context.

Nevertheless, director Tim Burton makes it clear that this is intentionally a very different sort of Alice from that of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. For example, he primarily focuses on the characters and episodes from Carroll’s darker Through the Looking-Glass rather than the more upbeat Wonderland. Additionally, Burton adds his signature nightmare approach to the film. Rather than staying true to the original text, he uses significant characters borrowed from the Alice books to create an entirely new narrative (or it can be seen as a continuation of the Alice books).

In the film Burton explores the question: What if Alice returned to Wonderland when she was older? As a result, he addresses the struggle of identity, as well as place and meaning in the experience of growing up. The movie’s opening scene takes place at a social garden party, where Alice struggles against the expectations of society. She feels increasingly uncertain about who she is, as she is reshaped according to the wishes of others and is contemplating a marriage proposal to a pretentious, titled young man she does not love.

Alice enters Underland via IMDB

When she must make the decision as to whether she will become engaged to the ridiculous man, she sees the White Rabbit and runs after it. Alice falls down the rabbit hole, in one of the only scenes highly reminiscent of the book, and finds herself not in the bright Wonderland of her dreams, but in the twisted, barren world known as Underland. Thinking she is dreaming, she meets many of the familiar characters such as the Tweedles and the Mad Hatter, who inform her that it has been foretold that an ‘Alice’ will slay the Jabberwocky monster and free Underland from the cruel oppression of the Red Queen. Although initially insisting that she is not “that Alice,” (“You’ve brought us the wrong Alice,” complains the Dormouse; She seems to have lost her “muchness”) she finds herself on a rescue adventure to free the imprisoned Mad Hatter from the Red Queen’s castle, where she slowly becomes convinced that she must in fact be the “right Alice.” Finally, during a conversation with the Blue Caterpillar, named Absalom, Alice realizes that her supposed nightmares are actually memories of a childhood visit to Underland, and that she has returned for the purpose of slaying the Jabberwocky. At the conclusion of the film, a climactic battle scene follows, taking place on a chess board surrounded by the opposing card soldiers of the Red and White Queens (two sisters at odds for the rule of Underland). After slaying the monster and giving the rule of Underland back to the good White Queen, Alice returns to Victorian society a changed woman. She is no longer prepared to accept the life predetermined for her, but sets sail for China to expand her father’s trading company and find new adventures for herself.

The Jabberwocky via IMDB

In Tim Burton’s 2010 adaptation, he attempts to offer a darker interpretation, where the riddles, rhymes, and childlike nonsense of Wonderland no longer exist. As such, Burton creates a the desolate and depressing world of Underland, highlighting only the negative undertones of the original stories. Burton’s inclusion of a great mission for Alice is completely absent from the books, and serves to construct a more cohesive narrative with a more clearly defined plot. Moreover, the Jabberwocky itself is only mentioned briefly in a poem in Through the Looking-Glass, while the presence of the Jabberwocky is central to the conflict and progression of the film. As a result, Burton establishes a clear struggle between good and evil that, while it helps the adult Alice mature into the strong young woman, seems disconnected from the nonsensical spirit of the novels. Related to this, Burton’s choice to heighten the evil in Underland deprives the story of its original innocence, creating a more adult world in which pain and suffering are fully acknowledged. Consequently, there appears to be an inverse relationship between Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland due to the overwhelming differences: the more you like the Alice books, the more you’re probably going to dislike Burton’s film adaptation.

7 thoughts on “Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

  1. Just a comment: I thought the selection of actors in this film were just remarkable! I can’t think of anyone that could have played the Mad Hatter’s role better than Johnny Depp. What did you think about the other actors roles in representing the characters from “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass?”

    • I agree with you! I absolutely loved Johnny Depp’s performance. As far as the other cast members, I thought they did well. Helena Bonham Carter’s performance as the Red Queen was certainly entertaining, although it was not a fan of her large head. Additionally, I honestly was disappointed with Emma Hathaway’s role as the White Queen. Perhaps it was her constant arm movements and makeup that bothered me. Mia Wasikowska, in my opinion, did Alice justice, not only by her likely appearance, but also her ability to maintain the independent, curious and spunky disposition of the ‘original’ Alice.

  2. Madison, I like the way you describe the connection between this film and the books as an inverse relationship – that is true in many ways. There are two major differences that really interest me about this film, though. One is the fact that this (like some other modern retellings) is a return to Wonderland in which Alice is older. It seems like modern authors/directors can’t stop wondering what happens when an adult encounters a fantasy world, and the result is always dark. What does this say about a teen or young adult’s capacity to deal with a world of imagination? Particularly a young woman’s capacity?

    The other thing that interests me about this retelling is that it features a coherent plot. This is not the only version that makes the Jabberwocky a real (not just poetic) character in the story, with a violent tendency that runs through the plot. You talk about the plot in your post, but I wonder what does this compulsion to give the Alice books a plot say about either the original books or modern-day directors/audiences?

    • Dr. Ficke, I certainly found the two elements you discussed very interesting as well. When reviewing my classmates posts, as you pointed out, it seemed the ones which attempted to continue Alice’s story, when she is older, portray a dark narrative. Perhaps this is because, when one grows up, the imagination is often lost or diminished when facing the realities and responsibilities of real life. As a result, these dark representations of imagination from an older viewpoint communicate that the harsh realities, expectations, etc. of the human experience cloud our ability to imagine with whimsy, lightheartedness and positivity.

      In response to the plot, I suppose directors who attempt to produce adaptations of the Alice books have a difficult time making sense of the episodic structure. As a result, they must alter the storyline in order to present a more appealing, cohesive, flowing and sensible plot. Unfortunately, this often causes extreme divergences and the exclusion of many of the episodes. However, adapting such a plot is necessary for attracting and appealing to an interested audience.

  3. Madison, what do you think of the way that they decided to portray Alice’s first visit to Wonderland? You said that she has nightmares about it, which gives the impression that it was a negative experience. Yet, the episodes in the book seem very imaginative, and seem to impact Alice in a way that is somewhat more positive than nightmares. What do you think?

  4. Amanda, I’m not entirely sure what to make of the nightmares she experienced due to her fist visit to Wonderland. The representation of them in the film were somewhat ambiguous. As far as I can tell, perhaps they’re described them as “nightmares” because they were reoccurring dreams which offered snapshots of the unusual characters from the strange fantasy land. Alice, having no memory of her previous adventures, was confused by the persistent dreams perplexed and sleepless. When telling her father of her dreams, before his death, she fears “she’s gone mad.”

    • Madison: Hmm, that notion of “going mad” seems to be a prevalent theme here (just think of the Mad Hatter, and the comments Alice makes throughout the book about everyone going batty!). How do you think that this idea of forgetfulness between the original visit and the second visit relates to the books? From what I can remember, I don’t think Alice ever mentions her original adventures in Wonderland in Through the Looking Glass (unless I’m missing something terribly obvious!)
      It’s also interesting here that her father thinks she’s gone mad, because that is much of the judgement that Alice makes on characters in Wonderland itself within the books.

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