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Entries in Alice In Wonderland (1)

Saturday
Mar132010

A Forgotten Way...

I went to go see Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland. I must recommend it to you, and you must see it in 3-D. It is a remarkable and apt interpretation of Lewis Carroll's characters and story, with a twist: this Alice In Wonderland is a hero adventure for girls.

As always, I am a bit late on seeing movies as they come out, so most of my readers have seen the new Alice movie, so I'll dispense with delicacy and not hide the plot: A young Alice has a remarkable experience in "Wonderland," only to believe (or she has been told to believe) it was a dream. Fast-forward 13 years, and our young but troubled heroine is on the way, unbeknownst to her, to her engagement party. Feeling the pressure of polite society in guiding her into a life she is unsure about, she runs away to chase a white rabbit. Into the rabbit hole Alice falls and our story really begins.

Looking into an uncertain and confusing future, Alice follows her curiousity.

I think the story (by the excellent screenwriter Linda Woolverton), like Carroll's original, is both a social critique and a psychological play. The social mores of 19th Century England are masked in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. In the same way, Tim Burton lifts the same mirror to society to ask questions about destiny, free-will and ambition.

Alice must parse this world out without the benefit of her protector, her father. Mr. Kingsley is a bit of a dreamer, with big plans that other see as mad or crazy. Alice, confused and anguished by her "dreams" of Wonderland is indulged and supported by her father, who tells his young daughter when she questions her sanity, "yes, you are mad. But the best people are." At 19, Alice is unconventional, bright and very caustic about the role society has chosen for her. I have written elsewhere that it is an incredible indictment of sorts that the women--in this case mother and older sister--choose to push their daughters into stifling, ordinary lives, devoid of choice, creativity and (god forbid) love. In Victorian England, women of a certain social group were better educated and given more opportunity for expression, but still they were expected to be subjugated to their husbands and put their own ambitions aside.

Alice knows she does not want a life like that, but she must find the courage to slay the idea of convention in her own life, her doubts about whether her dreams are real, and stand resolute and alone. Along the way, we meet and get reacquainted with the marvelous characters in "Underland:" the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the March Hare, Dormouse, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the Red Queen and her sister the White Queen, and of course, the Mad Hatter. Johnny Depp's Hatter plays a more prominent role in this adaptation, acting as a supporter, believing in Alice to be the true one, and acts as a key to Alice's inner self.

The Hatter is mad, his world is skewed, internally defined, with fits of garden-path thoughts, daisy-chains of images, past glories and present fears. But it is Alice's act of validation in passing on the words of her father to the Hatter that provided an interesting clue to me to the story.

I was reminded of Peter Brook's adaptation of The Mahabharata. In a scene where his brothers have all been struck down by an unseen force by a lake, the king Yudhisthira is forced to answer question posed to him by Dharma, his father who had disguised himself. One of the questions was this: "What is madness?" Yudhisthira replies: "It is a forgotten way."

As children, we are free to dream. The world is open and wide, and we interpret it creatively and freely associate and apply our dreams to reality. Our playfulness works out the world. But our lives do not stay that way. As adults, we are expected to face facts, deal with it, face reality and conform to the roles set for us. We are told to forget the childish ways. It is interesting to note that in the 19th Century there was more of a push in polite society to value children's creativity and let them play. Alice is a child of that polite society that, when the society expects conformity, rebels against convention. Doing so, makes her alone and distant from others, an oddball and misfit.

It is in (W)Underland that she must step forward and slay the Jabberwocky. To me, the Jabberwocky is the monster of conformity that flattens the dreams and ambitions of the individual through fear. It is society, the "polite" society of Victorian England and the culture of our own time, making one doubt oneself, relying on others for our value and worth. Through the caterpillar's cajoling, Alice remembers her previous adventure and that it was not a dream. In killing the Jabberwocky, Alice finds her original strength, she has found her way to stand in the world, alone and apart on her own terms. And so she returns to her world, turns down the marriage proposal, and starts carving out her own way, a way her father knew that will now be her's alone.

There are other interesting symbols: The White Queen and Red Queen, their armies of chess pieces and playing cards. The White Queen is purposeful, thoughtful and all her actions are lovely and ethical. The Red Queen is vain, insecure and forceful, her actions are selfish and destructive. Are they not the Superego and Id respectively? Isn't Alice caught between these two? As to the chess pieces and playing cards: both refer to games of skill, but in different ways--chess is an intellectual, deliberate and open exercise of wits, while the game of cards is just as skillful and deliberate, but the players must use deception, or bluffs, in order to win.

In finding her way, Alice finds the forgotten way: she is "mad" in society's terms for passing up the security and comfort of being a wife. But she is following a dream, playing a deliberate and skillful game of both heart and mind, choosing to negotiate the world on her own terms rather than on another's.

I have met several "Alice's" over the years. I once had a friend who told me that she called off her wedding 5 days before it was to be, because she did not want to be in marriage with someone who did not respect her or see her as an equal partner. I get encouraged when I hear of women who want to be taken seriously and that they want more than just a supporting role in someone else's life. Even in our modern time with all the talk of post-feminism, it is important that girls and women see their own value, seek out their own lives. If the men who love them see these women as equals worthy of building a life together, what a remarkable world we would find ourselves in.

Thanks for reading.