Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Nightmare in Wonderland

In Tim Burton's 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland, we are very far from the book that Charles Dodgson wrote "as Christmas gift to a dear child in memory of a summer's day". Now that we know what there is to know about the Reverend Charles Dodgson (having to surmise all the rest), it isn't surprising that some people approach his writing with less than reverential curiosity.(1)

The first movie version of Alice was made by Cecil Hepworth in 1903. There have been twenty-two versions since then, according to Wikipedia. I haven't seen very many of them, but I think it safe to say that Burton's must be the stupidest and most tedious by far. Burton's sinister imagination made him a good choice to direct the film version, massive cuts and all, of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. He was not as good for Washington Irving (Sleepy Hollow) or Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). In his Alice he lives up to his macabre reputation with touches like filling the moat surrounding the Red Queen's castle with severed heads, on which the little Alice must step as she makes her way across it. In fact, he turns Alice's adventures into a recurring nightmare that the poor girl must figure out in order to exculpate. Incidently, I saw the film in 2-D, since I wouldn't have seen it otherwise. ‎2010 was the year 3-D became a real threat to filmgoers who, like myself, do not suffer from the prevailing American infantilism. Some have called 3D as important an advance in film technology as sound and color. Baloney. It's just another attempt to reduce film to a child's toy, to an amusement park ride, a video game, or a comic book. Superfluous to point out, Burton's Alice grossed a billion dollars at the box office.

Burton and his script-writer Linda Woolverton (who made mincemeat of Mme Leprince de Beaumont's Beauty and the Beast in 1991 and has specialized in the Disneyfication of childhood), have managed to grossly misrepresent the books Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. His computer-generated creations are sometimes interesting (the Jabberwock, for instance, looks just like Tenniel's illustration in Looking Glass), but that Alice should be pubescent - let alone post-pubescent like Mia Wasikowska, would've been unthinkable to Dodgson.

That there was an actual Alice - Alice Liddell - to whom Dodgson dedicated the stories is a fact that doesn't seem to matter any more.(2) There was a marvelous film called Dreamchild (1985), written by Dennis Potter, that invents an episode late in Alice Liddell's life in which the old woman, on her way to receive an honorarium from Columbia University, comes to terms with her troubled memories of Dodgson (played beautifully by Ian Holm).

Of the other Alice films I have seen, only Jonathan Miller's, made in 1966 with live actors and no special effects, stands out. To think of how many auditions were required before Tim Burton and his producers settled on the utterly graceless and untalented Mia Wasikowska as Alice. This oversized Alice is as bad an idea as casting Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.(3) I suspect that Burton's insistence on making Alice nineteen, and making her an "empowered" modern woman, had more to do with his obvious disdain for children. Johnny Depp, who obviously cannot resist making movies with Burton, plays a thoroughly silly Mad Hatter. His farewell to Alice is straight out of The Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy tearfully tells the Scarecrow, "I think I'll miss you most of all." The "futterwacken" dance is just one of several anticlimaxes, which Burton has Alice repeat (feebly) when she returns to her engagement ball.

Another indication that nobody bothered to read the books is the misidentification of the monster whom Alice is obliged to battle. In Looking Glass , the monster is called the Jabberwock. In the film, everyone refers to it as the Jabberwocky. The poem, not the monster, is called Jabberwocky.(4)

(1) Whether Dodgson was clinically classifiable as a pedophile or simply in love with childhood and not just particular children, has been a subject of debate ever since his diaries, with pages and volumes missing, and his photographs of nude little girls, were discovered. His family evidently destroyed as much as they could.
(2) Some have suggested that one of the missing pages from Dodgson's diaries was evidence of a marriage proposal he made to 10-year-old Alice Liddell.
(3) "The Wizard of Oz was intended to hit the same audience as Snow White and won't fail for lack of trying. It has dwarfs, music, Technicolor, freak characters and Judy Garland. It can't be expected to have a sense of humor as well - and as for the light touch of fantasy, it weighs like a pound of fruitcake soaking wet." (Otis Ferguson)
(4) Then there was Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky, another mirthless exercise in medieval scatology.

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