Entertainment Industry and other works

by Ellen Gillingham

Alice in Wonderland: In Depth

Film Adaptation Paper: Alice in Wonderland

The Book

Lewis Carroll had a unique understanding of children’s minds, which he used to create a story that appealed to young peoples’ imaginations.  In his work, Carroll’s imagination engages readers to take a wonderful journey with Alice, which makes his book one of the most widely acknowledged children’s stories of all time.  The story of Alice has been the subject of a myriad number of varied analyses.  Since its initial publication Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has held guesswork and inquisitiveness as to its various interpretations and meanings.  Each chapter shows the innocence side-by-side maturation of a young girl who meets surreal creatures during her adventure in Wonderland.  The reader never knows what is going to happen next.  In Wonderland, everything is new and different.  This book has a dual appeal, so both children and adults can enjoy it, but in different ways.  Children will connect to Alice’s youthful curiosity and the fantastical nature of the story, whereas adults focus on the irony and creative diction, possibly to concoct messages not envisioned by Carroll.  The unique fundamental nature of the book is creative and imaginative, rather than a resolving plot.

The context prior to the novel consists of Carroll meeting the Liddell children.  Classic scholar Henry Liddell brought his family to Oxford.  One of his children, Alice was Carroll’s favorite of the children and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was originally written for her, not the public.  In 1865, the novel was published with forty-two illustrations by artist John Tenniel.  It was very much visual.  Carroll shows the imagination of a child, through fun and interesting stories.  Although, his story was considered highly unconventional, with a plot that follows no true sequence his utilization of imagery and characterization appeal to the reader’s imagination in a believable way.  The book can be seen as a journey of growing up in life, but for some this alludes to a theme of comparing a nonsensical world with the real world to show Carroll’s desire to escape from reality.

It is the basis for many other publications like A Catcher in the Rye and From Nowhere to the North Pole.  The character Alice is vastly popular as a muse to other works of literature.  She has inspired numerous similar protagonists; many also named Alice in respect.  Her characteristic straightforward and youthful outlook on reality is a classic model.

The story begins with the main character Alice, whose day is boring her.  However, she then chases a white rabbit until she falls down a hole, starting an exciting journey.  To conquer the problems she meets along the way, Alice uses magic drinks, cakes, and mushrooms, which cause her to change sizes and travel in Wonderland.  Additionally, she encounters unusual creatures, such as the March Hare, the Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the Mock Turtle, and the King and Queen of Hearts.  These characters test and please her.  Overall, Carroll fills the novel with surreal situations that mimic a dream.

Carroll’s use of imagery is a special characteristic that makes Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland so unique and treasured.   He uses imagery to stress the realistic aspects of the surreal world and emphasize the theme of a how reality is inescapable.  For example, he opens the novel with a mood of boredom and sleepiness “on the bank [that offers] nothing to do” ( (Carroll 1).  He carefully constructs this first setting to contrast the remaining settings.  The setting is uncomfortable “the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid” (Carroll 2) and represents the Victorian world as unfulfilling and dull.  At the same time, its uneventfulness represents safety and security.

The following setting the rabbit-hole that Alice falls down serves as a passage to the dreamlike Wonderland.  As she falls down, Alice’s surroundings become less and less logical and familiar.  Her dreams form an unstable world that constantly shifts.  The hole brings Alice through a dark inactive daydreaming-state to a full dream world.  As she adapts to the fantasy world, Alice slowly loses her grasp on knowledge.  She begins thinking about feeding her cat, but ends up confused “dream[ing] that she was walking hand in hand with” her cat (Carroll 6).  As Alice tumbles, she sees “cupboards and book-shelves … maps, and pictures hung upon pegs” (Carroll 3).  Carroll immediately situates the reader in Wonderland’s setting as the mood changes from boredom to excitement.  Wonderland is a setting of great imagination and suspended logic and is the place where Alice discovers the possibilities of her own imagination.  Though Wonderland seems purely surreal and imaginary, he keeps the reader grounded with a line of realistic aspects. This not only serves to make the story believable, but also to create the universal theme that social conditions are an inescapable force.

A stream-of-consciousness is shown through the presence of everyday objects and typical 19th-century English events in the seemingly imaginable world.  Alice encounters “a little three-legged table…a tiny golden key… [and] locks” on doors (Carroll 7).  These objects are all familiar, so their presence in Wonderland illuminates the inescapability of reality.  Additionally to base the setting in reality, Carroll develops his tale using events typical of 19th -century England.  For example, a tea party with the Mad Hatter, a game of croquet at the Queen’s court, and a court of justice trial where Alice sees a judge’s “great wig” (Carroll 163).  These events are indicative of 19th-century England, Alice’s reality outside of wonderland.

It seems Carroll emphasizes the theme of the connection between reality and the make-believe even further with his use of allusions and connection to the characters, given his book with notes by Martin Gardner The Annotated Alice.  There they express intention and meaning behind words and situations in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Carroll’s Dodo was intended as a caricature of himself ̶ his stammer is said to have made him pronounce his name “Dodo-Dodgson.”  The Duck is the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, who often accompanied Carroll on boating expeditions with the Liddell sisters.  The Lory, an Australian parrot, is Lorina, who was the eldest of the sisters (this explains why, in the second paragraph of the next chapter, she says to Alice. “I’m older than you, and must know better”). Edith Liddell is the Eaglet. (Gardner and Carroll 27)

Each character seems believable, adds entertainment, and develops the conflicts of the story.  The connection between these anthropomorphized characters and Carroll’s friends shows that Wonderland and all surreal figments of one’s imagination have a basis in reality.  The seemingly exclusively Wonderland creatures’ are connected to the real world.  This relationship is consistent the theme of the work and shows that dreams are not meaningless, but they have a logical framework.  Each character contains well-defined realistic traits.

Using animals as the majority of the characters and personifying them gives the novel a childlike quality, which also functions to illuminate the theme of the specialness of childhood.  Another character, the White Rabbit carries the readers from opening ordinary setting to Wonderland.  As he runs past her, Alice follows the White Rabbit down the rabbit-hole.  His reappearance and consistency throughout the story along with his presence in the real and surreal world speaks to the negative effects of reality’s inescapability.  The Victorian Reality’s importance on protocol makes him nervous and anxious.  Additionally, this character shows how Alice’s curiosity can get her into trouble because he beginnings her interest.  Throughout her travels, she attempts to make sense of Wonderland.  However, Alice’s sense of understanding gradually increases as she gradually ignores her curiosity.

Alice’s initial motif for entering Wonderland is an overwhelming amount of curiosity.  Carroll carries the theme of curiosity throughout the book, which stems from the larger theme of losing innocence and growing up.  As she grows older, she continually goes through physical changes that upset her, most of which make her larger.  Alice’s changes in size symbolize physical changes.  This is paralleled with her increasing understanding of the adult world.  For example, at the croquet match she encounters the Duchess, who takes every opportunity to explain various moral lessons in life. This shows Alice along with readers that while growing up one will come across ways of living that are different from one’s own.  Throughout Wonderland, she learns to understand the adult world.  In the end, Alice seems to lose her open-mindedness and curiosity that characterized her as a child.  She concludes that some of the characters are “only a pack of cards, after all” (Carroll 116).  This is her realization that the creatures and Wonderland itself are an illusion and part of a dream.  Once she understands that Wonderland is a dream, she wakes up because she has matured too much to stay in Wonderland, the dreamland of youth.  By conquering the childlike situations, she readies herself to leave childhood and venture on to adulthood.  The reintroduction of the riverbank setting closes the story where it opened.  Carroll isolates Wonderland as an adolescent segment of growing up.

Overall, the story is an adequate narrative about childish imagination and the difficulties of growing up.  The book is full of surreal, mystical, and strange concepts, which transport the reader into its world.  Lewis Carroll’s novel brings Alice and readers to the adult world as an unknown and strange realm through the eyes of children.   In Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, themes of an inescapable reality and maturity are addressed through the eyes of a little girl.   The book, despite being open to personal interpretation, brings a conscious protagonist to a world that seems better suited for dreams.  Wonderland is the borderland between dreams and reality where one can realize and imagine whom one is, while growing up.

The Film

Director Tim Burton, writer Linda Woolverton, and Walt Disney Pictures released the American computer-animated/live action Alice in Wonderland in 2010.  It resembles other versions by maintaining the strange and fantasy elements, but reflects Burton’s bizarre and violent style.  This version is truly characteristic of a Burton film.  The film techniques and actors are very similar to Burton’s other works, illustrating the dark fantasy aspects of the story.  It adds action, adventure, and feminism to the Alice concept that helped make it a blockbuster movie that appealed to a broader audience than it would have without the additional adventure and 3D flourishes.

Burton is known for making dark movies, so this film falls into the genre of horror, along with family, adventure, and fantasy.  He puts a dark gothic twist on the original children’s story to portray growth and skepticism, so it seems to be geared toward an older audience.  Although some may argue that Burton’s adaptation may be a little gritty and dark, it still has some lighthearted elements such as comedy and colors that appeal to several audiences.

Burton creates an entirely different world apart from reality with the use of sound, setting, and visual effects.

In the film, the dark mood is enhanced audibly.  The actors employ accents in the movie. The sense of language accents makes the film interesting by adding personality, culture, and recognizability to the characters.  For example, Johnny Depp plays the Hatter with a Scottish accent.  This gives the Hatter an implied background that viewers can assume.  Other sound effects in the films are dark and melodramatic.  For instance, the music in the film works to bolster the film’s mood with heavy orchestral music.

Burton’s use of formal elements develop as his own personal brand, which accomplish the unique thematic elements.  His comic-grotesque gothic style is well matched with 3D effects in the film.  The mise-en-scène and expressionistic camera work is distinctively characteristic of Burton’s films.  For example, both “the hedges of maze-like gardens [and] the Red Queen’s arm extending to greet her wafer-thin lover’s kiss, appear as if they could cut off one’s head” (Gonzalez).  As a result, this film is the closest a live-action film can come to being animated.

Additionally, Burton’s liberal use of Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) has the effect of creating vast landscapes and fantastical battles.  Many of the main characters, including the Caterpillar and the White Rabbit, are completely computer animated.  Matching the CGI characters with live action makes them appear almost human, but with a slight fantasy and mockery.  This not only represents the fantasy world, but also makes the characters ominous ̶ the epitome of Burton’s visual style.  Even the actors, including Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter, are enhanced with CGI giving them a disfigured appearance.  These changes along with flashes of animation develop the dark mood of the film.

Burton’s interpretation of Alice includes a beautifully depicted setting of Underland.  He utilizes visually dark set pieces and CGI to represent Underland.  He also takes certain imaginative rights in creating the characters that populate this world.  The film centers on melodramatic settings to distinguish good and evil.  For example, Burton illustrates the Red Queen’s castle with a dark background and surrounding severed heads in a pool of blood.  The red and goriness of the castle is a symbol for the Red Queen’s evil characteristics.  He also uses special computer generated effects to amplify the Red Queen’s head, so it becomes a symbol for her ugliness and evil personality.  The White Queen’s castle, on the other hand, is bright and reminiscent of a snow globe.  It has a smooth and comfortable tone to symbolize the good nature and sophistication of White Queen. Overall, the liberal use of CGI renders the settings as symbolic as well as fantastical.

Costume choices also play a huge role in depicting Underland.  Each part of Underland has its own style.  For example, the Hatter dresses in dark clothing to illustrate his madness and wears a hat to illustrate his talent and obsession in tailoring hats.  Similarly, the Red Queen and her citizens’ apparel are covered in shades of red and pink hearts.  The red outfits represent evil.  While, in the White Queen’s castle, occupants wear white, this connotes innocence. This helps convey a sense of diversity in Underland.  Burton’s work with CGI, costume, and set design gives Alice’s adventure an otherworldly effect and looks real enough to immerse the viewers.

The main character, Alice dresses in many different dresses as she changes sizes and performs different roles throughout the film.  Alice’s maturation is symbolized through her costumes. For example, her dress for the surprise engagement party and the white gown she wears later in the film display the change she goes through.  When Alice plays the white knight at the end of the film, the costume is reminiscent of the one she wears as a little girl.  The color white is symbolic of purity, so by repeating the wardrobe choice Burton emphasizes the childlike characteristics that drew in audiences.  He turns Alice into a more influential young adult, who finds courage in becoming a child yet again.

Burton’s use of costumes and visual effects make the movie interesting and fun to watch.   Additionally, consistent with his style, Burton’s formal film techniques depend on CGI to portray the surreal nature of Underland.  The strange and unsettling makeup and animation contribute to the film’s fantastic and surreal feel.  Instead of proper makeup and costumes, all of the characters have unusual appearances.  The use of heavy makeup on all characters, computer generated animation for the animals are epitomic of Burton’s style and add to the symbolism and surrealism of the film.

In addition to focusing on weird characters and 3D effects, Burton builds upon the plot.  He follows the lead of previous film versions to direct a “reboot” version of the Alice Legacy.  He maintains many of the same characters from Lewis Carroll’s book.  However, Alice is now a nineteen-year-old who, 13 years after her previous visit, returns to Underland.  She is told she must slay the Jabberwocky, the Red Queen’s fiend who terrorizes Underland’s citizens.  Burton uses the Alice story to make his own quest theme wrapped around ideas of feminism.

Having Alice 13 years older allows the story to have feminist qualities.  The older Alice is able to overcome societal and family pressures, by discovering her ability in Underland.  There she slays the jabberwocky, becomes an Imperial Adventurer, and protects her friends.  She returns from Underland with sense of self.  She refuses to marry Hamish and works on establishing major trade links with China.

Another theme is that of reality versus fantasy.  The film explores what is real and not real and impossible.  The notion of considering impossible tasks as possibilities, or challenging conventional logic, reoccurs throughout the film.  For example, Alice and her father repeat that they are “thinking of 6 impossible things before breakfast” (Burton).  However, in most instances when this theme is referenced it merely supports prominent feminist themes.  This is especially the case with the framing of the story, which nearly diminishes the adventure to synonymous with mustering courage to reject a marriage and take over her father’s business.

At the beginning of the movie, reality is presented through the Alice’s sister, the female Tweedles and Hamish’s mother, who tells Alice her only options are to accept the marriage or runaway as a recluse like her aunt.  At the end, despite the wonders of Underland, Burton focuses on feminist themes again.  This emphasizes the importance of believing in one’s own abilities, but dilutes the importance of imagination and youth.

In essence, the film is a true visual fantasy.  Burton set out to create an adventure story in his own specific style.  His formal film techniques accurately portray the surreal nature of Underland.  Through an array of visuals, symbolism, and plot, Burton focuses the story on female heroism from Alice throughout the film.

The Adaptation

There have been many adaptations Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories.  While Burton was not the first to make this adaptation, he is one of many who went beyond the story by adding aspects from his own imagination. Various producers, not only of films but also of television series and even video games, have created works based on Alice.  Burton uses Carroll’s story as a mere inspiration for his own film and distinctly separates his work by incorporating his unique style.  Burton’s success in adapting Carroll’s story to film is debated among critics.  Ultimately, he succeeded in some respects, while faltered in others. Burton’s adaptation both honors and deconstructs the original novel, at times with great success, at times in less brilliant ways.  Burton puts his own twist on Carroll’s stories in order to tell a different tale.  He adds his own values, is true to the story with respect to characters and some of the stories.

Carroll’s story may seem difficult to adapt into a live action film because of its fantastical beasts and whimsical settings.  The 1951 Disney version avoided this problem with animation and its endless possibilities.  Live action is more challenging because it is too closely linked to reality.  Burton’s film is successful in theory, because it utilizes a mixture of CGI and live action to create a new wonderland.  However, much of the animation is too campy and distracting.  Burton faced challenges because Carroll’s story revolves around imagination and individual interpretation.  To overcome this, Burton uses CGI to convey Underland, but it is flawed with respect to overshadowing references to reality.

The film made widespread use of visual effects similar to many other Hollywood blockbusters.  Burton also incorporated 3D effects that were not initially planned.  They were added after the success of James Cameron’s 3D film, Avatar.  These choices were influenced by a desire to be financially successful.  Commercially, the film was a huge success, grossing over one billion dollars worldwide.  In terms of adaptation, some believe blockbuster influence, cinematic competition, and over-the-top visual effects overshadowed Carroll’s story.  However, John Kelsey offers that the in this film, 3D space is “like an oversize, animated pop-up book” (Kelsey).  He enjoys the use of 3D in Burton’s adaptation because it is essentially a page of text with animated illustration, reminiscent of the lively appeal of Carroll’s book.

Burton includes the primary idea of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in which Alice enters a magical world and encounters unusual situations.  However, he replaces Carroll’s free-form plot style with a structured quest.  Two centuries later, the movie should primarily appeal to viewers now, not back then, so the updated fast-paced adventure reflects modern values.  In this sense, Burton’s film is a reboot rather than a strict adaptation.  He uses Carroll’s characters, draws upon ideas from Wonderland, and adds his own style.

Another challenge Burton faced was capturing Carroll’s whimsical and playful tone.  Carroll focuses on puzzles and brainteasers because of his background in mathematics.  Burton lacks this background, so he struggled in capturing this essence visually. However, he attempted to be similar to the original, but ultimately changed the tone too much.  For example, Burton’s choice to frame the story in Alice’s engagement party and quest is a factor in making the adaptation uninspiring.  It detracts from Carroll’s episodic style that gives the book its appeal.  Overall, Burton could not capture the essence of Carroll’s tone, and focused instead on making movie into a quest.  Some believe that Burton completely diminished the light-hearted tone of Carroll’s story with his fundamentally dark style.  Nevertheless, Frances Bonner and Jason Jacobs of University of Queensland disagree, “Burton encourages us to ponder the possible difference between adult and childhood meetings” (Bonner and Jacobs).  They illuminate the idea that Burton’s additional subject matter enhances Carroll’s perspective on maturation.

Burton adds more violence, darkness, and adventure in order to make this movie his own.  Carroll’s style in the original book was a more child-like adventure, in which surreal adventure was the essence of the story.   However, the Burton style adaptation converted Carroll’s Wonderland into a darker, more skeptical depiction than the bright and colorful world.  This was done to appeal to the larger mass audience of the 21st century and for Burton’s to make the story his own.  If Burton had made the movie in a way that stayed truer to Carroll’s stories, it would not have appealed to as a big of an audience or made as much money.  This is a main reason why he chose to change the story so much.

One of his main divergences from the text is to place Alice within the context of a quest, where she must find her courage and slay a fierce dragon.  Carroll’s story depicts a more pure and innocent world, where puzzles and games are central.  There is no sense of danger or urgency in Carroll’s version like there is in Burton’s ̶ it is fun, and lighthearted.  Contrastingly, Burton’s version departs from this nonchalant tone.  He adds a sense of darkness to the characters and their backgrounds.  For example, the tea party scene was very freely adapted, to show the affect that the political turmoil had on the citizens of Underland.  Throughout the film, there is a sense that something pressing is going on in Underland that makes it a little disturbing.  Some see Burton’s Underland as more realistic than Carroll’s Wonderland because of the actual problems and malicious people.  Marguerite O’Hara does not believe the realistic tone of Burton’s film works as a true adaptation of Carroll’s book.  She admires the book’s lightheartedness because “even the Queen of Hearts, loud and verbally threatening though she may seem, is really more silly and bumptious than a truly violent autocrat” (O’Hara).  It is difficult to portray the characters on film as they are on paper because Carroll uses complex language and ideas.

Additionally, in this massive budget adaptation, Burton depicted Alice as a teenager.  With this change came the theme of growing up to discover self-worth.  This alteration was done to attract a wider audience.  The teenage Alice is more appealing of a character to teenagers and adults than the child version is.  A main issue with this is that the story is different and seems to be more of a sequel to the book because Alice is older and there are references to a pervious Alice.  He remakes or “reboots” Carroll’s story to make almost a continuation of Alice’s story, by portraying her as much older.

Burton creatively uses this story adjustment as a different way of representing coming-of-age.  Both Burton and Carroll communicate the relationship between childhood innocence and adulthood.  For example, the added engagement scene reveals that Alice is an uncertain girl before her adventure begins.  Upon her return, she appears to have gained her confidence and is a courageous woman.  In the film, Alice’s maturation is clearly depicted by her warrior status and conquest, but in the text, her dreams more subconsciously instill maturity in her.

In Burton’s film, the character of Alice is different because she is much older, but this change along with the computer-enhanced style of the film was made to appeal to a modern audience.  Burton relied heavily on visual rather than mental stimulation found in the book.  Overall, he kept most of the characters as well as a hint of Carroll’s themes, but did not completely capture the spirit and focus of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  Burton’s adaptation is somewhat faithful to the literary work, to its structure, characters and story.  The story is quite different from the original, but the characters are the same.  He mashed Carroll’s work with his personal style to create his Alice in Wonderland, a different thing.

Works Cited

Alice in Wonderland. Dir. Tim Burton. 2010. Web.

Bonner, Frances and Jason Jacobs. “The First Encounte: Observations on the Chronology of Encounter with Some Adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Books.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies (2011). Web.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2006. Web.

Gardner, Martin and Lewis Carroll. The Annotated Alice. New York: C. N. Potter, 1960. Web.

Gonzalez, Ed. “Alice in Wonderland.” Slant Magazine 2 March 2010. Web.

Kelsey, John. “Lost in Space.” Artforum International 2 May 2011: 1-7. Web.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” O’Connor, Flannery. Three. New York: New American Library, 1983. 271-285. Print.

O’Hara, Marguerite. “O Frabjous Day!: Tim Burton’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’.” Screen Education Spring 2010: 14-23. Web.

“I pledge on my honor that I have not given or received any unauthorized assistance on this assignment.”


3 comments on “Alice in Wonderland: In Depth

  1. emrg10
    July 5, 2012

    I can’t figure out how to indent.

  2. Joseph Byrne
    July 10, 2012

    Ellen, you’ve left no stone unturned in your paper. Very impressive coverage of the book (especially), the film, and the problems involved with the adaptation.Your assessment that Burton “both honors and deconstructs the original novel” is right on the mark. The only critical I have to say is that your paper would have been even better if you had been more critical in your analysis. But that’s a quibble. You did an excellent job on this paper. 98 A. JB.

  3. Pingback: Special effects and realism in Alice in Wonderland | Moving Images, Multiple screens

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This entry was posted on July 5, 2012 by in Adaptation, Film.
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