Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Disney's Alice in Wonderland: Part II

The story behind Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Alice in Wonderland for short) begins with a boat ride. Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and the Reverend Robinson Duckworth are rowing down a river with the three young daughters of Henry Liddell (the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University and Dean of Christ Church), Lorina, Edith, and Alice. As they are floating down the River Thames, Reverend Dodgson tell the girls a story about a little girl who becomes bored and decides to go out to find adventure. The girls loved the story, and Alice requested that Reverend Dodgson write it down for her. After a month, he had worked out a main story and told it to the girls on another boat ride. After that, he started to work on the story in earnest. For the finishing touches, Dodgson researched natural history for the animals he would be featuring in his book, then had the book looked at by other children. Finding that they liked it, he approached John Tenniel to illustrate the book, though he already had illustrations that he made himself. Dodgson then gave a copy to Alice, named Alice's Adventures Underground, as a Christmas gift to the girl who inspired the main character. Alice did not receive the text that we know today, but one that did not include the Cheshire Cat or Mad Tea Party episode. Dodgson would expand the book for publication and released it in 1865 under the pen name "Lewis Carrol."

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is the prime example of the literary nonsense genre. I have to give the dictionary description of this so bear with me. In literary nonsense, formal diction and tone may be balanced with elements of absurdity. It is most easily recognizable by the various techniques it uses to create nonsensical effects, such as faulty cause and effect, portmanteau, neologism, reversals and inversions, imprecision, simultaneity, picture/text incongruity, arbitrariness, infinite repetition, negativity or mirroring, and misappropriation. Nonsense tautology, reduplication, and absurd precision have also been used effectively in the nonsense genre. This wasn't lost in translation when Disney made his movie. Many instances in the movie constitute the aspects of literary nonsense that the book featured. The main theme that the book plays with is logic. Continually through the book, Alice's logic and our own logic is being messed with as everything Alice finds to be normal is turned on its head.

The book starts out the same as the movie. Alice is bored with her life and wants some adventure. She notices a clothed, talking White Rabbit and decides to follow it. She plunges down the rabbit hole and finds herself in Wonderland. The scenario with the drink and cake is the same besides her being able to see a garden on the other side of the door through its keyhole. The doorknob does not talk in the book, it's just a doorknob. Another difference is a fan she finds, which also changes her into a smaller version of herself. She floats in the pool of her own tears, seeing a mouse and trying to make conversation with it. She can't think of anything to talk about besides her cat, which offends the mouse. She, along with a bunch of other animals are washed up on a shore and she questions them on how to get dry. The Do-Do bird declares they should have a caucus race to dry off, but Alice soon scares everyone off by talking, again, about her cat. What is it with her and that cat? Like I mentioned in the last post, Carroll was poking fun at political races, saying that they went no where, same as the running in circles in the surf would get someone no where. She runs into the White Rabbit, who mistakes her for Mary Ann, the maidservant, and insists that she find the Duchess' gloves and fan. She goes inside, but starts growing. Bill the Lizard, the White Rabbit's gardener is forced to try and pull her up out of the chimney. This is a prime example of faulty cause and effect that nonsense literature is known for. Bill is shot up into the sky, and animals start throwing rocks at Alice. The rocks turn into cakes and she eats one to shrink in size. She does shrink, but too much and finds herself the size of a bug.

She runs into the Caterpillar who questions her on who she is. She admits that she is having an identity crisis and not entirely sure that she is herself anymore. The Caterpillar tells her that the two sides of the mushroom will make her grow or shrink and Alice tests this until she is her proper size again. Alice finds her way to the Duchess' house, meeting the Fish-Footman and the Frog-Footman. After a confusing conversation, she goes inside the house and sees the Duchess' cook breaking dishes and making a soup with way too much pepper. This causes Alice, the Duchess, the Duchess' baby, but not the Duchess' Cheshire Cat, to sneeze violently. The Duchess hands Alice the baby and Alice is surprised when the baby turns into a pig. Alice runs outside to find the Cheshire Cat, who directs her to the March Hare's house. The Cheshire Cat disappears, with only its smile left behind.


Alice makes her way to the March Hare's house, where he, along with the Hatter and the Dormouse are having a tea party, though the Dormouse is asleep most of the chapter. They constantly throw riddles and questions at Alice, one being, "How is a raven like a writing desk?" This riddle has no answer and is of course, not deliberated on by the Hatter or March Hare. The popular answer to the riddle is that Poe wrote on both, but Carrol never revealed what the real answer is. The Hatter explains to Alice that they have been punished by time and must stay stuck in this particular time, 6 pm, which happens to be tea time. Alice leaves in a huff, claiming its the stupidest tea party she's ever been to. The Hatter is never actually referred to as The Mad Hatter in the book, it's just a name he received after time. Interestingly enough, though many people cite the Mad Hatter's connection with hatters at the time getting mercury poisoning and acting odd, the Mad Hatter in the novel does not exhibit any of the symptoms of mercury poisoning. "In this style 10/6," portrayed on the Hatter's hat, symbolizes the prize of a hat at that time in pre-decimalized British money: ten shillings and six pence. This was to be an indication of the Hatter's occupation. As for how the March Hare got his name, the phrase, "Mad as a march hare" was popular in England in Carrol's time.

Alice finds herself in the grounds of the Queen of Hearts and witnesses the playing cards painting the roses red, for the Queen of Hearts hates white roses. The Queen comes and is characterized by her short temper and her trademark phrase of "Off with his head!" She orders Alice to play croquet with her, using flamingo's and hedgehogs for equipment, and the game quickly turns into chaos. The Cheshire Cat pops in and annoys the Queen into ordering for his head to cut off. The executioner complains that it's impossible since his head is the only thing visible. The Queen decides to let the Duchess decide what to do, since it's her cat. The Duchess comes and ruminates on finding morals in everything around her. The Queen threatens to have her beheaded, so she leaves and introduces Alice to the Gryphon, who takes her to the Mock Turtle. The Mock Turtle is very sad, though he has no sorrow. He tries to tell the tale of how he used to be a red turtle in school, but the Gryphon interrupts so they can play a game. The Gryphon and Mock Turtle dance to the Lobster Quidrille. The Mock Turtle begins to sing a song until Alice is taken away by the Gryphon for an impending trial.

The trial is to find out who stole the Queen's tarts. The Knave of Hearts is on trial and the jury consists of various animals that Alice had run into on her journey like Bill the Lizard. The King of Hearts serves as the judge and brings up several witnesses including The Hatter, who frustrates the King with his indirect answering to the questions. All the while, Alice is growing bigger and bigger. The Dormouse scolds her for growing and taking up all the air. Alice is then brought up as a witness, though she knocks over the witness box in the process. The Queen orders her to leave on account of the rule that all people over a mile high are not to be allowed in the courtroom. Alice argues the fact that she's a mile high and refuses to leave. She scolds the people for their odd ways and rules and is eventually swarmed by playing cards. This is the moment that Alice wakes up. Her sister brushes off a bunch of leaves that were on Alice, leaves that Alice thought were the playing cards. Alice's sister is left to wonder what Alice's crazy dream was about.

The book, like so many great works, wasn't really appreciated when it first came out. It wouldn't be until he published Through the Looking Glass that people really started to notice Carrol's first work. There is a whole bunch of symbolism in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Also, a lot of the characters are based on people Carrol knew at the Christ Church or in Oxford. The "rabbit hole" was meant to symbolize the actual staircase found in the back of the main hall in the Christ Church. Carrol was a mathematician at the Christ Church and thus there are many references to math in the book. The concept of limit is addressed when Alice wonders aloud how big she can actually get, or if she will be "going out altogther, like a candle." Later in Chapter Five, when Alice grows and disturbs the bird, the bird reasons that since little girls and serpents eat bird eggs, therefore little girls are serpents, as Alice is. This is an example of the general concept of abstraction. The Hatter, March Hare, and Dormouse discuss inverse relationships with the line, "Why you might just as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'I eat what I see'!" There are a few more math-related symbols in the book, but they are extremely involved and I don't feel it's necessary to divulge any further. So there. The painting of the roses from white to red is a symbol of the War of the Roses. The red roses symbolize the House of Lancaster and the white roses the rival House of York.

Many real life people are alluded to in the novel, even Carrol...er...Dodgson himself. Alice Liddell herself makes an appearance as a member of the caucus race. The Do-Do bird is Dodgson, as he spoke with a stutter and often said his last name as Dodo-Dodgson. The Duck is a reference to Canon Duckworth, the other man on the boat ride with Dodgson and the Liddell girls. The Lory and Eaglet represented Alice's sisters, Lorina and Edith, respectively. Bill the Lizard may of been a play on the name of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. The Liddell sisters make another appearance in the book as the three girls in the Dormouse's story.

Dodgson was really into photography. It was one of his many hobbies outside of writing. He even took photos of little Alice Liddell(left), the inspiration for Alice. This leads to a bit of a controversy about Dodgson. Dodgson gets a bad rap today by many who considered him to be into pedophilia. Many viewed his photography of little girls to be a bit creepy and thought that he enjoyed the company of little girls more than women his age. Even more cry out against his photography of naked girls, which today is highly unorthodox and extremely taboo. This is all when taking his hobby of photography in the scope of 20th century views argues Hugues Lebially. Lebially and other contemporary scholars have attempted to redeem Dodgson's image by arguing that his photography has been taken out of context. They argue that Dodgson was living in a time where photography of little girls in the nude was considered a display of their purity and innocence. It was considered normal at the time and many famous English photographers took part in it. It was mainstream and in fashion at the time, and Christmas cards would even feature naked girls on them. This however, does not keep the whole thing from being extremely creepy. The rumor that Dodgson enjoyed the company of little girls instead of women his own age is also debated. Contemporary scholars have found that Dodgson was actually quite the ladies man, and his family sought to keep this out of the public eye so as to not damage his image as an author of children's literature. Their protection had the opposite effect and many decades after Dodgson had died, seeing little evidence of his womanizing ways, many biographers assumed he was into little girls. This is all hotly debated between Carrol scholars, as there are many that still argue that he was a pedophile.

I know that there is a section of Through the Looking Glass in the Disney version, but I'm not going to cover that book too. This post is already long enough! Anyway, there have been countless versions of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass released. I have caught a slew of them on TV at one time or another as a kid and know some of the more weirder interpretations. All are different, but all are silly. Many have come out of Britain, where the book originates. Here are a few movies and series that are either based on Carroll's books, or heavily influenced by them.

  • Adventures in Wonderland: A early 90's live action show on the Disney Channel. I remember watching a few episodes here and there.
  • Jabberwocky: A film by Monty Python member Terry Gilliam.
  • The Matrix trilogy: the movies have several allusions to the books, including the White Rabbit and "going down the rabbit hole." The Wachowski brothers stated that Alice in Wonderland is a recurring theme throughout the movies.
  • Alice in Wonderland (2010): The newest incarnation of the Alice story, directed by Tim Burton, is probably the most well known one for a younger generation. Starring Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, it paints Wonderland in a much darker light and acts more of a sequel to the original film, mixing characters from Carroll's two books.
  • Thru the Mirror: This popular Mickey Mouse cartoon features Mickey stepping through his mirror a la Through the Looking Glass and discovering a new world.
  • Psychonauts: One of my favorite video games of all time. Game deals with the mind and madness, with one area consisting of Rasputin, the main character, chasing a white rabbit through a Wonderland-esque area inside his own mind.
  • American McGee's Alice: A very dark interpretation of Alice's journey back into Wonderland. There are now two games, the first only for computer, and the second just coming out a month ago.
  • Kingdom Hearts: A video game that combines Disney films with Square Enix games. Features Alice and a whole level dedicated to Wonderland where you meet many of the characters from Alice in Wonderland.
  • Batman: The Batman universe is influenced by the Alice books through story lines and characters. One of Batman's nemesis' is based on the Mad Hatter, a villain who uses mind control to battle Batman. The whole book, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, is supposed to be one big tribute to Alice in Wonderland. The authors put Batman into Arkham Asylum, a basic world of madness, and have Batman come out none the wiser from the experience. The story even ends with a quote from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
There are many more works influenced or based on Carroll's books, which just shows you how influential they are on popular culture. Do yourself a favor and read both books when you get a chance, or watch one of the movies. I've always enjoyed them and have been meaning to read both novels again. You can definetly see why Walt Disney would want to tell this story, and see that for the most part, he stuck to the plot and delivered a Disney classic.

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