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After Wonderland

Tyler Shores

foerTim Burton
Alice in Wonderland
Walt Disney Pictures, 2010
108 minutes

“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
“Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.
“No, I give it up,” Alice replied. “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.

………..-Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The riddle without an answer is an appropriate recurrent theme for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the newest and most ambitious iteration to date of the much loved classic. While there are familiar characters and scenes, this new rendition is more sequel than adaptation. And yet here is the riddle: what sort of story is it?

Alice, now 19 years old, escapes from the real world and its depressingly grown-up hassles down the rabbit hole, but has no memory of her past adventures. Characters in the movie wonder if this Alice—who has apparently lost her “muchness” since her previous visit—might be the wrong Alice. Who is Alice, who was she, and who will she be? (For more on the discussion of Alice and her memory, click here.)

Unlike the Lewis Carroll stories, Tim Burton’s Alice lacks a sense of wandering wonder; here, we have a very different story, a Joseph Campbell-inspired quest for Alice to remember what she had forgotten and to realize her sense of self. The pacing of the plot reflects this challenge. There’s no time for childlike indulgence at tea parties this time around before being rushed off to the next danger: there’s work to be done. Fate, determinism, and free will are some of the central themes—how can Alice choose her own path, as she is determined to do, if destiny has already foretold that she is the one to take up the Vorpal Sword and save the day?

The world that Alice now returns to is much changed. Underland, as it is now called, is a darker place, an amalgamation of Wonderland and the Looking Glass worlds from the original stories. We find not a child’s escape into a world of wonder, but rather a curiously post apocalyptic dreamscape where the problems of the real world are meant to be worked out in a dramatic setting. This is the setting not for wonder and logic games, but rather for a rite-of-passage narrative that is parts Joan of Arc and St George, complete with battles between good and evil writ large.

Of course, one must account for the film not just in terms of story, but as a story told through Burton-esque cinematic art as well. Burton imagines a captivating and immersive world, but one that is distinctively less dreamlike and more nightmarish in his signature gothic treatment. We have a glimpse through the 3-D looking glasses at a darker, creepier Wonderland than we have ever seen before. The visual story that is being told is one of desolation and darkness—perhaps the implicit question to be asked in such a style is, in the absence of wonder (from “wonder” to “under”), what remains? Burton’s Alice in Wonderland becomes its own riddle without an answer; and hence the challenge of working within an old story lies in the question of how to make the familiarly unfamiliar—do classic stories require sequels or endings?

Tyler Shores is reading for an MSt in English Literature at Christ Church College, Oxford. Tyler is a contributor to Alice and Wonderland and Philosophy.