Alice: Wonderland vs Underland

Two Separate Worlds:

Comparing Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland and Tim Burton’s Underland

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the tale of a little girl who falls down a rabbit hole into a nonsensical world, has been an enduring classic for over a century. The complete history of Alice’s adventures is recounted in two books, Wonderland published in 1865 and Through the Looking-Glass in 1871. Written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pseudonym Lewis Carroll, the books were an instant success from their publication. Their popularity has not waned throughout the years, in part because of their fascinating combination of whimsical fantasy and dark undertones. Commentators of various kinds have sought to extract deeper meanings and also to extend the story in order to explore Alice in mature settings. One recent attempt is Tim Burton’s 2010 film, Alice in Wonderland, distributed by Walt Disney Pictures. In this postmodern adaptation, a 19-year-old Alice returns to Wonderland (or as Burton calls it, Underland) and embarks on a quest filled with adventure, humor, violence, and sometimes terror. The obvious changes made to the story, combined with the distinctly Burtonesque design, generated a great deal of controversy upon the film’s release. Critics charged that the adaptation was untrue to the spirit of the original work, seeing in it more Disney than Carroll. However, while his storyline and stylistic elements cannot be found in the original tale, Burton addresses many of the same themes as Carroll, although in a different context. In order to completely understand the relationship between the two works, it is necessary to examine Burton’s film against the style and ideas of the Alice books, and also to examine its place within the theater and film tradition of Alice adaptations.

Down the Rabbit Hole: The Original Alice Stories

In Carroll’s original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the seven-year-old Victorian schoolgirl, Alice, eagerly delves into the strange world she encounters after chasing a white rabbit down a hole – “never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”1 Trying to find her way back home, Alice stumbles headlong into a Wonderland adventure with happenings that grow progressively “curiouser and curioser!”2 She undergoes changes in size by consuming magical cordials and mushrooms, nearly drowns in a pool of her own tears, meets a hookah-smoking Caterpillar and a strangely grinning Cheshire Cat. She rescues a howling baby from a pepper-filled house (only to discover that the baby has metamorphosed into a pig), unsuccessfully attempts to participate in a Mad Tea Party, and plays a game of croquet with a bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts who uses hedgehogs for balls, flamingos for mallets, and playing-card soldiers for hoops. Her adventure concludes with a ridiculous court trial full of “Stuff and nonsense,” after which she suddenly awakes to find she has been sleeping on her older sister’s lap beside the riverbank.3

Through the Looking-Glass, Carroll’s sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, finds a slightly older Alice – still the sprightly, curious heroine of the previous adventure – walking through a mirror into the Looking-Glass House. Immediately becoming involved in a strange game of chess, she encounters living chess pieces, strange nonsense poems, and talking flowers. She meets the Red and White Queens, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the pompous, poetry-loving Humpty Dumpty, and Knights both good and evil. Finally, at a nonsensical banquet held in her honor, she grows impatient and decides to shake the Red Queen into a kitten. As the Red Queen transforms into her pet, Kitty, Alice finds herself back in her own house, waking up from a dream. But she’s not sure whose dream it was. Did she dream up the game, or did the Red King dream about her? Readers are then questioned by the narrator: “Which do you think it was?”4

“Which is to be Master:” Sense and Nonsense

Within both the Alice tales, Carroll’s unique literary style is evidenced through a free-flowing “dreamscape” story format, where Alice makes transitions from dreaming to waking and characters within her dreams are themselves dreaming. The stories are also full of Carroll’s original rhymes, poems and riddles, which undergird the strangeness of Alice’s experiences with playful energy and humor. “Jabberwocky,” the nonsense poem in Looking-Glass, is famous for its linguistic ambiguity. Many of the poem’s whimsical words, such as “galumphing” and “chortle,” are Carroll’s own invention. Parodies and recitations of contemporary poems are also included in the stories. When Alice tries to recite some “improving” Victorian verse in Wonderland, the words do not “come the same as they used to.”5 In Chapter Two of Wonderland, for instance, Isaac Watts’ enormously popular “Against Idleness and Mischief” (which extols the busy bee for improving each shining hour) is transformed into an absurd celebration of the hypocrisy and guile of the crocodile:

“How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!”6

Through such parodies, Carroll breaks tradition with the moralizing Victorian literature of his day (which he satirizes with veiled criticism in the Alice books), and instead gives precedence to entertainment in his stories. “Carroll essentially considered his works amusing diversions. He was not using them to teach ‘real’ world concepts.”7 In Wonderland and Looking-Glass, the result of this freeing literary approach is childish characters such as Tweedledee and Tweedledum and absurd inventions like flamingo mallets or, in the person of the White Knight, horse anklets to guard against shark bites.

From this imaginative storytelling context, the nonsense theme that permeates the Alice stories develops naturally. In Carroll’s fantasy worlds, nonsense makes a game of the English language: the texts are littered with utterances which, as Alice declared of the Mad Hatter’s speech in Wonderland, “seemed to have no meaning in it, and yet …was certainly English.”8 The narratives as a whole may be considered a nonsensical, linguistic joke at the expense of rational Alice and the reader. This is demonstrated in the following exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty. The latter is a linguistic outlaw of Looking-Glass world who, while he is happy to help Alice with the “hard words” of “Jabberwocky,” assigns his own meanings to words arbitrarily:

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t –
till I tell you. I mean ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice
objected. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather
scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more
nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words
mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty,
“which is to be master – that’s all.”9

While such nonsensical approaches to life and linguistics prove irritating to Alice, it’s the maddening tug-of-war between her good sense and nonsense of other characters that makes the stories so humorously delightful.10

“Who am I?:” Growing Up and the Identity Puzzle

In addition to the conflict between sense and nonsense, the fear and wonderment of growing up is another notable theme of the Alice books. Alice’s underground adventures can be understood as the “bad dreams of an infantile psyche, full of random primal fears.”11 For Alice, such fears include the possibility of suddenly losing one’s head, growing or shrinking uncontrollably, being annihilated by strange grown-up creatures who come and go unpredictably, and being powerless to control one’s fate. In Wonderland, Alice’s only defense against the maddening underground world she encounters is a flight back to childish innocence. She ends her adventure once again secure in her older sister’s lap, safe from the disturbing dreams she has just experienced. Alice’s Looking-Glass adventures, however, constitute the dream of “a more mature psyche …one older, wiser, heroine who has already learned to see herself objectively and to externalize and manage much of the power inherent in her ancient fears.”12 No longer floundering amidst the ruleless, winless playing-card games of Wonderland, the Looking-Glass Alice is growing up, mature and competent enough to master the more adult game of Looking-glass chess. She is deliberate and self-assured, full of childlike wonder at the curiosities around her yet advancing on her impending chess-victory with newfound confidence. In Chapter Three of Looking-Glass, for instance, the extent of Alice’s development is revealed in her calm determination to walk into a dark wood. This is a far cry from the confused little Alice of Wonderland, who is comparatively passive and helpless in the face of similar setbacks in the underground world. Now, despite her timidity, the more mature Alice of the Looking-Glass world “made up her mind to go on: ‘fore I certainly won’t go back’.”13

Throughout the Alice stories, the theme of growing up develops alongside an exploration of identity. During her Wonderland adventures, Alice encounters the Caterpillar, whose interrogation begins with a deceptively simple question:

“Who are you?” asked the Caterpillar.
…Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just
at present – at least I was when I got up this morning, but
I think I must have been changed several times since then.”14

Alice’s self-concept is key to both Wonderland and its sequel, as the ordinary question of “Who are you?” leads the heroine to confront one of the fundamental philosophical questions: “Who am I?”15 She ponders whether her dramatic changes in size have changed who she is, and in the process, stumbles upon the puzzle of personal identity and memory: “Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”16 In her adventures behind the Looking-Glass, however, Alice finally comes to a mature (if not quite satisfactory) answer to this “great puzzle.” Emerging from the frightening wood where things have no names, alongside “her dear little fellow-traveler,” the Fawn, she tells herself, “I know my name now …that’s some comfort. Alice—Alice—I won’t forget it again.”17

“Part of My Dream:” Perception and Reality

Finally, the theme of perception versus reality is another colorful strand in the fabric of the Alice stories. Both books tend toward extreme self-consciousness. In Looking-Glass, Alice wonders if she is part of the Red King’s dream, questioning whether the entire narrative and all the characters, herself included, are mere illusions. As works of fantasy, Wonderland and Looking-Glass illustrate a strong integration of make-believe and reality. Both books include fantastical creatures and events (e.g., talking animals, disappearing cats, playing card soldiers), and yet such fantasy always remains grounded in reality. In Wonderland, Alice’s adventure turns out to be only a dream, and the young heroine is continually questioning the strangeness of her new environment, reminding readers of the real world from which she came. The Looking-Glass, however, shows her becoming increasingly upset at the notion (stubbornly insisted upon by the Tweedles in Chapter Four) that she may be nothing more than a figment of someone else’s imagination. In the fantasy world she encounters, the lines between memory, dreams and imagination are decidedly blurred by Carroll. Alice reflects at the end of Looking-Glass: “Let’s consider who it was that dreamed it all. This is a serious question …it must have been either me or the Red King. He was part of my dream, of course—but then I was part of his dream, too! Was it the Red King?”18 The book offers no suggestion, only an invitation for readers to consider the delicate balance that exists between perception and reality.

“Curioser and Curioser:” The Many Adaptations of Alice

Given their fascinating mixture of lighthearted fantasy and complex themes, it is no wonder that the Alice books “have provided fodder for feminist, philosophical, psychoanalytic, historical, linguistic, literary, and even mathematical critics” since their publication.19 The story has provided particularly intriguing material for various kinds of artists, with hundreds of adaptations being produced by playwrights and filmmakers. The first live performance of Alice appeared in 1876, followed by a more enduring musical pantomime created by Henry Savile Clark in 1886. Adapting Alice for the stage proved to be even more popular in the 20th century, and by the 1990s there were no less than 400 play, musical, opera, and ballet interpretations.20 Some were straightforward adaptations such as Eva Le Gallienne’s 1932 production, a popular version that was revived in 1947 and 1982. Strict reproductions were rare, however, as numerous playwrights have adjusted the story to fit modern themes. According to Carroll specialist Richard Kelly, since the 1970s many interpretations have concentrated on the darker, adult undertones.21 For example, several plays have drawn on the rumors surrounding Carroll’s relationship with the real Alice to create a sexualized version of the tale, and feature strong violent and pornographic elements. One of these plays is Brian B. Crowe’s 1999 Wonderland (and What Was Found There), in which “the magic is black, underground is hell and the dream is a nightmare.”22 Other theater adaptations are less frightening, but still use the story as a means to explore social and philosophical issues such as feminism or postmodernism. The 1980s anti-nuclear Alice in Blunderland and the 1995 Latino version Alica in Wonder Tierra are two of many productions that used this classic story to comment on contemporary issues.

Similar to the theater versions, the film adaptations of Alice can be loosely divided between those that are direct adaptations of the books and those that are inspired by them. The earliest films generally fell in the first category. The first Alice movie was a silent film made in the United Kingdom in 1903, directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow. The United States followed suit in 1910 with a silent film directed by Edwin Standon Porter. The first talkie appeared in the United States in 1931, the work of Bud Pollard. A string of Alice films followed throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and then in 1951 Walt Disney Studios released its animated version, Alice in Wonderland. With its Modernist style of animation and condensed storyline, the film was initially criticized for being too “Americanized” and was a box office failure. Nevertheless, it became popular in the 1960s among college students as a head film, and is now hailed as an excellent way to introduce the stories to children.23 Following this film, other movie versions of the Alice story were produced that varied in their levels of adherence to Carroll’s tale, ranging in tone from childlike to sinister. The 1972 British musical called Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is directly based on the books, while Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 fantasy thriller Alice takes several dark departures from the original storyline. Interpretations such as the 1987 The Care Bears Adventures in Wonderland are charmingly innocent variations, while adaptations such as the 1976 Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Porno contribute to the increasing sexualization of the Alice character and highlight the story’s violent and disturbing elements.

A New Kind of Alice: The Tim Burton Film

In keeping with the long tradition of modifying Alice to express new themes, director Tim Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton offered a fresh look at the story in their 2010 Alice in Wonderland. Unlike other Alice movies, which generally failed at the box office, Burton’s 3-D spectacle grossed $116 million its opening weekend in the United States and ultimately grossed over $1 billion worldwide.24 The movie went on to earn multiple nominations and awards, including two Academy Award wins of Best Art Direction (Robert Stromberg and Karen O’Hara) and Best Costume Design (Colleen Atwood.) The film boasted a star studded cast, with Mia Wasikowska (Alice), Helena Bonham Carter (the Red Queen), and Jonny Depp (the Mad Hatter) receiving particular praise for their performances. A great deal of discussion, however, was generated regarding the movie’s place in the Alice film and theater tradition. Not really an adaptation, the movie draws primarily from the well known characters of the darker Through the Looking-Glass, but places them in a new context.25 Actress Anne Hathaway, who played the White Queen, stated that “It falls somewhere between an adaptation and a retelling,” while media writer Susan Bye asserted that it “might best be described as a kind of sequel….[a] darker extra chapter to the original story.”26

The film begins twelve years after the original story ends, with a 19-year-old Alice Kingsleigh troubled by reoccurring nightmares of a “wonderland.” While at a prim Victorian garden party, where it has been decided that she will become engaged to a pretentious and patronizing young man, she sees the White Rabbit and runs after it. Alice falls down the rabbit hole in one of the few scenes highly reminiscent of the book and finds herself not in the bright Wonderland of her dreams, but in the twisted, barren shell called Underland. Thinking she is dreaming, she meets many of the familiar characters such as the Tweedles and the Mad Hatter, who inform her that it has been foretold that an Alice will slay the Jabberwocky monster and free Underland from the oppression of the cruel Red Queen. Although initially insisting that she is not “that Alice,” she finds herself on a rescue mission to free the imprisoned Mad Hatter from the Red Queen’s castle, where she slowly becomes convinced that she must be the “right Alice.” Finally, during a conversation with the Blue Caterpillar, Absalom, Alice realizes that her supposed nightmares are actually memories of a childhood visit to Underland, and that she has physically returned for the purpose of slaying the Jabberwocky. A climactic battle scene follows, taking place on a chess board surrounded by card soldiers. After slaying the monster and giving the rule of Underland back to the good White Queen, Alice returns to Victorian society a changed woman. She is no longer prepared to accept the plastic life predetermined for her, but sets sail for China to expand her father’s trading company and find new adventures.

Breaking with Tradition: Burton’s Dark Interpretation

This film makes numerous departures from both the original Alice story and previous adaptations. Burton consciously sought to break away from earlier productions when designing the movie.27 To that end, the film is a combination of motion capture, digital animation and live action that “explores new territory in a distinctly Burtonesque way.”28 While the original drawings by John Tenniel served as initial inspiration for the design, the grotesque and haunted landscapes are highly reminiscent of the sets in Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and other Burton films.29 The design serves to place Burton’s adaptation within the category of dark interpretations, but as Bye noted, “In this context, as frightening and devastated as the Underland world may be, its dark energy and twisted vitality makes it a much more interesting place than the world above the rabbit hole that Alice has left behind.”30

The dark tone of the sets reflect the more mature, sinister content of the movie. Gone are the riddles, rhymes, and childlike nonsense of Wonderland. The world of Underland is desolate and depressing, highlighting only the negative undertones of the original stories. Alice does not even have the luxury of escaping from Underland through waking from a dream, for in this film Carroll’s fantasy becomes Burton’s reality. The film also contains a more clearly defined plot than the books. In the movie, Alice has returned to Underland for one purpose: to slay the Jabberwocky and thereby dethrone the Red Queen. This idea of a great mission for Alice is completely absent from the books. Moreover, the Jabberwocky itself is only mentioned briefly in a poem in Through the Looking-Glass. As Bye stated, “The difference between the two treatments of Jabberwocky is the key to the fundamental differences between the purpose and narrative intention of the film and those of the Alice books.”31 This film establishes a clear struggle between good and evil that, while it helps the adult Alice mature into the strong young woman she should be, seems slightly disconnected from the nonsensical spirit of the books.

Not only is the evil in Burton’s Underland clearly defined, but it is much more real. As film critic Jan Susina noted, “Burton has made his Alice in Wonderland a surprisingly violent film, as are many other contemporary children’s fantasy films.”32 In contrast, the violence of Carroll’s Wonderland is not as prevalent and much less menacing. For example, in Looking-Glass the Red Queen’s repeated command “off with their head” is never carried out, and can even be understood as a sort of joke. In the film, heads are not only removed but are seen floating in a bloody moat around the Red Queen’s castle, and a shrunk Alice is shown crossing them in graphic detail. Eyes are also poked out, baby tadpoles eaten, and the death of the Jabberwocky is vividly portrayed. Besides the violence, other forms of oppression are present throughout the film, such as tiny animals being forced to support the Red Queen’s furniture. Burton’s choice to heighten the evil in Underland deprives the story of its original innocence, creating a more adult world in which pain and suffering are fully acknowledged. Moreover, some critics have charged that the violence actually serves to make this adaptation too conventional. For instance, Todd McCarthy wrote, “Climactic action setpiece, with an unlikely young warrior taking on a fearsome beast while gobs of CGI soldiers clash, smacks of ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘The Golden Compass,’ ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ and any number of other such recent ventures. Thus does ‘Alice’ become normalized…”33

Like other loose, dark adaptations, this film presents a more sexualized yet feminist version of Alice. Susina commented, “Not only does Tim Burton feature a twenty-year-old playing Alice, but she is also constantly on the verge of having her clothes slip off….This is less Queen Victoria’s Alice and more of a Victoria’s Secret Alice.”34 Other critics have expressed similar discomfort over the amount of skin that this iconic children’s character reveals. On the other hand, while the film contributes to the sexualization of Alice, it also includes some feminist themes. Many scholars and artists assert that “the fearless, self-possessed, inquisitive, opinionated Alice is indeed a feminist heroine,”35 and Burton’s film seems to be trying to present her as such. It not only depicts her as the sword-wielding saviour of Underland, but ends with Alice setting sail for China as a colonialist entrepreneur. Many critics, however, find the former depiction banal and the latter offensive. Basham argued that depicting “Alice in armor brandishing a sword” is a “cruel waste of an Alice. Carroll’s Alice is impulsive and curious to a fault. She’s also highly philosophical and intelligent. Given a girl with such intriguing traits, Burton turns her into an amalgamation of King Arthur, Prince Caspian, and a thousand other male heroes in literature and film.”36 Moreover, critics have charged that the end reference to trading with China is insensitive, given Britain’s role in the Opium Wars and subjection of China that occurred during the period. Kevin Slaten stated, “Not only is it troubling imagery for a female role model in a Disney movie, but it’s also a celebration of the exploitation that China suffered for a century.”37 In the end, the confusing combination of sexualization and feminism, combined with the increased violence, mark the film as being more concerned with appealing to the teenage audience than with an authentic portrayal of Carroll’s story.

“I Make the Path:” Burton’s Alice Grown and Growing

Although key themes from the original Alice books are present in 2010 film, Burton does not develop them in quite the same manner as Carroll. The theme of growing up, for instance, takes on a different significance in Burton’s adaptation, where an older, teenage Alice is facing the challenges of becoming an adult. Her desire to exert independence as a respected individual is at odds with the strict, cold repressiveness of Victorian society. Near the beginning of the film, when reprimanded by her mother for failing to wear her stockings and corset, 19-year-old Alice retorts, “Who’s to say what is proper? What if it was agreed that it was proper to wear a codfish on your head, would you wear it?”38 And yet, as revealed in the film’s opening scene at the garden party, Alice cannot help but struggle against the weight of expectation pressed upon her as a young lady of Victorian society. Despite a longing to make her own decisions, she is being shaped by the wishes of those older (and supposedly wiser) than herself: “You’ll marry Hamish,” her older sister informs her, “and your life will be perfect. It’s all been decided.”39 Mia Wasikowska describes Burton’s story as: “a coming-of-age adventure – Alice finding herself again….suddenly you’re 19 and you’re an adult and you have all these expectations on you, either from society or your family to be something….how much do you sacrifice yourself and how much do you want to hold on to what you want to do to be happy?”40

For Carroll’s Alice, this “coming-of-age” adventure has less to do with the heroine’s independence conflicting with the expectations of society, and more to do with her development by way of imagination, exploration and discovery. The original Alice is a playful seven-year-old who has an amazing capacity to take in new experiences, testing them against the lessons of sensible Victorian society. She either reshapes these lessons to fit the nonsense worlds she encounters, or abandons altogether when they prove worthless.41 Whatever confusion she feels in the growing up process relates to how she fits into the alien worlds of Wonderland and Looking-Glass, as the real world is a safe haven to which she is seemingly well-adapted. In Burton’s interpretation, however, Alice’s development centers around how her independence conflicts with external demands: she is a teenager searching for autonomy in the uncomfortable world above the rabbit hole even as she learns to assert herself strongly in the world beneath it. This self-assertion becomes crucial to her growth in the film. For example, a key turn in the plot comes only after Alice exclaims that she “doesn’t care” about anyone else’s plans for her. She is determined to control her own destiny: “From the moment I fell down that hole I’ve been told what I must do and who I must be. I’ve been shrunk, stretched, scratched, and stuffed into a teapot. I’ve been accused of being Alice and of not being Alice, but this is my dream. I’ll decide where it goes from here. …I make the path.”42

“Alice At Last:” Burton’s Alice Finding Herself

As she struggles to come of age in her own way, on her own terms, Burton’s teenage Alice confronts the same crisis of identity that perplexed Carroll’s young Alice. The idea of self that is central to the Carroll books is similarly highlighted in the film, with Burton’s Alice beset with uncertainty regarding who she really is. Whereas the storybook Alice is full of “muchness” – courage, energy, and the ability to conform to only those notions she deems right for her – Burton’s Alice has lost her brave and imaginative spirit. “You’re not the same as you were before,” the Mad Hatter tells her. “You were much more muchier. You’ve lost your muchness.”43 As a child, Alice’s father, Charles Kingsleigh, encouraged her dreams and reassured her that “all the best people are crazy.”44 With the death of her father, however, the now-teenage Alice finds herself increasingly strangled by a world of conformity, her imagination stifled as she is expected to define herself according to the specifications of others.45 She enters Underland full of doubt and confusion imposed by real-world pressures, with a negative, preformed identity that does not align with the vision of the brave heroine the Underland characters believe her to be. While Carroll’s Alice was continually questioning herself in Wonderland and Looking-Glass, unable to answer the Caterpillar’s questions regarding her identity, Burton’s Alice has adopted a negative self-concept defined by loss: the loss of her father, of her childhood self, and of the dreamscape of Wonderland.46 She believes she knows who she is, and yet that identity is merely a false product of conventional, unsympathetic Victorian society.

The Burton film, then, becomes a chronicling of Alice’s quest to regain her muchness and reunite with her old, imaginative self – the “real” Alice. Breaking through her negative self-image proves a difficult task for Alice, however. In her second conversation with the Caterpillar, she reveals that has not yet embraced her true identity as the brave heroine destined to fulfill the prophecy to slay the Jabberwocky. But according to the Caterpillar, she’s nearly there:

Caterpillar: “Who are you?
Alice: “I thought we settled this. I’m Alice, but not that one.”
Caterpillar: “How do you know?”
Alice: “You said so yourself.”
Caterpillar: “I said you were not hardly Alice, but you’re much more her now.
In fact, you’re almost Alice.”47

Actress Anne Hathaway observes that “A lot of the book is Alice trying to figure out who she isn’t by process of elimination. In the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland, Alice is trying to name who she is.”48 First she is Hardly Alice, then she is Almost Alice. Glimmers of her old self begin to surface in Underland, such as when she echoes a statement of her father’s when she tells the Mad Hatter that “You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret …all the best people are.”49 At the film’s end, she becomes “Alice at last” by reuniting with her lost self, reaffirming her identity as her father’s daughter:

Caterpillar: “I can’t help you if you don’t even know who
you are, stupid girl.”
Alice: “I’m not stupid. My name is Alice, I live in London.
I have a mother named Helen and sister named Margaret.
My father was Charles Kingsleigh. He had a vision that
stretched halfway around the world, and nothing could stop
him. I’m his daughter, Alice Kingsleigh.”
Caterpillar: “Alice at last!”50

“This Place is Real:” Burton’s Alice Isn’t Dreaming

It is also during this key, identity-affirming moment of the film that Alice embraces the reality of Underland. Up to this point, she has remained staunchly convinced that her adventures are merely a dream, despite the attempts of Underland characters to convince her otherwise. “You’re just a figment of my imagination” she tells the Mad Hatter.51 Yet, in the original Alice stories, it is made clear that the fantastical worlds of Wonderland and Looking-Glass House are only dreams. “Life, what is it but a dream?” muses Carroll at the conclusion of Looking-Glass. The book ends questioning whether the dream recounted was the product of Alice’s mind or the Red King’s mind, inviting readers to “remember that the relationship between imagination and memory must be constantly held to interpretation—that just as we wonder what our dreams mean, we should wonder the same with regard to our memories.”52

In contrast, the blurry lines that Carroll draws between dreams, reality and memory in the Alice books are more clearly defined in the 2010 film. Burton’s Alice comes to realize that her childhood memories of Wonderland are not dreams, after all, and that her Underland adventure is indeed real. “It wasn’t a dream!” she says. “It was a memory. This place is real, and so are you, and so is the Hatter!”53 This crucial realization leads Alice to take on her full identity and, with confidence in herself and her ability to achieve the impossible, slay the Jabberwocky in fulfillment of the prophecy. She returns to the real world with a rejuvenated self-concept, her independence secure in light of a newly-embraced identity. “This is my life,” she tells her older sister. “I’ll decide what to do with it.”54

Burton and Carroll: Same Story, Different Storyteller

Ultimately, the Alice in Wonderland of Lewis Carroll and that of Tim Burton seem to come from two different, yet related worlds. Both the books and the film address similarly powerful themes of perception versus reality, identity, and coming of age. At the same time, they do so from separate contexts, the former from the 19th century perspective of a child and the latter from the 21st century standpoint of a teenager. There are marked differences in style and tone, as well as in the fundamental purposes of Carroll’s and Burton’s work. These elements also distinguish Burton’s film from previous adaptations of the story, placing the movie in a category of its own. As Susina noted, this interpretation “is a distinctive postmodern variation on Carroll’s characters. Burton’s Alice in Wonderland…is more reflective of contemporary culture than Carroll’s Victorian novels.”55

While Burton’s film does not embody the traditional Alice, this does not prohibit it from having a valid place in the Alice tradition. Despite the shortcomings of the script, tampering of the themes, and grotesqueness of the design, the movie can be appreciated for the way that it encourages an imaginative identification with the Alice characters on the part of the audience.56 For a generation that is more likely to spend time watching a 3-D extravaganza than reading through two children’s fantasies, this film presents the themes of Alice in an appealing and comprehensible way. It is not intended to be a faithful retelling, but merely an extension of the Alice stories through an exploration of Carroll’s original themes in an adult setting.57 Burton’s film revisits the magic of the stories through a contemporary approach that, however flawed, invites viewers to be inspired by Alice in a fresh way. In this sense, the movie is very much in keeping with the film and theater tradition of adapting the story to suit current culture.58 Burton is not the first to modify or expand Alice, and he will probably not be the last. The fact that artists of all kinds still look to these classics for inspiration testifies to their enduring appeal and resilience. Carroll’s Alice does indeed seem to have a strange power, one that can withstand multiple interpretations and transcend the boundaries of culture, class, or age. While interpreters such as Burton may not get the story quite right, they cannot be faulted for being captivated by the allure of Carroll’s fantasy. There’s something for everyone, children and adults alike, down the rabbit hole – and the wonder of Wonderland is that one finds a new adventure every time.

[1] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (St. Petersburg, Florida: PAGES Publishing Group, 1998), 7.

[2] Ibid, 17.

[3] Ibid183

[4] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass (London: Puffin Books, 1994), 160.

[5] Carroll, Wonderland, 22.

[6] Ibid

[7] Beverly Lyon Clark, “Lewis Carroll’s Alice Books: The Wonder of Wonderland,” Children’s Literature Review 108 (2005): 3.

[8] Carroll, Wonderland, 52.

[9] Carroll, Looking-Glass, 87.

[10] George A. Dunn and Brian McDonald, “Six Impossible Things before Breakfast,” in Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser, ed. Richard Brian Davis (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010), 61.

[11] Donald Rackin, “Through the Looking Glass: Alice Becomes I,” Children’s Literature Review 108 (2005): 2.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Carroll, Looking-Glass, 135.

[14] Carroll, Wonderland, 60.

[15] Tyler Shores, “’Memory and Muchness’: Alice and the Philosophy of Memory,” in Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser, ed. Richard Brian Davis (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010), 198.

[16] Carroll, Wonderland, 21.

[17] Carroll, Looking-Glass, 45.

[18] Ibid, 160.

[19] Celia Wren, “Curiouser and Curiouser,” American Theatre 16, no. 10:18 (1999): 20.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid, 21.

[22] Alvin Klein, “Theater Review: Through the Looking Glass, Darkly,” The New York Times (August 1, 1999)

[23] Susan King, “’Alice in Wonderland,’ A Curious Hollywood History,” Los Angeles Times Hero Complex (February 7, 2010)

[24] Megan Basham, “Alice Returns: Strong Performances and Humor Lift Time Burton’s Dark Wonderland,” World Magazine (March 27, 2010)

[25] Jan Susina, “Alice in Wonderland,” Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies 25, no. 1 (2011): 181.

[26] Anne Hathaway, “Finding Alice: Behind the Scenes Feature,” in Alice in Wonderland, DVD, directed by Tim Burton, (Burbank: Walt Disney Pictures, 2010); Susan Bye, “Approaches to Alice in Wonderland” (Australian Centre for the Moving Image website), 4, 19.

[27] Bye, Approaches to Alice, 6.

[28] Ibid, 20.

[29] Basham, Alice Returns; Susina, Alice in Wonderland, 181.

[30] Ibid 17.

[31] Ibid, 5.

[32] Susina, Alice in Wonderland, 183.

[33] Todd McCarthy, “Alice in Wonderland,” Variety (February 26, 2011),

[34] Susina, Alice in Wonderland, 182.

[35] Wren, “Curiouser and Curiouser,” 21.

[36] Basham, Alice Returns.

[37] Kevin Slaten, “Who Else Might Be Mad At Alice? China,” Real World Clear.

[38] Alice in Wonderland, DVD, directed by Tim Burton, (Burbank: Walt Disney Pictures, 2010).

[39] Ibid.

[40] Mia Wasikowska, “Finding Alice: Behind the Scenes Feature,” in Alice in Wonderland, DVD, directed by Tim Burton, (Burbank: Walt Disney Pictures, 2010).

[41] Bye, Approaches to Alice, 8.

[42] Alice in Wonderland, DVD.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Bye, Approaches to Alice, 7.

[46] Ibid, 10.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Hathaway, “Finding Alice.”

[49] Alice in Wonderland, DVD.

[50] Alice in Wonderland, DVD.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Shores, “‘Memory and Muchness’,” 208.

[53] Alice in Wonderland, DVD.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Susina, Alice in Wonderland, 183.

[56] Bye, Approaches to Alice, 20.

[57] Ibid, 4, 19.

[58] Wren, “Curiouser and Curiouser,” 20.


Alice in Wonderland. DVD. Directed by Tim Burton. Burbank: Walt Disney Pictures, 2010.

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Bye, Susan. “Approaches to Alice in Wonderland.” Australian Centre for the Moving Image Website.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. St. Petersburg, Florida: PAGES Publishing Group, 1998.

Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking-Glass. London: Puffin Books, 1994.

Clark, Beverly Lyon. “Lewis Carroll’s Alice Books: The Wonder of Wonderland.” Children’s Literature Review 108 (2005).

Dunn, George A. and McDonald, Brian. “Six Impossible Things before Breakfast.” In Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser. Editor Richard Brian Davis. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010.

King, Susan. “’Alice in Wonderland,’ A Curious Hollywood History.” Los Angeles Times Hero Complex, February 7, 2010.

Klein, Alvin. “Theater Review: Through the Looking Glass, Darkly,” The New York Times, August 1, 1999.

McCarthy, Todd. “Alice in Wonderland.” Variety, February 26, 2011.

Rackin, Donald. “Through the Looking Glass: Alice Becomes I.” Children’s Literature Review 108 (2005).

Shores, Tyler. “’Memory and Muchness’: Alice and the Philosophy of Memory.” In Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser. Editor Richard Brian Davis. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010.

Slaten, Kevin. “Who Else Might Be Mad At Alice? China.” Real World Clear.

Susina, Jan. “Alice in Wonderland.” Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies 25, no. 1 (2011): 181-183.

Wren, Celia. “Curiouser and Curiouser.” American Theatre 16, no. 10:18 (1999): 18-21, 85-86.