Alice, Bratty in Wonderland
From Lewis Carroll to Tim Burton, Alice has always been one of fiction's biggest pills. Nicole LaPorte traces her evolution from Victorian know-it-all to '50s princess to JonBenét clone.
For a girl who falls down a rabbit hole and winds up in a place populated by disappearing cats and hookah-smoking caterpillars, the Alice in Alice in Wonderland—Tim Burton's new cinematic take on Lewis Carroll's classic children's book, which comes out March 5—is a total pill.
After the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) majestically marches across a cluttered tea party setting to welcome our girl—"It's you"—with tender reverence, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) stares back at him blankly. When Hatter lifts her up by a skinny arm (this is in a mini-Alice phase) and drags her back across the table with him, she's still mum. If anything, she seems bored, sullen, irritated.
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Indeed, throughout the movie, Burton's wild, fantastical creations—a much-needed improvement on earlier film versions, in which everyone in Wonderland looks like an extra from Cats—elicit little more than a shrug from Alice, who looks as entertained as if she were at home watching TV.
For those who may wonder when Alice got to be such a bitch, the answer is: She always was one, albeit in different ways that reflected the times of her various incarnations. Granted, in Carroll's book, first published in 1866, Alice wasn't as remote and apathetic as the 2010 model, but she was very much a cranky know-it-all with a low threshold for the nonsensical.
In the book, Alice is a smug, Victorian braggart who loves nothing more than showing off her knowledge. She likes to use "grand words" like latitude and longitude; her biggest fear is to appear "ignorant." She's pushy, too. When she's told there's not enough room for her at the tea party, she plops herself down anyway. And when the March Hare offers her wine, even though there isn't any, Alice icily retorts: "Then it wasn't very civil of you to offer it." Halfway through the party, she stalks off. Alice is always accusing others of being rude, but she's really the insufferable one.
The man to blame for rebranding Alice as most of us remember her—the sweet blond naif in the blue pinafore who has as much of an edge as a cocker spaniel—is, not surprisingly, Walt Disney. In the classic animated version of Alice in Wonderland, which was released in 1951, Alice is a postwar model of feminine perfection, all good manners, docility, and innocence. If anything, this Alice is a bit… dumb. There is a lot of "Whatever will I do?" and "Oh, dear! This is serious," and blind requests for help. When she does make threats, they're toothless, as when she tells a bunch of singing flowers—who, like almost everyone else in Wonderland, enjoy bullying her—"If I were the right size, I could pick every one of you!" Most pathetically, when first confronted by the Queen of Hearts, Alice does a face plant in the ground, out of fear and deference. (In Carroll's version, Alice makes a conscious decision to remain standing in the queen's presence.) And when the queen yells, "Off with her head!" Alice is frozen in silence. In the book, Alice gives it right back, yelling, "Nonsense!" which causes the queen to fall silent.
Things don't improve much for Alice in the 1973 British movie musical Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, whose only stroke of genius was casting Peter Sellers as the March Hare (no one could do jittery inanity and eyes that are in a constant state of alarm like Sellers). Fiona Fullerton, a future Bond girl in A View to a Kill, is our leading lady and, sadly, she has much less to offer. This Alice is dull and earnest, and brings us far too painstakingly into her thought process, which, unfortunately, is entirely spoken. (It takes several paragraphs of monologue to get her to grow and shrink twice, and finally get her going on her adventure.) She has the wide-eyed ingénue gaze of Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, though none of Garland's saucy chutzpah. Unlike in the Disney version, she and the other creatures are all in jolly, absurdist communion. It's nice that she's made friends, but the idea of Wonderland being a slightly menacing, even scary place, as Carroll intoned, is lost entirely.
For those who may wonder when Alice got to be such a bitch, the answer is: She always was one, albeit in different ways that reflected the times of her various incarnations.
Alice entered her JonBenét Ramsey stage in 1985—of course, on American television. In this small-screen movie, directed by Harry Harris, Alice is a walking American Girl doll, played by Natalie Gregory, and she's so young that the script has her state her age, 7 and a half, though that feels like a stretch. Here, she transforms into that classic, distinctly American child who is alternately cute and bratty and, ultimately, supremely annoying. She makes snide comments and rolls her eyes at the Caterpillar—played by Sammy Davis Jr., who is stuffed into something resembling a bright blue sleeping bag—right before Sammy, in a sputter of low-grade fireworks, transforms into a tap-dancing cowboy. (Or colonial jester? It's hard to tell from the hat.) He grabs Alice, now dressed in lederhosen, by the arm, and the two get it on, on the dance floor. For those who prefer watching Alice movies with the assistance of hallucinogens, with this one—in which the Cheshire Cat says, "Meow, baby!"—there is no need. In terms of absurdity, it ranks right up there with Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer's surrealist Alice, though for totally different reasons.
Angsty Alice made her debut in 1999 in the Hallmark made-for-TV movie starring Whoopi Goldberg as the Cheshire Cat, Ben Kingsley as the Caterpillar, and Martin Short as a predictably outrageous Mad Hatter. This preteen Alice (Tina Majorino) has clearly been listening to too much Liz Phair. Drenched in self-doubt and self-loathing, she can't bring herself to sing at a recital, and thus does what any stage-frightened girl who doesn't want to disappoint her parents (who, it's implied, have their own issues) would do: fall head-first down a rabbit hole. The entire premise of the film is based on Alice's fear, which is writ large on Majorino's perpetually furrowed brow and beseeching eyes. Like Carroll's Alice, she's a nerd who likes books, but unlike her predecessor, she's as freaked out by her surroundings as by herself—when she grows into a giant, her look of total disgust seems to go beyond her new proportions.
This is nothing like the reaction of Burton's more mature invention (she's supposed to be 19), who, when she grows into a giant, looks completely indifferent. A bit annoyed, perhaps, by the inconvenience, but barely put off. A sibling to Kristen Stewart's Bella in the Twilight movies, Wasikowska's ghost-faced and waifish post-feminist Alice is an apathetic shrugger who's unthreatened to the point of not caring. Even when she's forced to slay a dragon, she's on autopilot, going through the motions. She has, however, gained back her insolence and pride. Not only does she stand up to the queen, she towers over her and affects a nonplussed, downward gaze: the bored insouciance of the naturally empowered. There is no fear, here—at least not of something as insignificant as a recital. (This Alice chases after the white rabbit to get out of having to say "yes" to a quasi-arranged marriage.)
Luckily for viewers, Depp's Hatter and Helena Bonham Carter's Queen of Hearts are much more lively and depraved specimens; they provide the film's most memorable scenes. If Disney plans a sequel, which it should, one only hopes they forgo the looking glass and instead throw another tea party. And this time, they needn't bother inviting Alice.
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.