Sunday, March 7, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Recently I saw Tim Burton Imagines a Sequel to Lewis Carroll's "Alice" Books, whose name has been shortened to Alice in Wonderland for wide release. It's a pity; now people are accusing Burton of all sorts of adaptation decay, which probably wouldn't have happened if he'd gone with the long name instead.

The two "Alice" books are probably unfilmable if the filmmaker doesn't take substantial liberties with the source material (and no, the famous Disney animated film from the 1950s is not a faithful adaptation). There's hardly any narrative continuity in what is basically a series of surreal little episodes. And don't forget that there's no continuity at all between the two books, despite the events that are thought of as the "Alice" canon being split between them. (The first novel's got slightly more famous bits in it, but it's in the second where you can find Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, and "Jabberwocky".)

Now I want to read the books again, this time paying attention to the cultural context. Apparently the books are full of references to Victorian-era culture that hardly anybody gets anymore. The poems are parodies of stodgy moralistic poetry that every English kid had to know by heart back then, and now would be totally forgotten if it wasn't for Lewis Carroll's gentle mockery of them. Writing in The New York Times, Melanie Bayley points out how Carroll's mathematics background inspired much of the stories' lunacy.

And if TV Tropes can be believed (and I sure hope so), much of the dialogue that was Carroll meant to sound surreal and off-kilter sounds perfectly innocuous to modern readers, because colloquial English has evolved to match it - possibly due to Carroll's influence!
Much of the wording was meant to be surreal and strange, but has actually made its way into common parlance so that it seems perfectly normal to a modern reader. For instance, Alice says "Let's pretend," in the beginning. At the time, "pretend," meant "to lie or deceive", so "Let's pretend," sounded very strange. Now, thanks to Alice In Wonderland, the meaning of the word has changed quite a bit.

That is super-neat.

As for Tim Burton's movie, I enjoyed it for what it was: a surreal, hallucinogenic trip that had Burton's fingerprints all over it. The fact that he explicitly made it a sequel rather than a proper adaptation from the novels gave him a great deal of artistic leeway. Still wish he'd used the long title I suggested above.

Same goes for another movie I enjoyed immensely this year, Guy Ritchie Does a Movie about Sherlock Holmes. He could have avoided all the carping by Holmes fans if only he'd used my title.

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