Posted by David Kalat on June 11, 2016
The latest installment in Walt Disney’s Tim Burton’s Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland series has arrived only to falter unexpectedly. The 2010 film was an outsized international hit, and the sequel seemed to promise more of the same—but I’m not here to pick over its bones. I haven’t even seen the latest film so I’m supremely unqualified to comment on it. But I am a lifelong fan of all things Alice so I can’t help but feel an emotional investment of some kind.
For me, Alice is a jewel of (il)logic puzzles, absurdism, and wordplay—and I despaired that the 2010 Tim Burton adaptation abandoned that in favor of Joseph Campbell-style SF adventure. But to say the 2010 Alice wasn’t to my taste is a pointless remark as absurd as anything in Carroll’s book. It’s like me complaining I didn’t like the flavor of birdseed. Of course not—it wasn’t intended for you, dummy.
And therein lies the story.
Alice was a real person. Her name was Alice Lidell. Indeed, the Alice stories are littered with genuine biographical details about her.
Lewis Carroll, however, was not a real person—that was just a pen name for Charles Dodgson, a complicated genius. Dodgson was trained as a clergyman but was never ordained; he taught mathematics but resisted the most interesting mathematical discoveries of his era; he was a logician who turned his paradoxes and logic puzzles into children’s stories and absurdist poems.
He told Alice these fantastical tales as a way of entertaining her, and on her insistence he composed them into book form. By that point, the thing had evolved into a ripe tangle of puns and non-sequiters, parodies of other children’s literature, Lidell-family in-jokes, and ridiculous situations.
The first attempt to adapt Alice in Wonderland into a new medium came quite early, with a stage musical version in London in 1886. Mind you, this was eleven years before the definitive 1897 publication of the book. Even then there were disagreements between the dramatists and the author about how to translate his visions.
For the most part, the many theater and film adaptations that have appeared over the last century or so have followed a basic pattern: stunt casting of famous faces in crazy outfits, running through the familiar situations, everybody goes home happy. For producers, an Alice in Wonderland can be a tempting cash-in, and for actors it can be a fun lark. Over the years we’ve had Sammy Davis Jr. as the Caterpillar, Harvey Korman as the Mad Hatter, Elisabeth Sladen as the Dormouse, Elsa Lanchester as the Red Queen, Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, Whoopi Goldberg as the Cheshire Cat…
An obvious drawback to such an approach, though, is that each guest star is relegated to just a scene or maybe two, before being shoved off-stage by the next crazy character. You’ll have a hard time getting Johnny Depp to play just a single scene, and if you do manage that you can’t then honestly peg the entire marketing campaign to his cameo.
But whereas you can attract big names into appearing in an adaptation, it is rarely the case that they find themselves compelled to anything behind the scenes. On those rare occasions that a significant artist has paid tribute to Carroll’s stories, it has not been a straight-up adaptation but rather something original that has a palpable Carrollian inspiration—Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, for example, or Claude Chabrol’s Alice, Or The Last Escapade. Which brings us to the exception that proves our rule—Walt Disney.
Long before Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney struggled to pay the bills and toiled in obscurity. This was back in the hard luck days when he had to miss a crucial meeting with potential backers because his only pair of shoes had worn out and he couldn’t leave the office in sock feet. Back when he bartered cartoon sketches to local merchants in exchange for haircuts. During this tough stretch, Walt summoned all his resources to make a test film, a promo reel to show to distributors in the hopes of securing a contract. It was called Alice’s Wonderland.
He filmed live action plates of a real girl, cavorting around with cartoon comrades he added later. Almost 70 years before Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Walt Disney plunked live actors into a cartoon world. Let’s be clear—he stole the idea from Max Fleischer’s Out Of The Inkwell series, and didn’t do it half as well. But the very notion was clever enough that despite its derivative qualities and crude execution, it was enough to get started—and until 1927, the Alice In Cartoonland series was the cornerstone of the nascent Disney empire.
Eventually, of course, that empire was reorganized around a mischievous mouse, and in 1936 Walt sent Mickey into Wonderland in a delightful cartoon entitled Thru The Mirror (empirically the best Mickey Mouse short). It is unlikely to be a coincidence that it appeared just after the Fleischers sent Betty Boop to Wonderland in the strikingly similar 1934 ‘toon Betty In Blunderland.
Despite the obvious thrall that Alice had over Disney’s imagination, and the self-evident allure such a source text would have for a company whose business plan was turning children’s fables into blockbuster cartoons, Walt didn’t put an adaptation into production until surprisingly late. And when he did, the critical drubbing that his 1951 version took perhaps provided some insight into why he had dragged his feet. Alice in Wonderland was not a popular hit in its day, and reviewers seemed to resent that he had even tried to put his stamp on such a beloved classic.
The irony is, Disney did feel an obligation to be faithful to the source text, and this was precisely the problem that kept a Disneyfied Alice from surfacing earlier. Walt blamed Alice’s dismal box office performance on having felt too constrained by the literary reputation of the book to effectively turn the story into a compelling movie. As far as Walt Disney was concerned, the storybook Alice was a passive character who drifted aimlessly through weird events with no coherent goal, and thereby failed to initiate enough audience identification. He tried to compensate for that by having the movie Alice want to go home, and her travels through Wonderland are driven by her desire to leave (Evidently Walt did not consider the more subversive possibility that Alice’s motivation is to flee her conventional home, that she gets into danger because she seeks fantasy escapism for its own sake, and that the story is meant to endorse this creative recklessness).
Sixty years later, when the Disney Studio came back for a second bite of the apple, solving that problem would be the central goal.
It is unfair to call these “Tim Burton’s” Alice in Wonderland. Everyone does of course—even calling the new Through the Looking Glass “Tim Burton’s” despite his limited involvement. The real creative force responsible for making these films what they are is pioneering screenwriter Linda Woolverton.
Some fun facts about Woolverton: she is the first woman to write a Disney feature (Beauty and the Beast). The first woman to write a billion dollar blockbuster (Alice in Wonderland). After Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film to get a Best Picture nomination, she adapted her screenplay into a Broadway musical and won a Tony nomination. She wrote The Lion King, and Maleficent. She got her start at Disney in the 1980s by walking into their offices and plunking down some YA novels she’d written. And she had a mission: to get rid of the old model of passive princess and start making movies about proactive, independent female role models.
All of which led her right back to the same wellspring that Disney had been drawn to all those years ago: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Walt had misunderstood the story and thought of Alice as yet another passive girl—to Woolverton, Alice was a heroine. High time to foreground that.
But if you’re wondering why exactly turning Alice into a feminist heroine meant reconfiguring a family classic as a grim adventure thriller, let me introduce you to the Hollywood Economist.
His name is Dr. Edward Jay Epstein and he is a Harvard-educated political scientist and economist. He started covering Hollywood for a Slate column, which evolved into the Hollywood Economist blog, and that in turn became an eponymous book.
Of all the points Epstein makes, one is the key to all the others: back when Disney made the 1951 Alice, 65% of the American populace habitually attended movie houses at least once a week. All you had to do in order to get a decent audience for your movie was to let that regular movie-going public know the movie existed. The rest more or less took care of itself. Today, less than 6% of the US bothers to go to the movie theater anymore, and that number is composed almost entirely of teenagers. Competition from other media formats and outlets is fierce. You can no longer take an audience for granted—you have to compel your audience to get up and go to a theater.
That process of audience creation is itself expensive, and difficult. Consider what it would take to reach me. Thanks to my DVR, I don’t watch TV commercials. I rarely watch broadcast TV at all, anyway. I deliberately time my arrival at the theater to avoid previews. I don’t care about celebrities. I usually disagree with critics, so neither positive nor negative reviews of movies have much effect on my viewing choices. If there is a movie I want to see, I usually wait for a Blu-Ray/DVD release. In short, marketing to me is a losing game.
By contrast, my daughter Ann was squarely in the audience for the 2010 Alice in Wonderland, and she very much enjoyed it. And: she does care about celebrities. The mere fact of a Tim Burton-Johnny Depp pair-up in the film was a huge selling point for her. Seeing Mia Wasikowska as a cover girl on TEEN VOGUE was another hook that got her excited about the movie. She watches broadcast TV. She loves to see movies theatrically—and if they’re in IMAX and 3-D, so much the better. She remembers previews, months later, eagerly awaiting movies that caught her eye. In short, marketing to her is a snap.
This little family drama is a microcosm of a nationwide trend. Movies nowadays mostly cater to teen audiences for the simple fact that teen audiences are easier to market to. And over the years, movie makers have found a reliable formula for making movies that will appeal to teens. Epstein calls it the “Midas Formula,” and he articulates 9 elements. All 9 are true of the new Alice:
And so what if the changes mute the extent to which the story serves as a metaphor for puberty? What self-respecting teen wants to see such a story anyway? Ann agrees that she’d have been significantly less interested in seeing the movie if it had featured a child Alice instead of the glamorous Wasikowska.
Many of the creative choices in the 2010 film strike me as nonsensical, but that merely leads me back to a quote by the Red Queen from the original book: “You may call it ’nonsense’ if you like, but I’ve heard nonsense, compared with which that would be a sensible as a dictionary!”
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