Alice in Wonderland: Revisiting Author Lewis Carroll

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Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Stories

Originally published in 1865, Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” changed forever the course of children’s literature. For director Tim Burton, the prospect of being able to put his own fresh spin on such a timeless classic as “Alice in Wonderland” was impossible to resist. “It’s so much a part of the culture,” he reflects of Carroll’s tale that has inspired numerous stage, television and film adaptations. “So whether you’ve read the story or not, you’ll know certain images or have certain ideas about it. It’s such a popular story.”
“I’m a huge fan of the book,” says Johnny Depp, who stars in the film as the Mad Hatter. “It’s such a beast in terms of invention, of literary achievement. It’s as brilliant and as fresh and as new and as interesting today as it was then.”
“Lewis Carroll had a remarkable mind and these books just transcend time and place,” says Woolverton. “The characters are all so wild and funny, and there’s a little bit of us in all of them: The Red Queen, in her rages; Alice’s wonder at everything she sees around her; and The Hatter’s tragedy. It makes for great cinema.”
“The imagination and creativity of the book is so unique and remarkable,” says producer Jennifer Todd. “There’s something to the images, and the characters, and the outlandishness of the book that really resonates with people.”
With the success of “Alice,” Carroll (the pen name for Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a lecturer in mathematics at Christchurch University in Oxford, England) became the leading children’s author of his day, and he followed it six years later with “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There,” which was even more popular than its predecessor. Today, both books tend to be published together under the title “Alice in Wonderland,” and their continued influence can be seen in everything from music videos to films, comic books to computer games, opera to art.
“One of the reasons why Lewis Carroll’s characters work so well in cinema is because they’re wildly imaginative and there’s no one way to interpret them,” says Anne Hathaway, who stars as the White Queen. “Because Lewis Carroll played around with words and concepts, and because the characters appeal to the imagination, I feel there are as many interpretations as there are imaginations in the world. It depends on what your take is.”
“It somehow taps a subconscious thing,” says Burton of his source material. “That’s why all those great stories stay around because they tap into the things that people probably aren’t even aware of on a conscious level. There’s definitely something about those images. That’s why there have been so many versions of it.
“As a movie, it’s always been about a passive little girl wandering around a series of adventures with weird characters. There’s never any kind of gravity to it,” Burton continues. “The attempt with this was to take the idea of those stories and shape them into something that’s not literal from the book but keeps the spirit of it.”
“I truly believe that Lewis Carroll would be ecstatic because the movie is done with such respect and is rooted deeply in the original material,” Depp says. “This story by Carroll, along with the characters, under Tim Burton’s vision is a real treat.”
From Page to Screen
Incorporating characters, story elements and central themes from Carroll’s books, director Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” takes the stories to new heights, so to speak, featuring a grown-up Alice as she returns to the place she visited as a child.
Screenwriter Linda Woolverton pitched the idea to producers Joe Roth and Suzanne and Jennifer Todd. “Linda came up with a great idea,” says Roth. “It all hangs together, kind of a political allegory—those residents down there are not just crazy, they’re actually revolutionaries. So it just struck me right on every single level, and Disney seemed like the right place to take it. And there was only one choice of director, Tim Burton, and lo and behold, he wanted to do it.”
“They gave me a script and they said 3D,” says Burton. “And even before I read it. I thought that’s intriguing, and what I liked about Linda’s script was she made it a story, gave it a shape for a movie that’s not necessarily the book. So all those elements seemed good to me.”
“The story takes place when Alice is 19, and she’s about to enter into a marriage she’s not sure about,” screenwriter Linda Woolverton explains. “Time has passed. The Red Queen rules the whole land. It’s under her thumb. And the people of Underland need Alice.”
“Underland is the same fantastical land that Alice visited as a child. But she misheard the word ‘Underland’ and thought they said ‘Wonderland.’ Now as a girl on the cusp of adulthood, Alice goes back and there she discovers that the real name of the world is Underland.”
Part of what appealed to Burton about the script was that it centered on an Alice who, at 19, is substantially older than in Carroll’s books, yet feels very real and identifiable. “What I liked about this take on the story is Alice is at an age where you’re between a kid and an adult, when you’re crossing over as a person,” he says. “A lot of young people with old souls aren’t so popular in their own culture and their own time. Alice is somebody who doesn’t quite fit into that Victorian structure and society. She’s more internal.”
For Alice Kingsleigh, life is about to take a turn for the unexpected. Hamish, the worthy but dull son of Lord and Lady Ascot, proposes to Alice during a Victorian garden party thrown in their honor. She flees without giving an answer, heading off after a rabbit she’s spotted running across the lawn; the rabbit, of course, is wearing a waistcoat and pocket watch.
Following the White Rabbit across a meadow, Alice watches as he disappears into a rabbit hole, suddenly finds herself falling down after him, tumbling through a strange, dreamlike passage before landing in a round hall with many doors. She discovers a bottle labeled DRINK ME; its contents shrink her, and a cake with the words EAT ME iced on top; it makes her grow. Alice eventually finds her way through a door into the wondrous and fantastical world called Underland—the same place she visited as a young girl—although she has no memory of her previous adventures there, except in her dreams.
“Underland is a part of the earth,” says Woolverton, “but it lies somewhere far beneath our world. The only way to get there is to fall down a rabbit hole.”
There she meets a menagerie of colorful characters, including a swashbuckling Dormouse, an off-his-rocker Mad Hatter, a grinning Cheshire Cat, a wise caterpillar called Absolem, a beautiful White Queen and her spiteful older sister the Red Queen, who happens to be the petulant ruler of Underland.
According to Woolverton, Underland has come upon hard times since the malevolent Red Queen has taken over the throne. It is, however, a truly wonderful land, which might explain why the girl who mistook it for “Wonderland” has been called upon to help return it to its glory. But, says Woolverton, “Underland has always been Underland since the Beginning, no matter who sits on the throne. It will remain Underland until the End.”
“What Linda has done is fashion a story with an emotional context for the film’s events to occur,” says Bonham Carter. “In this, there’s a point to the whole story and a journey for Alice.”
 “In the beginning, Alice is very awkward and uncomfortable in her skin,” Wasikowska says. “So her experience in Underland is about reconnecting with herself and finding she has the strength to be more self-assured in figuring out what she wants.”
“Tim Burton is, in his own way, a modern-day Walt Disney,” says producer Suzanne Todd. “There’s no one else like him. And ‘Alice’ really spoke to Tim—that idea of Alice and her journey, going someplace else to find out who she really is.”
For a fabulist filmmaker renowned for creating fantastical and breathtakingly elaborate worlds, Carroll’s rich tapestry of characters and their magical world afforded Burton ample opportunity to run wild with his imagination, putting his own, indelible stamp on the material.
“The combination of the 135-year-old best seller, ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, Disney and 3D make this an irresistible and ‘must see’ movie event,” says producer Richard Zanuck.