Monday, March 14, 2011

Whose Wonderland it it anyway? Carroll's or Burton's or Alice's?


This has been an old tradition that famous novels have been adapted into the form of movies. It has always been an interesting field of research for various scholars who deeply analyze the purpose behind the art of intertextuality. The scope for the study arises from the point that the two forms are not quite similar. The pages of a book with their peculiar aroma have its own charm with the readers whereas the movie or even a theatrical adaptation has something somewhat different enjoyment to offer to the viewers. A complete and perfect adaptation is not at all possible. Besides, it is not even desired for the creators of both the forms have a different intention in mind. When a person thinks about adapting a novel in the form of a movie, he not only works out what has been thought by the actual creator of that piece of art but he rather adds onto his own perception to the same. The new efforts is in a way a hybrid where one gets to see one person’s understanding and interpretation of another person’s art.

In this paper I would like to explore this very idea referring to the movie released last year, Alice in Wonderland which is based on the novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll. Although what could be seen as a very intelligent version of the novel, the movie attains not the same end results as the novel tried to. Most of the characters from the novels are well fitted in the movie into the narrative but they have different roles to play. What Lewis Carroll wanted to achieve through his novel is different from towards what Tim Burton wishes his viewers to be directed to in his adaption of the two novels. The story looks similar but in the movie one finds Alice to be a young lady and not the same child one met in the novel. This could well be seen as giving motion to the fears of the author; losing Alice once she would be child no more. This is an important change that allows the director to explore Alice’s character in a rather extensive manner. What was a mere dream in the novels have been presented as a creation out of memory in the movie. This also opens a wide vista through which one can peep into this edition of the book.

I will analyze the relevant section of the movie where the changes brought from that of the novel serves vital purpose. The paper will further compare the two accounts of the same event stressing upon the function of such alteration. My main focus will be to deconstruct the politics of the director in this adaptation where there is another matter to be considered by him besides that of Carroll’s; to attest fairly to the norms of movie direction and certain elements that need to be there to make a movie stay at the box office and achieve success. Therefore, this intertextuality will aim at disclosing the motif of the important episodes in the movie and how they are designed in certain style to attain some definite ends.

In this era where we live, there are lot of things from past we still hold on to even though the efforts of the new technology has been to replace them; in many cases, for betterment. The same has happened in the world of books. Today it faces a tough competition with many alternative source of knowledge. What adds on to this is a movie adaptation of books. There is a large section of the society that is impatient. It does not has ‘gumption’ to go through the whole stretch of the novels, waiting for the events to unfold slowly and gradually. The people belonging to this busy class would prefer watching the movie adaptation. It saves time. Besides, it does not stress the faculty of imagination which is a must for a written text. The common people but fail to see the differences that the two means of entertainment have in store for they cannot be a perfect substitute. It falls then on the literary critics to study the difference between these two art forms; similar in many ways yet they ought to diverge so that both can maintain their independent existence.

The series of children literature, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There written by Lewis Carroll, is considered one of the major works of literature. The author has not only attempted to entertain his little companions but the novel became his tool and he attains liberty to critique the social milieu. What one comes across in the books is not just a dream of Alice through which the reader gets to know a child’s psyche. There is an inherent mature thematic running prominently in the sub-text that highlights the social construct and their absurdity for “what is the use of a book ... without pictures or conversations” [my italics]. It needs to serve a social function of enlightening the readers by revealing onto them the slice of life that generally remains hidden from their view. The many dichotomies that work in this wonderland are displayed in a displaced space only to make it easier for a developing mind to comprehend. What could be a better medium to unveil than dreams and wonderland, or the underground and the looking-glass world? These places allows for the suspension of the norms adhered to in the real world.

The novel raises many topical issues. The most prominent theme dealt with in the novels is the way the English language works. There are many sections that exclusively work on the same premise, spread across the text. They show the incomprehensiveness of the working of the language. The most important segment is where Alice meets Humpty-Dumpty.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master that’s all.”

There are enumerable occasions where Alice is asked to say what she means even when she makes herself clear enough. This clarity is from the point of view of the society she inhabits. There are many instances where the meaning is comprehended the way it was not meant. The author goes to an extent to deflate the grammar books. there is an instance where the author plays upon the word "tale" intending a pun, so as to debunk the language itself.1 The English language has been termed gibberish quite openly where a character asks another to “Speak English” although when the other was speaking in English. The incorporation of nonsensical in the books has added a new dimension to his work where Carroll is out making a statement to reject the rules set by others and ones not based on logic. The most important example is the poem, "Jabberwocky".

The politics of Carroll is anything but vivid. In certain section of the novels, he uses the semiotic; symbols to speak what he cannot otherwise do. The mock fight between the unicorn and the lion in the Looking-Glass world is actually an image of the battle between England and Scotland. The utopian world that the author creates is not impractical. Although there is a deferment of rules in the Wonderland, there still exists the evil that needs to be won over. It is then an idyllic place where there are possibilities of good happenings. The White Queen “believed (in) as many as six impossible things before breakfast” though this feat is attributed to Alice and her father in the movie.2 The two ends- good and evil- gets teamed with the White Queen and the Red Queen respectively.3 The judiciary as a farce is aptly presented in the novel where in a trial there is nothing that actually takes place. This brief description gives a faint idea about Carroll’s wonderland. The place holds the uniqueness in having an ability to unhinge the unknown facet of reality in a palatable way.

Burton creates his Wonderland with a raw material from Carroll’s world. The idea and the characters in the movie are taken from the novels but they are put in director’s Wonderland. It is principally a visual realization of novel’s space in Burton’s mind. He has surely taken the preliminary help from the illustrations in the two novels. At times, the two images cohere so completely so as to dissolve the line that demarcates the two different Wonderlands.4 The director has taken various incidents from the novels and incorporates them artistically to have a really good plot for a successful blockbuster. The poem Jabberwocky in Through the Looking Glass forms the main plot in the movie. The movie but takes a different turn as in what it tries to portray. The most distinct feature of the movie is that it presents the two worlds; although not unbiased. There is an attempt to cohere the two life form- reality and dreamland. The real world has been given more space in the movie and it sandwiches the happenings in the underground world.

A theme that runs parallel throughout the stretch of the two novels as well as the movie is portrayal of the Victorian society. When Burton does this, he does it more directly by presenting the people who stick to the standard of that time and again there is Alice who is everything a Victorian girl should not be. Alice in the movie will not follow the “proper” arrangements set by others and just to give one example; to her “a corset is like a codfish”.5 She is not the one to care for the dos and don’ts of the society that is depicted in the beginning of the movie. In the case of the novels, to a reader who is not alert, this theme might pass away unnoticed. Here, Carroll has only his little protagonist who is enmeshed in the customs. She rejects them at times and at other, accepts what she is asked to do. She is on the margins then, a connecting link. Her psychoanalysis reveals a lot about those times, when she existed. She wishes to get away from the boundaries and restrictions. She is able to do the same in her dreams.

This brings one closer to Alice as she is. The pivotal role is beyond doubts hers in the novels as well as in the movie for it is her dream that one gets a chance to peep into. Although it is the narrator through which one gets to know of the story, it is Alice’s voice that is heard most of the time. One of the most beautifully juxtaposed happenings in this whole space is what connects the novels to the movie in a somewhat linear fashion. There are many critics who believed, and not without reason, in Carroll’s intimacy with Alice of the real life. He feared his companionship with his little friend to be short-lived. This gets projected in the nostalgic retort at the end of Wonderland by Alice’s sister. It seems that it is the author that lays bare his heart.

Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.

In this light, the movie is where Carroll’s prediction fear has been realized but luckily not completely. It is also believed that White Knight who saves Alice from the clutches of the Black Knight in Through the Looking Glass is an objectification of author himself.6 The Bandersnatch could be a modification of the savior, in the movie, from the novel. If it is a case then it is for a particular purpose. I will undertake this in the later sections.

The way in which the character of Alice is presented in the novels and the way it is portrayed in the movie brings a stark difference between the two modes of art. In the novels, there is a child with her childishness, the one who is unknown to many facts of the real world. Her though process is yet in her infancy and so she has to dwell upon the parameters provided by others, and not her own. Alice in the movie, on the other hand is a young adolescent girl of twenty, the age and visage thought of as proper for marriage at those times. One finds singular approaches of two when faced with the challenges and led in danger. It is true that both Alice are dictated in the Wonderland by trivial creatures of everyday life but the little Alice is more modest about them and does not rebel, doing the same only in thoughts. While one finds a staunch rejection from the grown-up Alice, in the movie. She, at one time just blurted out at Bayard, the dog.7

The theme of growing up has a different connotation running throughout the text. A question that one must ask is that what the criterions to decide upon growth are. Alice changes size so rapidly that she is helpless when she says that she is unable to “keep the same size for ten minutes together,” in the novel. Even the Mad Hatter is tempted to say, “Why is it you're always too small or too tall?” The problems related to this issue are nicely explored in the novel than in the movie because Carroll always had a fear of grown-up Alice. When the little girl grows to a mammoth size, there are a lot of thoughts she finds herself into, stupid ones mainly. She had drawn the conclusions with the help of logic when she states, “There ought to be a book written about me, that there ought! And when I grow up, I’ll write one—but I’m grown up now,” she added in a sorrowful tone: “at least there’s no room to grow up any more here.”

This theme has become a criterion for Alice’s identity in a way, in the Wonderland.8 She herself lost her sense of identity and tried to identify herself with her friends, in to whom she might have turned. Her transformation in the unconventional land at times does not allow her to confirm to her actual self. She is unable to answer the simple question as to who she is, confused at this fluctuation in the size. She is “a little girl” but she is not actually little at times. The matter stands a bit differently in the movie where the identity of Alice is based on her memory as the creatures in the Wonderland expect that “she would remember it from the first time.” She had the same dream for about thirteen years. She is accused of being the wrong Alice all the times due to the same.9 This theme of recollection is somewhat not there in the plot of the novel but is apt and fore-grounded in the movie. Absalom helps her to solve the problem of identity, though in steps. Even then a vague question remains; one cannot describe oneself from within oneself. We do the same by stating what we are not, and by the objects or people we are associated to.

This matter of memory is important as the base on which the characters in the movie are created is not a dream actually but the memories of the same one dream that Alice has.10 The reminiscence of the past allowed her to take the serious decision of agreeing to slay Jabberwocky. She has realized the substantiality of the creatures in the wonderland even though when she had repeatedly pacified herself by asserting that “it’s just a dream” and believed that everything will be all right once she will wake up. She never wakes up though even when she tries to pinch herself. Burton’s or Alice’s Wonderland is a place created out of memory or images that came up in mind. Carroll’s world is a dreamland on the other hand. It is a dream where the impossible is taking place, can take place without any obstacle. Though one thing is common, both memory and dream has been considered as an incompetent source to build on something factual. Nevertheless, a lot of writers adhering to anti-realist mode use them for the same.

This idea of Wonderland itself allows the author as well as the director, to engage in the faculty of imagination and fantasy and to produce a world that was never seen before. It is obvious that Carroll had to paint his world with words and he can only have a liberty of few illustrations to add onto his descriptions. The Wonderland is then more a product of the fusion of writer and the reader for every reader will relate differently with the text and conceive one’s exclusive and one’s own world. However, it must have been easier for Tim Burton whose Wonderland is more to do with the sight, giving nothing to the audience to create.11 Everything has been done by the director; one only needs to engulf it as such. It must be helpful here to consider a point that was not taken into account until now. Burton has engaged into producing a Hollywood flick that had to have certain elements if it needed to do well at the box office. The movie did excel because he applied his imagination only to such a level where it will be accepted by the audience. It did not go past the viewer’s expectation and followed some pattern.

There are many points about the movie that one will never wonder at in this wonderland. These are the melodramatic moments in the movie. One comes across them very often in many movies. The logic of Bandersnatch in the movie is that there was nothing new happening in this scene. It was expected of Alice to win his favour by showing her kindness towards the beast by returning his eye so that it would save her at a critical point in order to pay back. The scene where Bayard meets his family after a long time is a play on audience’s emotion. Above all, there is a beautiful girl, on the verge of getting engaged with somebody quite unromantic. Isn’t it but obvious for her to get intimate with Mad Hatter. Besides, who would not be moved when the lovable Mad Hatter is no other that Johnny Depp? It is no amazement that when the movie did well, a substantial fraction of credit was grabbed by the famous actor. The ends are predictable, for in a Wonderland, no one could expect there to be any other ending than a happy one. Although these are clich├ęs that have been used, they helped the movie to appeal to the audience as Burton would have wanted.12

So, this paper has just been a vague attempt to mention certain relevant issues related to intertextuality, emphasizing on the adaptation of Carroll’s novels last year. There could have been other methodology also, like a comparison between many different adaptations. What I have tried is to relate the coherent issues that one generally tends to overlook. The few question regarding dream, memory and identity are very political. There cannot be a simple answers to them. However, the most desirable way to deal with these issues is to ponder upon these unnoticed entities. The question to be asked is why there is a need for a Wonderland? It is self explanatory that the world inhabited has its anomalies which needs to be done away with. This dream is easily realized in a place without borders. There is a need to understand that the dichotomy between reality and fiction is just a conception of mind; the two are not as apart as generally perceived. Therefore, it is of no accord whether the Wonderland belongs to Burton or Carroll, or even Alice. The most important point is that our reality should be like the Wonderland, without boundaries.