"Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle!"

Quaint child, old-fashioned Alice, lend your dream:
I would be done with modern story-spinners,
Follow with you the laughter and the gleam:
Weary am I, this night, with saints and sinners.
We have been friends since Lewis and old Tenniel
Housed you immortally in red and gold.
Come! Your naïveté is a spring perennial:
Let me be young again before I am old.

Vincent Starrett, from Brillig

I’ve known Alice all my life. Before I was old enough to read for myself, I remember having bits of Through the Looking Glass read aloud to me, and John Tenniel’s illustrations are a part of my childhood. I’ve had ‘twas-brillig-and-the-slithy-toves-did-gyre-and-gimble-in-the-wabe stuck in my head times out of mind. I’ve even acted in a play version of the story, in an illustrious theatre in a friend’s backyard, constructed entirely of donated wood and directed by a twelve year-old ‘little brother’. (I was 23 at the time, and acted the part of the Tiger Lily, should anyone care to know. ;))

I love Alice like I would a childhood friend and I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve revisited Wonderland as an adult. With her pluck and propriety and her disarming questions she set the world of childrens’ literature on it’s ear, and it has never been the same since. “Who am I?” she dares to ask more than once. And in the same breath, it seems, she turns those thoughtful eyes of hers, still glinting with the wonders they have beheld, upon the young readers and the adults that are paying attention, with logical uncertainty: Very well, then, who are you?

'Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: 'we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.'

Is it a dream, or it is real? And what’s more actual—the real or the dream?

Far from being merely a covert foray into psychoanalysis, as many modern critics would have us believe, or, even worse, a string of sheer nonsense, Alice in Wonderland is a brilliant and thoroughly entertaining gambol in the world of the imagination. Every stroke of Carroll’s pen hits it mark with mathematical precision—from life-sized chess matches to grinning cats uttering profundities to absurd games of croquet employing flamingoes as mallets and hedgehogs as balls—and he manages thereby to make a case for the latent streak of moonstruck madness present in us all.

Just what would happen if Alice took that madness back to the real world with her? we can’t help but ask. Just how Alice would she be then?

That’s one of the questions that the new Alice in Wonderland (2010) film poses. We saw it this weekend in the theatre and I really had no idea what to expect. Apart from an engaging review on The Rabbit Room, and the glowing praise of a very dear friend, I pretty much went in cold.

‘It's the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!'

But I came out glowing. I thought it was a wonderful movie, most especially because it made no pretense of sticking to the book. It was more of a ‘what if’ or ‘what’s next’ than a faithful adaptation of Alice, which always seems to turn out rather ludicrous. (Or more ludicrous ;)) But the film kept to the essence of the book while engaging me with a plot (which the book manages to do quite delightfully without). It’s a return to Wonderland—or, Underland, suggestively called, a once-beautiful dream-world that has been ravaged and impoverished by the Red Queen’s reign of terror. Alice is almost grown now, “almost Alice”, as it’s poignantly pointed out, and the situations that she faces both above ground and below it force her to choose between comfortable, conventional adulthood and the real maturity that is always childlike.

“I always believe six impossible things before breakfast,” Alice’s father states early in the film.

I couldn’t help but think of the One Impossible Thing that I believe and which makes every other thing in the world plausible.

'Yes, that's it,' said the Hatter with a sigh: 'it's always tea-time, and we've no time to wash the things between whiles.'

Alice in Wonderland is a dark film, there’s no denying it. It’s quirky and crazy and oftentimes baffling. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is over the top—I was completely mesmerized. And Helena Bonham Carter is brilliant as the insecure Red Queen, really more pitiable than terrifying. The Jabberwocky, now—John Tenniel’s illustration leapt to horrible life before my eyes. I was literally a bit dizzy over that sequence. But to make up for it there’s a glimpse of the original Mad Hatter’s tea party that was nothing short of beautiful.

Another thing going for this film is that Alice’s madness has a foil in the form of aunt that is really, truly mad, and I think that was a good stroke. It’s delicate, but all the more effective. We’re not talking about howling at the moon around here. Just being mad enough to be…yourself.

I came home from the movie and pulled out my beloved Annotated Alice, reading over Jabberwocky again and delighting in the many allusions to the original that the movie had been carefully laced with. It really was a fun romp, and good to see Wonderland again, even in its war-torn condition.

But it was even better to see Alice. And to know that she hadn’t forgotten how to dream. Or just how real dreams might be.

The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo

(By the way, if you and Alice have never been properly introduced, allow me to suggest Martin Gardner’s definitive tome, The Annotated Alice. It’s a scholarly but wholly approachable explanation of the staggering symbolism, the embedded jokes and the scads of contemporary allusions that Victorian audiences would have easily recognized. I enjoyed reading the original text side by side with Gardner’s fascinating footnotes. Case in point: did you know that Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) was a close friend with the great George MacDonald and his family? Or that we have MacDonald’s young son, Greville, to thank in part for Alice’s eventual publication? Apparently Carroll sent his manuscript to Mrs. MacDonald, asking her to try it out on her children. The six year-old Greville was said to declare that “there ought to be sixty-thousand copies of it”. ;))

So, have any of you seen the movie? Love it? Hate it? Adore the book?

Or perhaps a better question might be Carroll’s own:

Was it a dream? What do you think?

all captions from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
illustrations by John Tenniel

Here’s another great Rabbit Room link to an article by Travis Prinzi: Alice and the Imagination