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.


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.

Personal Myth from Wonderland to Who

Those stories we hold especially close are those that often have some connection with our personal myth at the time we encounter them. It’s not just a happy accident that we fall in love with something. It’s something far deeper than that. Something has been triggered psychologically.

As an undergraduate and throughout a portion of my graduate studies, my myth revolved around all things Harry Potter. Like so many others, I was drawn into the stories, to the point where my life felt enhanced every single time I read the books. I remember the day when that changed. Somewhere along the way – I think when I started teaching – the myth of the student slowly lost its potency. This might also be a large contribution to why I’m writing a dissertation over Disney and not Potter.

But in the last few months, my myth has been defined by Alice in Wonderland. This might have something to do with the shift from grad student to dissertating student and the frightening aspects that comes with this change. It felt like I was dropping into Wonderland, tuning out and turning on … the laptop at least.

Even more recently, I have been sucked into the mythos of Dr. Who, to the point that I’ve made it my goal in recent weeks to watch every single available serial for all doctors on Netflix Instant. Of course, the limitation on Netflix Instant cuts out a large part of the series. But it’s almost to the point of an addition. I can’t do basic tasks – like grading – without the show running simultaneously. But here’s the question: Dr. Who is about a Time Lord who can move around time and space. It’s as though time is infinite and unchanging. The Doctor is in control of his own past, present and future. So why this myth, why now? I’m sure this has something to do with the whole dissertation business. The idea of having a series of adventures and return home at the right time to finish writing the thing.

There aren’t many of us who haven’t wished for a Time-Turner. But I suppose a TARDIS would be a perfectly acceptable substitute.

The Meaning of Tea

I decided this year that my birthday party needed to be a Mad Tea Unbirthday Party. This idea really has nothing to do with the new Tim Burton Alice, though it has been helpful in finding Alice themed merchandise. On my quest for tea cups, I found a lovely antiques store in Buda, Texas called, appropriately, “The Looking Glass,” which, appropriately, sells some Alice stuffins and all sorts of tea related products. I’d never stopped to consider why tea, what is its mystique?

There is a book, which I haven’t read, by Phil Cousineau called The Meaning of Tea. I follow the Twitter, and every now and then I’m stumped as to how to have a zen moment from tea. Today’s shopping excursion answered that question for me. Right now, we’re in that annoying transition phase between summer and full-blown fall. That autumn crispness is in the air, but the temperature hasn’t caught up yet. There’s something about this particular season that causes me to want to reach for the tea cup instead of the coffee cup. There’s also something about having a bunch of people over for cakes and finger sandwiches and tea, rather than coffee.

So, I came away from the shopping experience with a tea for one Alice in Wonderland set and an Alice tiered serving set. Having a tea-for-one set makes me want to drink tea, and sit outside on my porch with a good book or my laptop either reading or writing, but not reading or writing e-mails. Something about a cup of tea is inspiring, whereas a cup of coffee is functional – it’s what you drink to get through a deadline or ready for an exam. So, with my tea-for-one set in hand, I’m ready for tomorrow’s big dissertation private launch party. But almost more importantly, one month from today, as I pass out candies to local trick-or-treaters, I’ll be outlining this years NaNoWriMo novel project and, hopefully, with tea at my side, I will finish this year’s book.