Alice is in Wonderland…or is she?

It’s time to get writing again. I have a defense date scheduled (May 14th), and my final draft went in the mail today to begin the editing process. This means that Grad Student Limbo is coming to a close, but this also means that it’s time for me to really start defining what I want to be when I grow up.

Alice is a nice inspiration for this. Disney’s animated feature is a handy, condensed version of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice stories, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and most of the versions of Alice that have hit the screen since 1951 follow a similar formula. Let’s face it, Carroll’s stories are whimsical and entertaining, but their episodic nature does not make for good cinema. One could argue that, well, that’s the point. These and similar stories aren’t meant to be made into films, so why mess with a tried and true literary medium? BUT, speaks soon-to-be-doctor me, cinema and television are the modern purveyors of myth. Sure, any one could read the books, but we’ve turned into such a visual culture that we would rather see it on the screen. There are many examples of this throughout cinema’s history, but notably the recent books that have made it to the screen: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries. We can have the argument that Hollywood is trying to cash in on the fads these books represent, but were that the sole raison d’etre for these versions, I don’t think they would be nearly as successful as they are. We want the visualization, so once one is available for us, we eat it up. Sure, we may complain about the liberties the filmmakers took with the story, but ultimately, we keep going back for more. A few of the books-to-screen adaptations will stand forever as the perfect adaptation, don’t anyone dare touch it (though I would really love to see a better version of The Wizard of Oz); others will find themselves revisited every generation or two (such as The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles or Narnia).

And Alice. Disney’s version may have given us an approach to the stories that is tangible for screen, but it is not the only version available. There are different versions of the same story—Alice falls down the rabbit hole, Alice has an adventure through Wonderland, Alice returns home in time for tea. Recently, however, a few versions take Alice to new levels. In my own fanaticism, I’ve watched a few different versions of Alice in Wonderland, just to see a new take on Wonderland. A few noteworthy adaptations stand out: Phoebe in Wonderland, Malice in Wonderland, Alice (Woody Allen), and Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton). In all four of these adaptations, Alice’s story is rewritten to suit the heroine who inevitably has lost a part of herself along the way and needs to go to Wonderland to reclaim whatever she has lost. Wonderland in all of these versions is an imaginary realm that takes the heroine out of the mundane reality she is struggling to cope with, and forces her to face her demons and decide whether or not she is going to continue living according to the rules of reality or to define her own path, effectively bringing Wonderland into the “real world.”

Why is this such a powerful image today? Despite all the efforts of our feminist grandmothers, many women (and men) are still struggling with their identity within society. It’s not that we necessarily find ourselves marching to work a la Metropolis, but that we aren’t finding meaning in the world we live in. Whether we’re 15 or 45, this usually comes as an indication that it is time for something to change, if only we knew what and how. Alice’s story reminds us all that a little play can go a long way, but her journey to Wonderland isn’t just about play. Wonderland is an underworld or an otherworld, depending on how one wants to read the archetype. At some point in any journey, the hero has to go to this under/otherworld and find the missing “boon,” as Joseph Campbell describes it. When we apply the hero’s journey to our own lives, we all have to go through a period of struggle, darkness, or challenging difficulty in order to enrich our lives. These periods coincide with life crises—midlife, quarter-life, or otherwise. It’s all part of the process. Along the way, we may grow short or we may grow tall; we may follow rabbits or get lost in mazes. Alice’s adventures are thus metaphors for the life that awaits us.

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4 thoughts on “Alice is in Wonderland…or is she?

  1. Great post! I adore Alice – the original text and some theatrical versions – and enjoyed your comparisons and insights!! Welcome to upcoming post-PhD life!! 😉

    1. You remind me that I started an essay about that Alice 2 years ago, but never finished it.. and apparently never posted it! I’m a girl on a mission today. 🙂

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