Alice in Wonderland: Adventures into the Uncanny - part 4
Updated: Jul 16, 2020
This is the final post on film versions of Alice in Wonderland with a particular emphasis on the Gothic and the Uncanny, which I originally wrote for my Gothic MA.
You can read part one, the introduction here.
You can read part two on Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland (1951) here.
You can read part three on Jan Svankmajer's Alice (1988) here.
Unlike Disney and Svankmajer Burton claimed that he “never felt an emotional tie to the original book” [McIntyre, 2009] therefore of the three it’s the one that departs most from the original as he combines elements and characters from both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
Burton felt that the books’ episodic structure was not a natural fit for film, of previous versions he said: “She’s passively wandering through, [meeting] this weird character, that weird character. Its fine in the books, but the movies always felt like there wasn’t anything underneath them.” [McIntyre, 2009]
The ‘underneath’ that Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton added finds Alice, aged 19, on the verge of becoming engaged. So alarmed by the prospect of marriage to a dullard she runs away and finds herself back in ‘Underland’, a mysterious world she thought was just a dream. It takes some convincing by Underland’s inhabitants that she is THE Alice they have been waiting for, the one who will vanquish the Jabberwocky and free them from the Red Queen’s reign of tyranny.
Many films featuring a teenage heroine would suggest that a marriage proposal was the main goal. Here we have a heroine who positively runs from such a horror and finds herself reluctantly taking on the ‘hero’ role, via a series of increasingly greater obstacles.
The real ‘wonder’ is the film’s visual style as Burton rejected an all-motion-capture approach in favour an all-CGI environment. This allowed him to manipulate scale and perspective giving him a complete reign for visual creativeness, other than the actors, costumes and a few props, nothing is real.
Burton wanted to show that Underland had fallen on hard times, this is most evident at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. There is no colour here - this is a dark, gloomy forgotten place – a place where time has stopped. Here, we can truly believe that the party has been going on for years. The dishes are wrecked, the cups have sprung leaks and the magical woodland setting has become a wasteland.
The scene, usually one of a film’s longest taking full advantage of Carroll’s inventiveness, is much reduced here. Some elements remain like ‘why is the raven like the writing desk’ but as this is not 'Carroll's Alice in Wonderland’ the scene is primarily there to the service the newly-added ‘hero’s journey’ and to introduce Johnny Depp as the Hatter.
This Mad Hatter moves away from the traditional eccentric-misfit as Depp delivers a more complex version. In interview Depp talked of researching the effects of mercury poisoning that affected hat-makers in the late 1800s, which brought about the phrase ‘Mad as a Hatter’. His madness seems real which brings a sense of tenderness and vulnerability to the role, there is even a dash of the romantic hero buried beneath his madness.
Although Burton added the ‘hero’s journey’ storyline it is fairly generic and the film’s wavering tone suggests a confusion as to who the target audience for the film is. It seems to be neither a film for children like the 1951 Disney or one for grown-ups like Svankmajer’s Alice.
However, Burton never intended this to be a faithful retelling of Carroll’s original it is an extension, a sequel of sorts. He has taken characters from both books, settings, lines of dialogue and uses them to draw out themes common to both his and Carroll’s canon, including the fear of growing up by making this a “coming-of-age” adventure.
In Freud’s essay he demonstrates the difficulty of classifying the phenomenon of ‘The Uncanny’: where something can be familiar yet strange at the same time.
What makes Alice in Wonderland uncanny?
Alice’s journey down the rabbit hole creates a tear in time and Wonderland becomes a space where two worlds collide: reality and fantasy. The physical world of wonderland is constantly shifting, objects or creatures which appear to be substantial can in a moment disintegrate, change size or morph into something else. She is constantly trying to make sense of this world, with little success. The uncertainty of her surroundings causes her to doubt identity.
These three filmmakers have each taken elements of Freud's uncanny and makes them central to their versions.
Disney’s perhaps the least ‘gothic’ certainly taps into the ‘bizarre’ surreal element of the original. It exemplifies the central premise of the book in which an intelligent, if easily frustrated and irritated child tries to negotiate her way through an insane world. Stylistically Burton's Wonderland is war-torn, dark, and full of monsters who actually bite.
Of the three, it is Svankmajer who understands that Alice is not merely a book for children, indeed on its original publication, reviewers thought it, “strangely appropriate for adults” and not particularly suitable for children”. [Giddens, 2013:1] Svankmajer subverts the idea that the home is a private and secure space. His Alice creates Wonderland in the domestic, making home the site of internal conflict, where the repressed are stowed away in hidden rooms, behind locked doors, in attics, closets and cupboards. Svankmajer, like Carroll, seems to be encouraging children (of all ages) to explore their own imaginations and to overcome fear whilst continuing their journey through life.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland seems to have a strange power, as those that create works of art, and those who absorb them are drawn back to this childhood classic time and again. The fact that 150 years after its first publication people around the world are still talking about the books; and artists of all kinds return to these classics for inspiration is surely a testament to their enduring appeal and resilience.
The novels are strange, Alice herself experiences the uncanny but we as readers and viewers are both inside and outside the text, we see Alice confused, but we too are confused. As she and we journey through Wonderland the strange becomes curiously familiar until the point when one accepts the uncanny as the 'real’ and the real as uncanny.
In this dichotomy is summarised thus: “One of the riddles of the Alice books is whether the conclusion is, in the end, the more desired or feared, whether the author wishes to see words fuse into an intelligible and unified meaning, or to prevent them from doing so.” [Broadbent et al, 1994:37]
Broadbent, Neil et al. Researching Children’s Literature – a coming of age? (Southampton: LSU Publications, 1994) Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. (London: Penguin, 1987) Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny (1919),” in The Uncanny. (London: Penguin, 2003) Giddens, Zoe Jacques and Eugene. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass: A Publishing History (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2013) Hunt, Peter. “The Same by Different: Conservatism and Revolution in Children’s Fiction” pp 70 – 83 Children’s Literature: Approaches and Territories ed Janet Maybin and Nicola J Watson (Milton Keynes: Open University, 2009) Jentsch, Ernst. “On the psychology of the uncanny (1906)”, Angelaki, 2:1 1997: 7-16 Labbe, Jacqueline. “Illustrating Alice: Gender, Image, Artifice” pp 21 – 36 Art, Narrative and Childhood ed Morag Styles and Eve Bearne (Stoke on Trent: Trentham Book, 2003) McIntyre, Gina. “Tim Burton's descent into the rabbit hole”, LA Times, 1 August 2009. Accessed online 08.05.16. http://articles.latimes.com/2009/aug/01/entertainment/et-burton1 Stafford, Mark and Sélavy, Virginie. “Interview with Jan Svankmajer” Electric Sheep. 14 June 2011. Accessed on line 08.05.16 http://www.electricsheepmagazine.co.uk/features/2011/06/14/interview-with-jan-352vankmajer/ Stowell, Phyllis. "We're All Mad Here." Children's Literature Association Quarterly. 8.2 (1983): accessed via Project MUSE. Web. 08.05.16. http://muse.jhu.edu/.