Movie Review: Taking the Wonder Out of Wonderland

One of the best running gags in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland(and there are many; every line of the Mad Hatter's dialogue could be from a Monty Python film) is that our little ingénue is constantly eating. When Alice falls through the rabbit hole, the first thing she does is drink a cherry-tart liquid and devour an entire cake labeled EAT ME. When she meets the hookah-smoking caterpillar, he offers her a mushroom and she nibbles on it for quite some time. No wonder she gets the munchies. But food is really just a setup. Every time Alice eats something in Wonderland, she transforms. One minute she's 10 inches tall; the next she's so monstrous, she can't leave the white rabbit's house. Near the beginning of the story, the caterpillar asks Alice a simple question—"Who are you?"—and she can honestly tell him that she doesn't know. She defies definition.

The only way to understand Alice is to use your imagination. Do you even remember how to do that? In our society of Web links, Wikipedia, Facebook, and reality TV, everything and everybody comes with a label and an exhaustive definition. There's scant room for ambiguity and interpretation. The genius of the 145-year-old Wonderland is that it forces you to bring your own creative juices to the tea party. Carroll signals as much with the very first line of the book, where he describes Alice as "very tired … of having nothing to do." Her entire adventure is a reaction to her apathy—what she's really hungry for isn't food but experience, a way to travel outside her own mind. In short, the story is a metaphor for how Alice uses her imagination to quench her boredom; Carroll says her favorite phrase is "let's pretend." What she also does is remind us how little we do that anymore.

Compare Wonderland with the great children's stories of our time: the Harry Potterseries. As inventive as J. K. Rowling's seven books are, they're meticulously detailed (the intricate rules of Quidditch, the class rituals at Hogwarts, all the wizard paraphernalia) to the point of being encyclopedic, which is why the movies work as well as they do—they're road maps of the plot. Those movies have taken Harry and changed him from a literary character to more of a videogame star. Tim Burton's new 3-D movie version of Alice in Wonderlanddoes much the same to Alice, who comes across as a Victorian Lara Croft. The original Alice took pains to show us how smart she was—she has no trouble following a conversation about William the Conqueror. Burton's Alice is a conqueror herself. Even worse is what she conquers: the Jabberwock, the monster from the nonsensical poem by Carroll that was meant to be open to interpretation, down to its very nouns and adjectives. In the movie, the Jabberwock has become a scaly dragon creature that Alice must slay. Burton literalizes everything. Wonderland in Carroll's story is entirely imaginary, as Alice learns at the end when she wakes up from her dream. In Burton's world, Wonderland is a real place. When she returns home, Alice still has scratches on her arm from her fight with the Jabberwock. It's the director's way of saying, "Look! She really was there."

This is especially disappointing when you consider how elastic Alice's imaginary Wonderland has been over the years. Her story has been made (and remade) into ballets, puppet shows, an opera, and even a pornographic musical. It's also been the template for any number of children's tales. L. Frank Baum changed Alice's pet from Dinah the cat to Toto the dog and transported her from England to America to create The Wizard of Oz. (In the book, Oz isn't a dream, but the 1939 movie version even swipes that from Carroll.) Children's author Maurice Sendak has a photograph of Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired Carroll's tale, in his studio. Is it because Where the Wild Things Areis a variation of the same story with monsters? The rabbit hole is replaced by an oversize closet in the Narniabooks and a train platform in Harry Potter. Grown-ups liked her too. She helped give voice to John Lennon's trippiest lyrics and gave John Mayer his most popular song (Mayer haters, you can blame his fame on Alice). It's not an exaggeration to call Alice in Wonderland the most influential children's book of all time.

Why? Because like all great literary figures, she's always managed to keep up with the times. Alice has changed remarkably over the years, often in ways that reveal as much about the era in which she was reimagined than about the character herself. Alice debuted on the big screen in a 1903 silent film—at a time when little girls were supposed to be seen, not heard. In a 1933 live-action film with Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, she's more like a perky Shirley Temple. Walt Disney gave us the cartoon princess in 1951 (the animated film, with its psychedelic dream sequences and puffs of smoke, became a staple of the pot-filled '60s). Shortly after Columbine, a violent videogame—American McGee's Alice—transformed the literary hero into a suicidal teenager, hellbent on revenge.

If the more recent incarnations of Alice are more fighter and less philosopher, that's a reflection of our times too. But it's not necessarily a change for the better. In fact, Alice is beginning to look malnourished, just like all the teen starlets you see on magazine covers. In Burton's film, she doesn't eat very much at all. She bites into what looks like an Atkins-size cupcake and drinks a few potions, but she's apparently lost her sweet tooth on the way down the rabbit hole. Alice is starving, despite the fact that the movie is a feast for your eyes. When the Queen of Hearts sentences her to death—the way Helena Bonham Carter's queen shouts "Off with her head!" is one of the film's few joys—you can't help but feel bad for the executioner. Somebody had better feed Alice first—or he'll never be able to find her neck.