Friday, March 5, 2010

Ted hates all adaptations of Lewis Carroll's 'Alice' books

Let me start off by being clear, here: I'm not saying that I hate Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Rather, I have a severe, unyielding, constantly burning hatred for any and all adaptations of those works.

In fact, that's a good place to start. Look at the last word in the last sentence of that paragraph: 'works.' As in plural. People making movies or TV shows or video games out of the Alice books seem to forget that there are two Alice books. In general, I have no problem with mixing together events from Wonderland and Looking-Glass; I'm not going to kick up a fuss if you bring Tweedledee and Tweedledum into the same world as the Cheshire Cat. What really gets my goat, though, is when adapters confuse the Queen of Hearts, from Wonderland, with the Red Queen, from Looking-Glass.  

Wonderland's court is built on the metaphor of a deck of cards: there's the Queen of Hearts, the King of Hearts, the Knave of Hearts, and all the various other cards in the heart suit. (Remember the Queen playing croquet? The soldiers, who were literally giant walking cards, bent themselves into arches for the game.) Presumably there's also a Queen of Clubs, and one of Spades, and Diamonds, but Alice stays entirely within the Heart court for the book. Looking-Glass, on the other hand, is built on a chess metaphor: there's the Red Queen and the White Queen, and while Alice meets them both in the course of the book, neither one is outright crazy and murderous like the Queen of Hearts is. ("Off with her head!") In fact, at the end of the book, the two queens come together and congratulate Alice on having become a queen herself.

So naturally I am quite pissed off at the new Tim Burton movie version of Alice, in which our young heroine faces off against a crazy, murderous Red Queen with the help of the White Queen and her army.

But I'll be honest: the queen thing is really only a small part of the reason why I dislike adaptations of Alice. The larger issue is that it's impossible to make a good adaptation of Alice because adaptations necessarily discard some elements and add others, while keeping true to the original story. And Alice doesn't have a story. Yes, there's a narrative of sorts—Alice falls down hole, Alice meets crazy messed-up critters and people, Alice gets involved in a wacky trial with a decapitation-obsessed queen—but Alice works best not as a story but as a series of improbable, nonsensical occurrences.

My favorite way of thinking about the Alice books is that they are lessons in anti-logical thinking. Quite a few conversations in Wonderland and Looking-Glass both take the form of a logical dispute, in which one person takes a position and then proves it with logic. But in the books, the arguments that these characters make use seemingly flawless logic to come to completely insane conclusions. One of my favorite examples is the Cheshire Cat proving that all cats are mad:
'To begin with,' said the Cat, 'a dog's not mad. You grant that?'

'I suppose so,' said Alice.

'Well, then,' the Cat went on, 'you see, a dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased. Now I growl when I'm pleased, and wag my tail when I'm angry. Therefore I'm mad.'
The logic makes sense, but the conclusion is complete nonsense. Carroll also loves playing with language and the absurdities thereof; my absolute favorite one of these is a section from Looking-Glass when Alice is talking to the White Knight about a song he's going to sing:
'The name of the song is called "HADDOCKS' EYES."'

'Oh, that's the name of the song, is it?' Alice said, trying to feel interested.

'No, you don't understand,' the Knight said, looking a little vexed. 'That's what the name is CALLED. The name really IS "THE AGED AGED MAN."'

'Then I ought to have said "That's what the SONG is called"?' Alice corrected herself.

'No, you oughtn't: that's quite another thing! The SONG is called "WAYS AND MEANS": but that's only what it's CALLED, you know!'

'Well, what IS the song, then?' said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

'I was coming to that,' the Knight said. 'The song really IS "A-SITTING ON A GATE": and the tune's my own invention.'
The name of the song is called this. The name of the song is this. The song is called this. The song is this. That's four different phrases which are generally taken to mean the same thing, but as Carroll points out, they technically refer to four different things.

The Alice books are not so much stories as they are textbooks in how to think nonsensically. The plots aren't so much meaningless as they are completely irrelevant. Trying to adapt the story would be like trying to make a movie out of Plato's Republic.

Furthermore, Alice herself, as a character, is extremely limited and one-dimensional—what do we know about her background? About her personality? How does she feel about this or that? In fact, I don't really regard Alice as a character at all. Carroll, after all, originally came up with the books as stories told to the real-life Alice; her literary counterpart didn't need to be complex or interesting because she was just a vehicle, a way for Alice Liddell to explore the world of Wonderland. I think of the book-Alice as a diving suit: she has the shape of a human, and she can move and act like a human, but she's really just there as a means to explore an otherwise unexplorable world. Any attempt to explore Alice as a character will thus fail, because there isn't anything to explore. It's like trying to analyze the motivations and personality traits of a car.

In any case, I'm using way too many words to express a very simple thought, which is, "I hate the new Alice movie already and Tim Burton should just stop making films right now."

1 comment:

  1. This review had far more entertainment value than the film - thank you, Ted!