Alice in Wonderland, the Book or the Movie?

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Erwin Cabucos argues for the preference of the movie over the book.

Many readers of Lewis Carroll’s classic novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland may be dismayed by the changes made in film adaptations such as Tim Burton’s creation Alice in Wonderland. One critique that surfaces is the reduction of the highly philosophical and intelligent little girl to a heroine whose life is simplified in a good and evil predictability where she comes out always expectedly victorious. Literary professor Arthur Basham, for example, comments that it is a ‘cruel waste of an Alice’, suggesting the unproductive twisting of the well-crafted canonical text. I disagree. On the contrary, Burton’s portrayal of the new Alice fountains with highly relevant messages and riveting filmic elements that quench the thirst of contemporary audiences for a satisfying film text experience. It uses important aspects from the original story: the protagonists, the main plot, the lovely setting, among others, but it presents the cinematography and plot structure with more appealing elements, uplifting its original theme with more realistic, powerful and worthy messages.

Burton’s nineteen-year-old Alice is a step-up (well, she has grown) from a dreamy, childlike, little girl of Carroll, where the sense of wonder and questioning about identity has fruition to someone who has attained a real and authentic purpose in life and society. Initially, she insists that she is not that ‘Alice’, but later finds herself on a rescue mission to free the imprisoned Mad Hatter from the Red Queen’s castle. Then she comes back to slay the Jabberwocky to free the people of Underland, returns to Victorian society a changed woman and is ready to accept the challenges of expanding her father’s trade business to new adventures. The sense of adventures is akin to the two versions of the text, but the latter contains a character that the youth audience of today may have something to take home with – a good dose of meaningful vicarious experience on how to participate in society effectively and make a significant mark in the world. Burton’s Alice is a symbol of an engaged, passionate and purposeful character that makes a difference on others.

Text Box: Unlike her younger self, the beautiful teenage Alice has not really come out of the rabbit hole dreamy and in trance mood, but as a transformed, assertive and matured individual whose childhood self-concerns fruition to a character of a questioning and informed person against the repressive social assumptions and expectations.Indeed, the strong representation of a hero in the character of Alice in Burton’s film does not come with no test. Like the rest of children’s movie in the genre: Prince Caspian, King Arthur, and similar others, Alice has undergone real challenges: she escapes the cruelty of the Red Queen, she walks on the floating heads in the moat around the castle, and climactically beheads the Jabberwocky monster on the mountain to save the people and dethrone the evil Queen. By her victory, the oppressed animals (used as furniture in the castle and the fearful servants like the frogs) have been liberated. Alice’s acts of heroism are a metaphor for the process of liberation, freeing those who have been deprived of liberty. She is reminiscent of the Joan of Arc that saved a nation from evil control, or Harriett that frees black slaves in America’s history. In the world of classic narratives where male heroes outnumber their female counterparts, Burton’s Alice has legitimacy to pour out a message that heroes come as males or females. 

The grown-up Alice in Tim Burton’s film is still as inquisitive and adventurous as her younger version, but she is now far from the world of nonsensical realities, meaninglessness of words, riddles and rhymes. Unlike her younger self, the beautiful teenage Alice has not really come out of the rabbit hole dreamy and in trance mood, but as a transformed, assertive and independent individual whose childhood self-concerns have matured to a character of a questioning and informed person against the repressive nature of social assumptions and expectations. As revealed in the film’s opening scene at the garden party, Alice exclaims that she ‘doesn’t care’ anyone else’s plans for her. She questions the weight of expectation pressed upon her as a young lady to marry a rich young man (Hamish). Then, her sister foresees that her life would be perfect. However, the ending of the movie portrays her as a strong and independent woman who straightforwardly rejects Hamish’s proposal, a scene that shines with sarcasm and satire of another Victorian literary work – Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice where women cling to rich men’s proposal for marriage and relationship.

Furthermore, the twisting of the bright and wonderland setting to a scary and depressive Underland, where Tim Burton’s style of manipulating mise-en-scene, colour and setting flows with thrill, sense of fright, and a sense of magnitude. Theyt are elements that resonate with realism for the audience of today. Unlike the world of Wonderland, Underland is a realistic world of complexity where peace and turmoil and good and evil exist. Caroline Leal and Elise Leal, in their essay Two Separate Worlds, label the movie as typical Burtonesque, reminiscent of the director’s previous works in the genre, such as, Edward Scissorhands and the Nightmare Before Christmas. The magical occurrences of Alice’s shrinking and expanding, the presence of weird characters from the two books such as the Twiddles and the talking caterpillar are still there. Although some scenes from the first book, such as the pool of tears and the duchess and the baby are omitted, the film has lived up to the cinematographic standards of today’s technologically savvy generation. These are text structure choices proving that the film delivers comparable appeal with the scenes and climaxes of Narnia, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Burton’s film brilliance in its use of odd colours and hue in Alice’s first walk in the garden, grotesque scene and dialogues in the mad tea party and the violent beheading scenes in the ending, reinforce the themes and preoccupations of the film, tapping into the more mature and fearless nature of the grown and socially adept Alice.

So, thinking of the wasteful and irrelevant Alice in the movie? Think again. Reading Alice from the original story is indeed a baptism into the word ofWonderland but soaking into the Alice of Tim Burton’s filmic masterpiece is the realistic baptism of fire where sense of purpose and good deeds for society gush forth with life. 

How to reference this material?

Cabucos, E. (2020), ‘Alice in Wonderland, the Book or the Movie?’,, downloaded on today’s date.

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