Posted on 3/13/10 10:17 PM
It's the Dreams You Don't Wake Up From Which Get You
It is notoriously difficult to render Alice's story in anything approaching a linear fashion. People don't know this; this is because no one reads the books anymore. True, I haven't read them in some time, either, but I used to all the time when I was younger. Astonishing amounts of both books are there in the back of my brain, waiting to be called up at a moment's notice. I can tell you which book any character you'd care to name appears in. I spent quite some time at camp, when I was younger, trying to memorize as much as possible of the White Knight's poem as I could manage, perplexing my bunkmates with the thought that anyone would read during summer vacation. Reading is only for school! At any rate, this means that I know the real reason no story of Alice, no production of the books, follows the books as completely as people think they do. This is because, as Tim Burton has been admitting all over the place, the books are really Just a Bunch of Stuff That Happens. Story was not entirely Carroll's primary interest, and people don't realize that--because they haven't read the books.
Alice (Mia Wasikowska) has been dreaming the same dream over and over her whole life long. She falls down a hole and into a strange land of talking animals and smiling cats and nonsense. This is doubtless one of the things which has made her such a fanciful girl. And one day, she is to be proposed to by, and will doubtless accept the proposal of, Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill). Only at the last moment, she can't face it and runs after the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) she sees, following it, naturally, down a rabbit hole. In the usual way, she enters what she has always called Wonderland but which its residents call Underland. They tell her that it is her destiny to slay the Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee, naturally), tool of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), so the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) can rule over a realm of peace and joy and lunacy and not at all utter terror. Only Alice wants no part of slaying anyone, thank you very much, leading to declarations from various of the characters that she can't be the Right Alice. Then again, Alice thinks it's all a dream, and she'll wake up any moment.
It is interesting to speculate about that prophecy of Alice's killing the Jabberwocky. After all, Alice doesn't want to do it. Adamantly. And the movie basically tells us that Alice must have the strength to decide for herself what to do, only she has to kill the Jabberwocky. So it is possible that, in Underland, there is no free will once something is foretold. It's like the old story about the appointment in Samara--Death does not understand why he has seen the man in Baghdad and all that. Yes, Alice must be the one to slay the Jabberwocky, but she must also reach that determination on her own. She must see what all the other options are, see the suffering of the various Underland characters. She must be right up close with the Red Queen's madness to see the harm it is doing to the harmless. Really, a lot of what Alice does seems to be "this step and then no farther," and we all know what a journey of a thousand miles begins with.
Anyone who didn't know going in just how Burton-y the movie would turn out to be doesn't really know much about Tim Burton. I mean, it's the third Tim Burton movie Michael Gough has done since he retired, the seventh time Johnny Depp has worked with him. There are some things you just expect from the man. It's his about fifteenth collaboration with Danny Elfman--who, amusingly, doesn't think he has a musical style. I knew going in he'd've written the score, of course, but even if I hadn't, I knew from the opening spectral choir that he had. Honestly, though, it makes him quite a good match with the source material. There's something rather off about Tim Burton--and his gang of favourites. (When was the last time you saw Johnny Depp play someone normal?) Because this is more a sequel than an adaptation, there's always something unexpected coming up, and that's as it should be.
The film is said to have a problematic third act, and I can see where this belief comes from. Certainly the ending is not really terribly happy--but Alice cannot have the happy ending we'd expect. There are things--and people--she loves in Underland, but there are people she loves in London, and duties there as well. It is also true that it is hard to picture Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, great mathematician) writing the kind of pitched battle scene Burton feels we need here, and I'm not sure we do, either. I'm also not best pleased that Burton has chosen to conflate the Queen of Hearts from the first book with the Red Queen from the second, nor that he chose to make the White Queen so airy and good, not characteristics typical of Wonderland. I'm wondering, too, if I'm drawing parallels between Alice and the Hatter (who has top billing, for the sheer reason of being Johnny Depp) and Alice and Carroll that Burton meant me to draw. (Probably.) However, needed or not, I think the battle works. After all, it's hardly as though it hasn't been set up at least in part since Alice first fell down that rabbit hole. Besides, Burton's Underland is darker than Carroll's Wonderland. On account of being Burton's.