Recently I had the pleasure of revisiting both Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’ books (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There) and Walt Disney’s 1951 adaptation, Alice in Wonderland. Both the books and the film are, of course, first-class pieces of work and indispensable classics. I could talk for hours about the animation alone.
But for today, my point is something a little different. The film is overall a remarkably faithful adaptation, packing a large amount of Carroll’s distinctive poetry, dialogue, and imagery into a fairly short run time. That said, comparing the books to the movie, reveals an interesting and, I think, illuminating difference.
Contrasting the Books and Film- A Difference in Tone
The books are lighthearted, gentle, pleasant affairs throughout. The worst that happens to Alice are a few size-related mishaps, such as growing too big inside the rabbit’s house, or finding herself perpetually either too big to fit through the door or too small to fetch the necessary key. She’s also periodically scolded by the denizens of Wonderland and Looking Glass land, but she finds them more annoying than anything and willfully ignores them or walks away when they get too bothersome. She’s rarely even suggested to be in any kind of danger, and her adventures are never seriously alarming.
By contrast, the movie depicts Wonderland as a much more ominous place. The backgrounds are mostly dead black and the colors, bright as they are, are stark and often ringed with heavy shadows. And for all their cheerful nonsense, there is something definitely unsettling about most of the inhabitants, even those who are not openly hostile. The way Tweedledee and Tweedledum move in unison to block Alice’s way until she listens to them recite, for instance. Or the careless arrogance and sudden rages of the caterpillar. Even the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, for all their goofiness, are a little alarming in their unpredictable changes of mood. And even perhaps the funniest scene in the film – the croquet match – is, at its core, all about the other characters trying to get Alice into trouble with the murderous Queen for no reason whatsoever. It’s all delightful to watch as only classic Disney can be, but there’s definitely an underlying discomfort to the whole thing.
Probably the best point of contrast between the two is the trial scene that serves as the climax to the adventures. In the book, the Knave of Hearts is on trial for stealing the Queen’s tarts, and we’ve previously been assured that the Queen’s frequent orders of execution are never really carried out anyway, since the king quietly pardons everyone she condemns. Alice is seated in the gallery and is so unimpressed by the proceedings that she does things like snatching an annoying pencil out of the hands of a jury member (forcing him to try to write with his finger for the rest of the trial). It ends with her growing huge, rebuking the king for making up rules, and waking up to the falling of leaves.
In the film, however, Alice herself is the one on trial for humiliating the Queen during a game of croquet (which was really the fault of the Cheshire Cat). There is no hint that the Queen’s commands of "Off with their heads!" are ever rescinded (the diminutive King gives his full-throated support to the executions), and we’ve already seen several of the cards hauled off to be beheaded. It’s pretty clear the trial is a foregone conclusion, even before the Cheshire Cat shows up again to make mischief. It ends with Alice fleeing the courtroom and being pursued through the ever-shifting, unraveling world of Wonderland as the Queen, accompanied by most of the other characters she’s met, goes chasing after her in a rage.
In short, the book presents Alice’s dreams as places of fun and nonsense; the pure, innocent enjoyment of a carefree childhood. The film presents her adventures more as a cautionary tale, wherein Alice wishes for a world of nonsense and gets it, only to realize how uncomfortable and frightening it really is and long to return home. Delightful as the film is to watch, the central theme is that Wonderland is not a nice place to be in. It’s fun to imagine: not fun to experience.
Historical Considerations of the Books and the Film
The shift in tone and theme between the two versions is very interesting given the very different state of the real world at the time of each – that is, the world outside the scope of book, film, and dream.
Lewis Carroll wrote his book from the heart of the Victorian age, a time where, despite the rapid changes taking place, the old-world order was still standing strong and British culture and society seemed as solid and secure as Gibraltar itself. It was a time where a girl like Alice from a respectable, well-off family could count on the familiar trappings of home, of sisters and cats, of lazy summer afternoons and quiet winter days to remain always safely as they were. And where Carroll, AKA Charles Dodgson, mathematician, deacon, and schoolteacher, could know exactly what ‘normal’ was when he wished to satirize it.
On the other hand, Walt Disney made his film in a world scarred by two global conflagrations that had largely laid waste to the orderly world that Carroll knew. Disney worked under the shadow of Communism and the atomic bomb, of the questioning, doubting, and deconstruction of everything that had once been valued and assumed in Carroll’s world, and amidst the early rumblings of still more such disruptions to come. That is to say, Lewis Carroll lived in a world where order and stability were the norms. Walt Disney lived in a world where that same order was rapidly disappearing and chaos and nonsense were being seriously advocated to take their place. Small wonder that, consciously or unconsciously, he took a more jaundiced view of Wonderland.
What Uncle Walt and his writers understood and illustrated is that chaos is dangerous by its very nature. It is dangerous because it is uncontrollable: break one rule, you allow for the breaking of others. If Alice can do exactly as she likes, then so can everyone else, regardless of whether Alice likes it or not. If the world rearranges itself one way for her amusement, nothing whatever prevents it from doing the same thing to her harm.
On the other hand, an orderly world of genuine rules may safely wink at a little chaos because its fundamental structure remains as a sure ground of safety to return to. In fact, the proper approach is illustrated by the character in the story most people forget about: Alice’s older sister, who tries to get Alice to pay attention to her extremely dry history lesson, but who regards her with tolerant indulgence when she sleeps through the whole thing and wakes up telling how a caterpillar taught her a poem about crocodiles.
This is a fundamental truth that Carroll’s audience would have taken for granted, but which had become obscured in the years between Carroll and Disney, and has become almost completely lost in the seventy years since. Order can tolerate and even enjoy a little madness; madness cannot tolerate order, or even give space to it. Exceptions to the rule can safely be allowed, but only if the rule itself remains as the norm. Once the rule itself is done away with, then all bets are off.
In the End it’s About Order and Disorder and the Freedom to Act
Hence, Disney’s Alice finds herself in a much more alarming situation than Carroll’s and is obliged to face up to the darker side of the nonsense she wished for. Because, as she discovers, it’s only fun when experienced from a perspective that knows it’s nonsense. A world of chaos is no fun at all to actually be in, because you can’t ever be really comfortable or safe within it. And if nothing makes sense, that means that you can’t simply get out of it when you want to. Roads don’t lead the same way they did a short time ago. Characters who appear helpful one minute can turn suddenly hostile the next. And it’s no good trying to ask for help or explain yourself, because no one’s going to pay attention or understand you or respond in a way that makes sense.
Freedom can only exist amidst order, because only then can anything actually be achieved or secured. In a world of no structure, nothing can be accomplished. What would accomplishment mean in such a context? In a world of no rules, no one can be called to task or restrained or protected. On what grounds? All ways are the Queen’s ways here.
On the other hand, Alice and her sister can only enjoy a lazy summer’s afternoon down by the riverbank because they know nothing horrible is going to spring out at them, the river isn’t going to suddenly flood, and so on. And Alice’s sister can be tolerant and gentle with her breaking the rules and talking nonsense because, after all, that’s what children do sometimes and she’s otherwise a good and sensible girl. The order of England is what allows Alice her carefree childhood and thus the opportunity to have her dream of Wonderland. No one in Wonderland could ever have dreamt of England.
When events and reactions are both completely divorced from any kind of common standard, then what you get is the pure arbitrary assertion of desire: I want it because I want it, and I deserve it because I want it. Thus the most childish, unreasonable, and intolerant reigning supreme.
That is to say, you get something like the Queen of Hearts.
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