Adaptation Paper

Adaptation Paper for Alice in Wonderland (2010):
A Critical Analysis of Tim Burton’s Film Alice in Wonderland
(An adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s novel of the same name.)

The Literary Work
If novels were named retrospectively then Alice in Wonderland might have well been named The Little Girl Who Changed the World. The book has been borrowed from, adapted, and built upon so often it would be impossible to correctly estimate the impact it has had upon the modern landscape. It is an English literary classic which has been interpreted by revisionists as widely varied as Grace Slick to Walt Disney. The story, published in 1865 and written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll), is centered on a young girl, Alice, who finds herself in a surreal and magical world where many things are not what they seem. It is a fantastic world where, “Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way.” The books fantasy setting has been a source of endless speculation as to its various meanings, and metaphorical interpretations. For example, her constant change in size throughout the course of the story is often interpreted as symbolic of the changes of young adulthood. Yet another example is the dialogue with the Mad Hatter seen as representative of a mathematical inverse relation (Lewis Carroll was an Oxford trained mathematician and logician), or any one of many other theories of hidden math in the novel (see “The Hidden Math behind Alice in Wonderland” by Keith Devlin in the March 2010 issue of MAA Online). Ultimately, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a book is just a book, but Alice in Wonderland will always be a rich source of speculation and “frabjous” wonder.

The Film
Approximately twenty five television and film adaptations of Alice in Wonderland have been made in the last one hundred years. That averages out to one every four years. They range from G rated to XXX. Yet, this remake stands out, and, in the case of the 2010 version, it is unmistakably a Tim Burton film. What does that mean? According to Danny Elfman, “Throughout the many stages of his 30 years behind the camera, there has remained a consistent underlying emotional current in Burton’s work—a delicate balance of sadness, humor, and horror that matches his eye for gothic beauty and mythical surrealism.” This very accurately summarizes a great deal about the film. The film abounds with eye candy and visual extravaganza. In check with typical Tim Burton style, his formal film techniques (set/costumes, cinematography, sound design, editing, etc.) rely heavily on animation, digital effects, and a number of cinemagraphic effects to accurately portray the surreal nature of Wonderland (aka Underland in the film).

Furthermore, Tim Burton introduces a number of original ideas in the film which are not found in the novel. Lisa Mullen points out in an article for Sight & Sound that “so many original ideas zip past: the Red Queen’s ugly, distorted head — which her simpering courtiers try to copy with prosthetic disfigurements of their own — and her obsession with beheading people; the magical Oraculum which depicts Alice’s immutable future [where Alice fights for good versus evil in a final battlefield showdown]; the disturbingly uncompromising White Queen, whose goodness comes laced with a narcotic kick.” Additionally, the main themes of the Burton film are debatable, but they are certainly very different from the Lewis Carroll novel. Two themes seem abundantly clear: first, there is a feminist motif throughout the film which asserts a very positive and clear statement about feminine power and gender equality (ex. The slaying of the beast by a knightly dressed Alice); Second, Alice is used as an instrument of a rebel mentality which attempts to buck the traditional, and demonstrate the fallacy of many societal conventions.

One more characteristic element of most of Burton’s film’s can also be found in this version of Alice in Wonderland: parent issues. Kim Newman of Sight & Sound adds that, “The heroes of many of Burton’s films struggle with ‘parent issues’: not just Bruce Wayne, Edward Scissorhands and the fabulist’s son of Big Fish (2003), but even Willy Wonka and Ichabod Crane.” Likewise Alice’s relationship with her father plays prominently in the film.

The Adaptation
Tim Burton’s adaptation could not truthfully be called a faithful retelling of the novel penned by Lewis Carroll one hundred and fifty years ago. In fact, it is nowhere close to it. Some would consider the film a reboot of the original novel. It should be called more of a sequel since it builds upon and occurs after her initial visit to Wonderland as a child (In a strange way the 2010 Burton film could be considered a sequel to the 1951 Disney animated film since both were produced by Disney, and the former seems to be an extension of the latter). As Kim Newman points out in an article for Sight & Sound, “In this realm, which she visited as a child, she reprises adventures she dimly remembers — indeed, she has to be persuaded they are not part of a recurring dream. Upbraided for mishearing the land’s name the last time she was here, Alice has to go through it all again shrinking, growing, tea party, court, trial, revolution.” The characters have been carried over from the novel, but the film takes place after Alice’s initial visit as a child. The film is framed by her post pubescent, young adult life where she escapes the bonds of matrimony to pursue an independent existence as a kind of nineteenth century East Orient trader baron on the high seas. So, yes, it is slightly different from the original. “Burton’s Alice, winningly played by the Australian Mia Wasikowska, is no longer a child dreaming on a sunny riverbank, but a rebellious teenager on the run from adulthood and marriage.”

Also, the film lacks Carroll’s playful, but intelligent wordplay. Marguerite O’Hara elaborates stating: “Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Chartes Lutwidge Dodgson, an Oxford scholar who wrote Alice in Wonderland for Alice Liddeil, the daughter of his friend, Henry Liddell, then dean of Christ Church, Oxford. His pseudonym was a play on his real name: Lewis was the anglicised form of Ludovicus, which was the Latin for Lutwidge, and Carroll was an Irish surname similar to the Latin name Carolus, from which the name Charles comes. This was a man who clearly loved words and word games, and all his writing displays this curious inventiveness.” Alice in Wonderland was no exception, and this same wordplay was a prominent feature of the original novel (For example the dialogue between Alice and the Mad Hatter, “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”). None of this is really present in the film. The language of the film is complex, but it is more of a visual language, and still very different from Carroll.

Finally, Burton’s film includes several cinematic influences to include the Narnia films, and The Wizard of Oz. All three share a similarity where they create a place for children to escape the parental controls of the real world, but these influences have also moved the story away from Lewis Carroll’s original conception. Kim Newman adds: “In Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the heroine isn’t allowed to remain a neutral, sensible, grave presence. Instead she must side with eccentric rebels like the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat against the tyrannical Queen of Hearts. Taking action, Alice wields a vorpal blade against a CGI Jabberwock to ensure the ascension of the remote, purportedly good White Queen… with a plot (sensible girl and companions defeat bad matriarch so good one can prevail) that’s been grafted on to Lewis Carroll’s parade of melancholy absurdities from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.” Additionally, “In its martial spectacle, with armies of armoured red playing cards and white chess pieces clashing as a royal succession is ensured, Burton’s Alice even looks to the model of the film of C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian, with action favoured over whimsy.” Marguerite O’Hara, mentioned previously, finds similar influences from Lord of the Rings and Avatar: “The final battle scene where Alice becomes the White Queen’s champion and slays the Jabberwocky is filled with many of the traditional visual elements of films such as Lord of the Rings and Avatar.” Burton’s film adds a great deal from other influences to create a film that differs significantly from Carroll’s creation.

Works Cited

Primary Text:
1. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Secondary Texts:
1. “Alice in Wonderland”, Mullen, Lisa, Sight & Sound, May2010, Vol. 20, Issue 5.
2. “Alice in Wonderland”, Newman, Kim & Sinker, Mark, Sight & Sound, Apr2010, Vol. 20 Issue 4, p32-34, 3p.
3. “O Frabjous Day!” O’Hara, Marguerite, Screen Education, Spg2010, Issue 59, p14-23, 10p
5. Tim Burton Interview, Danny Elfman, Interview Magazine:



1 Comment

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One response to “Adaptation Paper

  1. Joseph Byrne

    Impressive. You engage many of the critical ideas found in lecture and readings, and in your critical sources, which you use quite well. And you write quite well. I have nothing really critical to say. Good job. 98 A. JB.

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