Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Better Late than Never.

My friend, Nikki Faith, asked in response to my last post what I thought about Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Only then did I remember that I started writing an essay about this film in spring 2010, but never finished. My original intent was to get it published somewhere (I was thinking Spring Journal), but since we’re so far removed from the original release, I’ll just post it here.

It should be said from the outset of any kind of review of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, released by Disney in March 2010, that it is not a remake of the Disney animated movie of the same name. Nor is it yet another adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s books. It is conceived to be more of a sequel that begins on the threshold of Alice’s emergence into adulthood at an unexpected engagement party. Alice, overcome with the idea of marrying an English lord, who has terrible digestive problems and an overly, dominating mother, runs into the nearby woods chasing a white rabbit wearing a waistcoat. She crawls under the roots of the tree, following him – a very sensible thing to do – and immediately falls down a dreadfully long tunnel full of debris and finally landing in a room of doors, the threshold to Wonderland. Throughout her journey, she encounters several of Carroll’s more memorable characters, taken from both “Alice” stories, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Initially, she is told that she is the “wrong Alice” or “hardly Alice,” and is only waiting to wake up from this dream. Wonderland becomes her land of unconscious, and her heroic adventure – taken straight from Joseph Campbell – her process of individuation. As ubiquitous as the symbolism has become in American popular culture, Burton’s revisioning recreates the psychic playground to reflect the struggles and torment reflective of the current American climate.

Can an Alice be an Archetype?

There have been several recreations of Alice on the screen, most notably the Disney animated feature of 1951, which cemented the characters into the American mythic landscape. These characters and symbols were also associated with the 1960s counterculture – as noted by the Jefferson Airplane – her constant shrinking and enlargement are handy metaphors for the drug experience. (She does eat mushrooms, after all !)

For all of its bizarreness, Alice’s journey is one of an archetypal hero. She receives her call to adventure following the white rabbit, passes the test of the threshold by passing through the impossibly small door, then undergoes a series of trials and meets many magical helpers from the eternally smiling Cheshire Cat and the beloved Mad Hatter, to name only a couple. She then faces the boon guardian, the Red Queen of Hearts, who, following Disney’s original adaptation, is a combination of two characters in the stories, and her Jabberwocky. Alice escapes the queen in order to return home. Carroll’s journey through the looking glass lacks the accidental fall into the journey and is often ignored in favor of the “Wonderland” symbolism, and many of the characters, such as the wrathful Red Queen and the chess pieces are interwoven. This does alter the stories, creating an Alice mythos that extends beyond the scope of Carroll’s vision.

Alice does not individuate in the stories, which emphasize her curious, playful, childlike nature. Adults pass off her adventure as childish fantasy, and her ability to travel through the looking glass is an extension of the nurturing atmosphere her parents afforded her imagination. Walt Disney’s adaptation emerges during the eras when fantasy life was “relegated to the nursery,” as J.R.R. Tolkien describes. In contemporary American culture, fantasy life sits below the surface of the collective psyche – just below – and it bubbles into conscious life on a regular basis, as evidenced by the successes of Harry Potter, Star Wars, Disneyland, and even the recent Avatar. Fantasy is becoming, increasingly, the culturally-sanctioned outlet for unconscious projection. Adults and children all tune to fantastical elements to act upon their psyche’s desires. Some participate in fantasy communities – from Renaissance festivals to Fantasy football – or play video or LARP games, or watch movies. In all cases, the need is to escape the realities of conscious existence in favor of allowing the unconscious to play. This does have the potential for unhealthy behaviors, such as only living for the video game, and confusing the barriers between the game and everyday life.

C. G. Jung, however, would encourage the fantasy behavior – as long as it is used in a healthy manner. Playing in the psychic playground allows one to tap into the unconscious in ways similar to Active Imagination or sand play techniques help in therapy. The real – REAL – danger, I suggest, isn’t the confusion between reality and fantasy; but, rather, the appropriation of external images into one’s personal internal reality, but that is a discussion of another time.

In Burton’s version, Alice does individuate. She enters Wonderland, technically Underland according to its inhabitants, on the threshold of major personal change and returns ready to take charge of her own life. In Wonderland, she has to regain her “muchness,” the characteristic of her youthful curiosity that fuels her heroic power.

Innocence and Wonderland (Innocence in post-war America versus Burton’s call to arms)

Since September 11th, 2001, any illusion of innocence in America has died, forcing the Dream Makers to scramble within the new paradigm. Arguably, innocence was mainly a cultural illusion to give the image of peace and stability following the two World Wars and the Great Depression. The 1950s are characterized (stereotyped) as sanitized, with the perfect house, the perfect family, and everything was perfectly squeaky-clean. Of course, this image is propagandistic balderdash, but it is into this paradigm that Alice emerges. Now, we are in a new paradigm. As though collectively denying the “War on Terror,” Wonderland is the land of escape. However, Burton’s Wonderland is one fraught with war. Since Alice’s last visit, as an eight-year old young girl, the Red Queen has become the dominant force of Wonderland (or Underland). She has dethroned her sister, the White Queen, and executed a reign of terror on the land that has left forests burned and barren, and the subjects with the fear of displeasing her – in any way at all – because then one would lose one’s head. The Queen’s beheadings are her defense mechanism against the full consciousness reflective of her bulbous head. The beheaded head would become a floating stepping stone in her castle’s moat. The only hope the “Resistance Movement” has – i.e. the supporters of the White Queen and anyone eager for the reign of terror to end – is a prophecy in the Oraculum, “being a columdrial compendium of Underland,” that on Frabjous Day, Alice will rise up as the champion of the White Queen and slay the champion of the Red Queen, the Jabberwocky.

The first problem is in shaping Alice into that champion. When she re-enters Wonderland, she is accustomed to doing what she is told – as a good, English girl should – and is nearly convinced that her fantastical dreams are symptoms for insanity. She is curious, but lacks courage. In a pivotal moment in the film, she chooses to rescue the Mad Hatter from the Red Queen, rather than proceed immediately to the White Queen as she is expected to do. She boldly tells Bayard, the dog helping her in her escape, “From the moment I fell down the rabbit hole, I’ve been told who I must be … I’ll decide who I’ll be from here… I’ll make the path.” She tricks her way into the Queen’s court by pretending to be someone else, rescues the mythical vorpal blade that is destined to slay the Jabberwocky, then escapes with the Queen’s precious Bandersnatch to the White Castle. Though still hesitant to don the armor of the Champion, and still convinced that the entirety of Wonderland is a dream, Alice, nonetheless, develops an affection for the only world that does not perceive her as bonkers.

This is the psychological seduction of the unconscious and of fantasy. Jung dove deeply into his own fantasy/unconscious, as evidenced by the monstrous work of art that is the Red Book. He encouraged his patients to analyze their dreams and engage with art and myth in order to develop a relationship with the unconscious. In doing this, a process he called “individuation,” one could become a fully individual. This does not necessarily mean one would become a unique snowflake in the pool of androgyny (though Jung would encourage that as well, being concerned about collective think, as evidenced in his commentary on the Nazi Party’s involvement across Eastern Europe) but rather undivisable – in-divid-ual – meaning that consciousness and unconsciousness are operating in unison, and not in the opposition that causes psychosis.

Alice was very near this point when she returned to Wonderland. She believed her dreams to be nightmares that recurred nightly for as long as she could remember. She questions her mother on the way to her un-engagement party whether that was normal: shouldn’t people dream different things each night? What she was experiencing were memories. She had completely forgotten Wonderland. She had forgotten her friends and the adventure she had there. Too often, this is the cause of identity crisis. Children are encouraged to leave their fantasy life behind in favor of more adult matters, such as jobs, college, marriage, and even to become a parent someday. “Reality” has no room for fantasy.

Is Wonderland just a Figment of Our Imagination?

This is where I last left off with this essay , so I leave you, dear reader (all two of you) with this question.

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4 thoughts on “Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Better Late than Never.

  1. i just watched this movie last night and was enraptured by the symbolism. i am surprised there are so few, (none – so far), articles analysing the symbolism. wonderland is clearly her subconscious, which she enters at a critical point in her life to clear out and regain the power and clarity of her soul, aka her “muchness.” in wonderland, she meets the twins (duality), the mad hatter (the wild, crazy expressive element of self), the white and red queen (two aspects of the same self that are at odds with each other — white: the too good mother… red: the carnal egomaniac)… the caterpillar, which is a reflection of her own soul’s questioning — who am i? — and at the end, he is ready to embody the transformation, as is she. the chershire cat, who to me, represented the healing, psychic, magic aspect. the beast who first scratched her in the start of the film — another wound/scar/energy being held onto in the psyche that seems harmful, is confused within us — the she realizes this is her dream, she chooses to not be afraid, just as we all have the choice to realize there is no reason to be fearful…and step into our power. towards the end of the film, she befriends this beast/challenging aspect of self, accepts it, befriends it, and in doing so: heals the wound. it transforms. and one more… in the beginning, she has to let go of what she thinks she knows/humble herself in order to fit into the small door and enter the world of her psyche and soul. later in the movie, she is too big. but when she is ready to step into her total muchness and be the “champion” (of her story), she is given a remedy from the light (the white queen) and becomes the right size — fully balanced and embodied.

    i am not an expert with this stuff… yet i found these archetypes and symbols to be glowingly clear, and i found the story to be another beautiful expression of how life & stepping into our muchness is a choice, available to everyone.

    would love to read an in depth analysis by someone with experience. if you know of one…. and thank you for your article – is really beautiful and well written.

    1. keep rewatching the film, you’ll be able to write your own. also read kenneth burke’s “mystiques” not sure of the spelling but well known collection of burkes short essays. also the foucault (pronounced foo-co) reader, edward said, walter benjamin essays (said’s essay occidental or orientism is in title; benjamin’s “art in the age of material mass production”. all of these authors and their works demonstrate a broader way of understanding the world around us that goes beyond jungian ananlysis of the individual to encompass “its not so much what we think as what thinks us” (william irwin thompson “time falling bodies take to light”). one school of literary criticism teaches that “the meaning is in the form” — namely kenneth burk or tha burkian school of thought. a few examples i came up with are: it’s no accident that inquistition authorities and post-modern judges wear black robes. neither is it coincidental that both royalty of the old country and the judicuary of this new country both reside in courts. on the personal note. met a woman whose brother was a cop — he lived on marshall street, heh-heh. this way of thihking is also called “rhetorical reading” whereby the meaning is in the form. as for duality you mention, white is pure, red is impure — she has blood on her hands. the white queen does not, and thus why alice, and not the white queen must slay the jabberwok. so,, it any one has a time machine for sale i’d be much obliged. oh, the film is filled with what you refer to as duality pairs, or doubles.–on both sides of the rabbit hole. once alice returns to her intended she is again surrounded by her same companions that were with her in the rabbit hole, albeit, a variegation of their former self. which brings us back to jung. . . and levi strauuss.

  2. why did alice have to leave the hatter and wonderland? the answer is in the movie. watched film about five times before it struck me — i. e why she could not stay in wonderland

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