Trompé Setsuled (setsuled) wrote,
Trompé Setsuled

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Then It Doesn't Matter Which Way They Go

Every time I think I've seen the worst Alice adaptation . . .

This seems to be an adaptation not so much of the books as a hazy conception composed mostly of the American McGee game and the Tim Burton movie stapled to a big wad of Twilight.

I was thinking yesterday about what the Alice stories mean to people who adapt them. They almost never seem to get past square one, adaptations usually featuring scene after scene that seems ultimately to say, "Look how weird!" And then the filmmakers insert their own ideas for the meat of the story. Gulliver's Travels seems to suffer from the same thing. It's true in both cases a lot of the delight in reading the books is in wondering at the strangeness of the situations and places. In the case of the Alice books, it's also true a lot of the delight is in at turns sympathising with and adoring Alice's frustrations and interpretations. But I feel like most people adapting the books are primarily digesting them as things fascinating for their inscrutability, useful as backdrop but hardly substantial as stories in themselves.

I was listening to "Very Good Advice", the song from the 1951 film, in my car yesterday. It comes around two thirds of the way through that film though the line from which the song takes its chorus and title comes from near the beginning of the book as Alice finds herself suddenly shrunk and frustrated in her attempts to reach the key on the table above her;

'Come, there's no use in crying like that!' said Alice to herself, rather sharply; 'I advise you to leave off this minute!' She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed it), and sometimes she scolded herself so severely as to bring tears into her eyes; and once she remembered trying to box her own ears for having cheated herself in a game of croquet she was playing against herself, for this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people. 'But it's no use now,' thought poor Alice, 'to pretend to be two people! Why, there's hardly enough of me left to make ONE respectable person!'

As in much of the book, the point of view here seems to be more Lewis Carroll's rather than Alice's, partly because the paragraph gives us some background on the girl and partly because it provides the adjective "poor" indicative of a viewer's opinion. This is relatively common in children's fiction where the author feels he or she must do some of the work in instructing a child in how to interpret the material. At the same time, though, I think it conveys a bit of Carroll's personality and intentions with the work. Certainly he has a great deal of adoration for his muse but I suspect he's attaching qualities of his own strangeness and awkwardness to that of a child, this "curious child" who so often fails to follow through on what she knows is good advice. This sets up the conflict between Alice, who is fundamentally unsure of herself and yet assertive, and all the people she meets in Wonderland who always seem to know what do and generally seem to disapprove of what she's doing.

This is why most of the adaptations make a mistake in portraying the people of Wonderland as Alice's friends. As Martin Gardner points out in The Annotated Alice;

It is noteworthy also that, of all the characters Alice meets on her two dream adventures, only the White Knight seems to be genuinely fond of her and to offer her special assistance.

Gardner points out the White Knight is often interpreted as a representation of Carroll himself. The Knight's good intentions with frequently disastrous results are not unlike Alice giving herself very good advice but failing to follow it.

The 1951 film has a record number of songs--the most of any Disney film--and their longevity is reflected in Robert Smith's cover of "Very Good Advice" for the Tim Burton movie as well the use of "In a World of My Own" in a recent commercial.

I would say Jan Svankmajer's 1988 film is my favourite adaptation but this aspect of self-doubt in Alice would seem out of place in Svankmajer's portrayal of a more confident and predatory girl, at least without some more time spent fleshing her out. The 1951 film, as Walt Disney himself noted, suffers from too many cooks in the kitchen and Alice's inability to find purchase as a coherent character is a result of this and the primary flaw of the film. But I do think it works as a series of shorts and the "Very Good Advice" scene explores one aspect of the book rarely addressed. Though perhaps it resonates with people in that, from the McGee version onwards, much of the story involves Alice questioning her sanity. It's too bad that this problem tends to be resolved in the form of Alice proving herself and thereby becoming normal and well adjusted, often attended by the assimilation of Wonderland's denizens as an inoffensive family.

Twitter Sonnet #522

Decoy cat ears can fool the homeless Sith.
Temples of old terror waffle new fright.
Magazine glasses check out who you're with.
Egrets have swans they lead into the night.
Spreadable dice will give condiment odds.
Yellow shadowed rye holds judgement at bay.
Silver strands of scalp shampoo the wig gods.
The soup can't guess what Gamera will say.
Wobbling helicopters tranqed the cop hat.
Arabesques of disco water smell old.
Cruising clouds of smog can't boss a big cat.
Graham cracker cardboard isn't very bold.
Safety pins will fasten no bent diaper.
Pies are solo when spaces are hyper.
Tags: adaptation, alice, alice in wonderland, alice's adventures in wonderland, book, lewis carroll, literature, martin gardner

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