“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.
-Â Lewis Carroll, Aliceâ€™s Adventures in Wonderland
The riddle without an answer is an apt recurring theme in Tim Burtonâ€™s Alice in Wonderland, the newest and most ambitious iteration 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 â€“ who has apparently lost her â€œmuchnessâ€ since her previous visit â€“ might be the wrong Alice. Who is Alice, who was she, and who will she be?
Unlike the Lewis Carroll stories, there is less a sense of wandering wonder; here now we have a very different story reminiscent of a Joseph Campbell-inspired quest for Alice to remember what she had forgotten and to realize her sense of self. The admirable pacing of the plot reflects this. Thereâ€™s no time for childlike indulgence at tea parties this time around before being rushed off to the next danger: thereâ€™s work to be done. Â Fate, determinism and free will are some of the central themes â€“ 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 childâ€™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 Tim Burton-esque cinematic art as well. Â 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 â€“ perhaps the implicit question to be asked in such a style is that, in the absence of wonder (from â€œwonderâ€ to â€œunderâ€), what then is there?
Perhaps the charm of Lewis Carrollâ€™s stories were that they were an exploration of wonder, that if we believe wonder to be never-ending, then such stories are riddles which resist sequels and conventional resolution. Such is the challenge of working within an old story is how to make the familiar unfamiliar. The movie is its own riddle without an answer – should timeless stories require an ending? [Full review will be posted soon on The Oxonian Review website]