The Alternative Alice
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will celebrate its sesquicentennial in 2015. Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, retain their innocent charm for younger readers while resonating more darkly for adults. Not simply cherished as quaint Victorian nonsense, the books have inspired numerous interpretations, from psychoanalysis to psychedelia. And Alice’s alternative adaptations show us fundamentally the same girl—curious, adventurous and perpetually changing her size and shape.
The Alice books have inspired multiple film adaptations, the first released in 1903, only five years after Lewis Carroll’s death and less than a decade after the birth of cinema. Its directors, Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow, abridge the story dramatically, but their retelling features ambitious special effects, which show Alice growing and shrinking through trick camerawork, and compositions influenced by John Tenniel’s original illustrations for the books.
More than a century later American director Tim Burton premiered his version of Alice in Wonderland (2010), released by Walt Disney, which had produced the iconic animated Alice film in 1951. Rather than adapt either Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass, Burton created a third adventure, taking a 19-year-old Alice back to her childhood fantasy world, which she finds tyrannized by the Red Queen and her minions.
Although Burton’s movie, a digital 3-D extravaganza of live action and computer-generated imagery, may at first glance seem lavishly superior to the 1903 version’s modest effects and condensed storyline, the earlier production is still critically admired. The two films also share an interesting quirk of casting: Both Hepworth and Burton chose their wives to play the bad-tempered Queen.
Marketed to children, Disney’s 1951 Alice in Wonderland adaptation was intended as innocent fun, yet it is easy to see how student audiences of the late 1960s and early 1970s could have interpreted it as a depiction of a psychedelic trip. Alice’s encounter with the hookah-smoking Caterpillar is, of course, part of the original story, but the scene’s languid, exotic music, drifting dialogue and exquisitely moving smoke only enhance the sense of a hallucinogenic dream. As journalist David Koenig reports in Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation and Theme Parks (1997), “In 1971 Alice in Wonderland was the top-renting 16mm film in every college town across the country, playing to capacity crowds in heavy-smoke-filled fraternity houses, university theaters, discos and private homes, where it sometimes ran over and over again for an entire weekend.”
Disney initially resisted suggestions that the film simulated drug experiences; the company even limited distribution of 16mm prints to keep students from renting them. But in 1974 Disney rereleased Alice in theaters. Advertising for the film playfully asked, “Should You See It? Go Ask Alice,” a reference to Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 Alice-themed drug anthem “White Rabbit.”
“White Rabbit,” by San Francisco–based psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane, was released in 1967 as American students were rediscovering Disney’s trippy animated Alice in Wonderland. Against an insistent rhythm and threatening bass, singer Grace Slick intones, “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small.” Not accurate quotations, the lyrics are loosely influenced by the Alice books. In 1968 an article by Thomas Fensch dubbed Lewis Carroll “the first acidhead.” Though he mentions elements from Carroll’s books—the Caterpillar’s hookah and absurd details of the tea party—Fensch’s key source is Jefferson Airplane’s single, whose lyrics he uses to support his theories, with comments like “that’s psychedelics—baby—now.” Today Fensch’s argument seems sketchy to the point of ludicrousness, reducing Carroll’s creativity by comparing it to an easily available LSD trip. However, as Robert Phillips explains in the 1972 collection of criticism Aspects of Alice, Carroll wrote that humans can achieve “various psychical states, with various degrees of consciousness,” one of which (the “eerie”) enables people to see fairies in daily life, while the most extreme transports a sleeper to Fairyland. Although no evidence exists that Carroll used drugs, Phillips suggests Carroll “gets high on the imagination.”
Alice has stepped through the looking glass onto the silver screen and tumbled down the rabbit hole into the virtual environments of video games. Inevitably, computer and video game versions of Alice’s adventures depart from the original stories; they have to translate prose and nonsense verse into the very different interactive language of graphics, character movement, obstacles, enemies and progression through levels. Rather than an adaptation of Carroll’s books, the PC game created by renowned game designer American McGee is a further Alice adventure. This most ambitious spin-off, American McGee’s Alice (2000), begins after the close of Through the Looking-Glass, when Alice is a teenager. At the start of the game, a near-catatonic Alice is in an asylum after the death of her family. The violent game is a journey into her troubled subconscious, and the monsters she confronts symbolize rage, guilt and other aspects of her psyche. The soundtrack by Chris Vrenna of Nine Inch Nails, a layered collage of foreboding chords, vocal chants and samples from children’s music boxes, adds to the eerie atmosphere. The game’s success spawned a sequel, Alice: Madness Returns (2011).
Lewis Carroll’s influence has shaped key fantasy literature of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Without Alice, who introduced the genre of fantasy centered on an inquisitive, self-confident young girl, we might never have met Dorothy, L. Frank Baum’s heroine in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Without Alice’s trips down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass, C.S. Lewis’s characters might never have entered Narnia through the wardrobe. More recently, Lyra, the protagonist of Phillip Pullman’s much-loved His Dark Materials trilogy (1995–2000), may never have left Oxford to enter an alternate universe.
The past 30 years have seen some of the most innovative Alice transformations. Gilbert Adair’s Alice Through the Needle’s Eye (1984) is a convincing attempt to capture Carroll’s playful, punning spirit, while Jeff Noon’s Automated Alice (1996) is a looser spin-off in which the heroine visits a surreal cyberpunk version of Victorian Manchester, England. R.J. Carter’s Alice’s Journey Beyond the Moon (2004) includes annotations explaining Carroll’s jokes and references, and Frank Beddor’s series of books and graphic novels, The Looking Glass Wars (2004–2009), reworks Carroll’s classic as an action-adventure saga.
English illustrator John Tenniel collaborated with Lewis Carroll to give Alice the image we still associate with her—a little blond girl in a blue dress—and without his designs, the character may not have endured so broadly and visibly in popular culture. Comic-book creator Alan Moore (Watchmen) is just one of the artists who continue to pay homage, through visual echoes and artistic references, to Tenniel’s Alice. His erotic graphic novel Lost Girls, illustrated by Melinda Gebbie, explores the later lives of child heroines Alice, Dorothy (from The Wizard of Oz) and Wendy (from Peter Pan), who find themselves staying at the same grand hotel in Austria in 1913.
The Alice character has some parallels with Carroll’s muse, the real-life Alice Liddell, who became a society hostess after her marriage. In Lost Girls, Alice also owns a mine in Pretoria, South Africa, and, more controversial, she is shown using laudanum and seducing a young girl. (The grown-up characters share their sexual histories with each other at the hotel.) Lost Girls was troubled by allegations of pornographic content and claims of copyright infringement.
Alan Moore, writer of Lost Girls, and Grant Morrison, author of Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, are major players in contemporary comics. Moore’s Watchmen (1986)—a meditation on time, politics, sex and superheroes—changed perceptions of comics as kids’ stuff. And Morrison, who scripts marquee DC titles such as Batman, was influenced by Moore’s revisionist approach.
The cast of Wonderland and Looking-Glass pops up surprisingly often in comic books—most notably in Batman. A villain called the Mad Hatter—dressed as John Tenniel originally illustrated him, down to the label on his hat—has figured in the Batman mythos since 1949. The debt to Carroll is explicit in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Haunted Knight (1996), as the character snarls, “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!”—a direct quotation from Wonderland. The character and quotation also appear in Morrison’s Arkham Asylum.
In Haunted Knight and Arkham Asylum, the Alice books are linked to Bruce Wayne/Batman’s childhood and recollections of his mother, while the corrupt Hatter taints those good memories with associations of child abuse. Batman’s conflict with the Hatter can be seen as a struggle over how the Alice books should be interpreted—as innocent whimsy or dark fantasy.