The 'Wonderfully Weird' Tales of 'Alice'

Posted on May 26, 2016
Alice Jackson

Millions of “Alice in Wonderland” fans are expected to jam movie theaters this weekend after Friday’s premiere of Disney’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” the latest of almost 40 “Alice” movies and cartoons made for either the big screen or television. According to a University of South Alabama expert on the Victorian trilogy, fan interest may result from more than beloved memories of a childhood favorite.

In the second book of the series, Alice steps through the Looking Glass to check up on her friends in the Wonderland of her first adventure, but she finds a very different and topsy-turvy world from her first journey.

“The excitement of Lewis Carroll’s eccentric fairy tales lies in their inexhaustible ability to surprise,” said Dr. Cris Hollingsworth, an associate professor of English and expert on 19th century British literature, who has published extensively on aspects of both Carroll and his "Alice" trilogy. His research has produced “Improvising Spaces: Victorian Photography, Carrollian Narrative, and Modern Collage,” “The World as Wonderland: A Spatial Perspective on Lewis Carroll’s Alice Books” and “H.G. Wells, Lewis Carroll, and Scientific Wonderland,” among others.

Hollingsworth talked recently about Carroll, the trilogy and how Hollywood’s portrayal may differ from our childhood memories:

What was there about Lewis Carroll and the Alice trilogy that drew you to study them?

I have a childhood memory of looking at the Alice books and liking the illustrations, but not much more. It wasn’t until graduate school that I can say I finally discovered Carroll, finding his Alice books wonderfully weird and puzzling. The books simply demand attention. To me at least, they are among the most unique, interesting and influential short works written in modern English. The Victorians enjoyed literary fairy tales, and writers such as John Ruskin, William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens admired and wrote them. But, Carroll’s are different because they are more like scrapbooks or collections of fragments than coherent narratives. And, I became interested in the myth of Carroll too. In his lifetime, and for several generations after, he was viewed as an eccentric, but harmless and lovable, figure. It’s interesting and instructive to observe how, over the course of the 20th century, Carroll’s reputation and his invented worlds progressively darken, in some respects becoming sexualized.

Have you seen any of the previous “Alice in Wonderland” movies? If so, what was your opinion of Hollywood’s take on these stories? 


I’ve seen some of the earlier Alice movies, but not the newest ones. From the previews of the latest, I gather that these new "Alice" films are visually impressive but deviate considerably from the books. In order to make his 1951 animated "Alice" movie, Walt Disney, too, had to strike a path away from Carroll’s tales. I don’t think Carroll’s books lend themselves to the plot-driven adventures many viewers are used to. Despite all the wonderful contingencies and chance and coincidences and mysteries and unknowns of everyday life, most people insist that movies follow a formula, usually some sort of moral equation. Carroll felt that such moralism in children’s books is boring, the opposite of the fun that children should be having.          

The first “Alice in Wonderland” movie, a silent film that ran eight minutes, was released in 1903. Since then, Hollywood has churned out almost 40 versions, either for the big screen or television. In 2010, producer Tim Burton’s version was so successful it made more than $1 billion worldwide. What is the public’s ongoing fascination with the “Alice in Wonderland” trilogy?

I’ve taught Carroll off and on for much of my professional life, and it’s my impression that particular features of the "Alice" stories are well known, but that the books are not much read anymore. For one thing, Carroll’s a difficult writer. Most children don’t wish to puzzle over complex parodies and paradoxes. But enjoying the "Alice" books or, for that matter, any other book, for its best moments is quite human. And when culture absorbs a story – especially a complex story – it simplifies and cherry picks. Look at Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” and Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.” Like the sea and its storms working on a wreck, culture and time break up and wear down to a few defining episodes the grandest monuments of literature. A perfectly natural process! And some of this work is done when a literary classic is translated into the terms of a different medium, as when a book is made into a film.

James Bobin, producer of the new “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” has said Carroll “wasn’t really interested in telling an exciting story,” and admitted in a recent interview that he took tremendous liberties with this film’s script. For example, there’s a new character called “Time,” and Alice gets into trouble when she “borrows” his spinning globe, the Chronosphere. What role, if any, did “time” play in Carroll’s original story?

Bobin must have a pretty conventional notion of what an “exciting story is” because to this day Carroll’s Alice challenges us with a type of narrative that singularly violates rules, customs and expectations. For me, the excitement of Carroll’s eccentric fairy tales lies in their inexhaustible ability to surprise. Carroll uses the power of episodic narrative to break up and make something new – a kind of a collage – of a number of genres, including but not limited to the fairy tale, the dream journey and Menippean satire. (Menippean satire, usually in prose, has a length and structure similar to a novel and is characterized by attacking mental attitudes rather than specific individuals or entities.) Time in the "Alice" books? If one understands the books to be imitations of dreams, then Wonderland time is distinct from real time, and dream-time is inconsistent, potentially variable even within episodes. Like space and causation, time in the "Alice" books is the servant of surprise. At times, Carroll can be opaque or bookish or even tedious. But before you know it, all of a sudden, quite by surprise, the totally unexpected happens!

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