Wednesday 17 November 2010


Parts of this post were first written in March this year (9th March and 11th March). Revised on 17th November, 2010.


Recently, I read Melanie Benjamin's Alice I Have Been (2009), which is a fictional account of the life of the historical figure Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for the character of Alice in Lewis Carroll's famous stories. I was interested in the book for two reasons. First, my undergraduate dissertation was on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (And What Alice Found There) and I have long loved the texts. Second, my current research is on novels which re-imagine Victorian times and works.

I admired several parts of Benjamin's novel, especially when the heroine is a young girl, who is often witty and rebellious,1 much like the Alice of Carroll's stories. I also enjoyed the final chapters when an elderly Alice is believably and sympathetically depicted. I was very moved reading those chapters; the scene in which the old Alice meets the 'real' Peter Pan (i.e. Peter Llewelyn Davies) was particularly memorable. However, the middle (and large) part of the book, which deals with Alice's adolescence and early womanhood, was not pleasant for me to read. I was indifferent at best to the heroine's tiresome emotional turmoil and romantic relationships (there is one between Alice and Mr Dodgson (i.e. Lewis Carroll) and another between Alice and Prince Leopold). I was also offended by the exploitative and uninformed way John Ruskin is incorporated in the book, although the author admits taking 'greatest' liberty in his portrayal: 'I deliberately made him a more important figure in Alice's life than he probably was' (351). Such a conventional and limited view of Victorian men we are presented with: if they did not have a 'normal' love relationship, they must be pedophiles.

1 For example: "When I was six, I had known nothing. Now that I was seven, however, I couldn't help but be impressed by how very wise I was growing."

I was also not completely enthralled by Tim Burton's Alice in his latest Alice in Wonderland. The film tells the story of a 19-year-old Alice's return to Wonderland, which is repeatedly referred to as Underland by the locals. Alice's original trip is mentioned constantly within the film, although many of the characters doubt that she is the same girl. Whether she is the true Alice is important because it has been prophesied that she will defeat the tyranny of the Red Queen by slaying the Jabberwocky, who is a kind of WMD within Wonderland. As you can perhaps guess from this setup, Burton’s version is much more a Hollywood adventure story than it is a faithful retelling of Carroll's tale.

Burton is above all a visual director2 and there is unsurprisingly much to admire in his vision of Wonderland. I felt that the use of 3D within the movie was even less intrusive and subtler than that in Avatar. One of my favourite images is when the Cheshire Cat, voiced by a suitably pompous Stephen Fry, disappears into a puff of smoke only to reappear in the moon. Another affecting visual is when a shrunken Alice is forced to jump from floating head to floating head (all those heads!) to cross the moat into the Red Queen's palace. Apart from the visuals, I also thought the soundtrack was exceptional in evoking the atmosphere of the place.

Finally, I enjoyed a number of performances, especially that of Helena Bonham Carter as the arrogant and loud Red Queen. She steals every scene she is in with her enlarged heart-shaped head. I thought Anne Hathaway was also good as the flighty White Queen. I liked Alan Rickman's hookah-smoking Caterpillar as well (it's Alan Rickman! My beloved Professor Snape!). But it is Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter that I found the most endearing. Although many critics have been saying the equivalent of 'Off with his head!', Depp’s turn as someone beset by madness and loneliness is very powerful. There are several heartbreaking moments when he realises that he is mad but cannot do anything about it. (Another blogger feels sorry for Depp's Hatter as well.) It's perhaps more torturous knowing you are mad than being mad but oblivious to the fact. (Yes, I feel strongly about ‘mad’ characters; their minds trapped. See here.)

Indeed, I was struck by a sadness running throughout the film. For example, Alice, uninspiringly played by Mia Wasikowska (what a shame — she is superb in HBO's In Treatment), does not smile once. Although in the original story, the heroine is also faced with an absurd adult world full of politics and has to assert her own existence and authority, Carroll's work is filled with wit, wordplay and surprises, which keeps the text charmingly light-hearted. Whereas Carroll's work is full of twists and turns, which leave the reader as lost as the heroine herself, Burton's film is a joyless and straightforward march to the end in which all this is lost. We are left with a prophesied mission, reminiscent of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the ending of which we know right from the start. This prophesy also adds a seriousness and false weightiness to the story. The movie is additionally plighted by its feminism. One of the great things about the original Alice is that she is a strong independent girl and they have tried to keep this characterisation in the film by turning Alice into a modern feminist tale. Of course, this message is undercut by the fact that Alice's story is foretold — even as she is asserting her own independence, she is merely fulfilling her fate. For me, all of this points to what I found so sad about the film: the difficulty of giving an afterlife to a much-loved character. No matter how good the execution, it just never lives up to the original.

2 My dear friend Cyril corrected me on this point: "It would be more accurate to say that he used to be a director concerned with contents as much as visuals, and that he has mostly given up on contents in the past few years."

I'd like to mention Stephanie Bolster's award-winning collection of Alice-inspired poems, White Stone: The Alice Poems (2006) as well. I found the poems mostly sensitively written and more evocative than Benjamin's Alice I Have Been. Not only does Bolster imagine the fictional Alice in and out of Wonderland, she also explores the life of the real Alice Liddell and at times even identifies herself with the character in some of the most engaging poems in the collection.

There are many poems I enjoyed reading; some of the lines are beautifully crafted:
[...] This room is long and narrow, full
of longing. Outside, cups clink.
–from “Dark Room”, p. 14
Her blue eyes tight buds.
Her mousy thatch straight across
the forehead. Spring everywhere threatening
to open them both: tense in that unfurling
garden, during the long exposure.
–from “Aperture, 1856″, p. 15
What use in posing as a goddess
who would not be seduced –
when there’s no danger of seduction
now? Not all beloved girls grow up

to beauty. Your hair’s brittle 3
as last year’s nests; only your name
is worth a second glance.
–from “Pomona”, p. 26

Certainly Alice would have been tempted
by the fragrance of warm sliced apples,
the idea of something hard in there.
–from “Portrait of Alice with Persephone”, p. 46
[...] She wants to sway
to the beat of his heart in her ear, slow
as “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” In sleep
their tear-blotched faces could be anyone’s.
–from “Portrait of Alice with Elves”, p. 50

The first man to call me beautiful
wears the caterpillar’s manic
grin and breathes out the same
dazed smoke. We kiss by the river
within sight of luckless fishermen.

With him I find a patch of sky,
see tiny driveways bordered
with crocuses, backyards
with swingsets.
When he says goodbye I cry into the phone
for hours until he says he has
to go. I hang up first.
–from “The Poet as Nine Portraits of Alice”, p. 54

[...] I pretend she
understands, but she and many

of these stars are dead. Their light
is not for me and is not her.
–from “Portrait of Alice as the Poet’s Universe”, p. 56
Of all the poems, I guess "Portrait of Alice, Annotated" (p. 43) particularly touches my research. The poem contains the stanza below:
The critics overwrote each other
till all their words were tattooed black
upon her. Have mercy, she cried as they came
with the thousand-volumed weight of archives,
but those words were not hers either.
One can sense that Bolster believes the re-imagination of Alice in poetry is a better treatment of the character than having her analysed and dryly dissected. The metaphor of 'tattooing' is interesting: it makes one think of the ink that writes and the ink that dyes the flesh parchment of the body. Tattoos are often a form of art (I have seen some beautiful ones in my days), no more or less than poetry. But here, the persona seems to suggest that the black tattoo Alice receives from critics is like a slave tattoo; she is being written, she is branded for eternal life. Weighed down by the excessive volumes of academic work, the persona imagines Alice to be helpless: "Have mercy, she cried[.]" But I can't help but think that this is somewhat hypocritical, for Bolster's words in the poetry collection are not Alice's either.
3 'Not all beloved girls grow up // to beauty' -- There is something universal, though: we all grow up old!
extra Listen to the song "Jabberwocky", sung by Jennie Avila.

1 comment:

  1. My friend Mabel said: ""Burton's version is much more a Hollywood adventure story than it is a faithful retelling of Carroll's tale" — so true. Quite disappointed by this version: Mediocre, humourless, lack of depth and substance; Mia Wasikowska is boring, bland, emotionless and is the wrong choice for Alice…. The film only deserves slight recommendation. (for its visual achievement)"

    Also, I am grateful that Mary mentioned this post in her review of Alice in Wonderland. Thank you!


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