The Other Alice

MAY / JUNE 2011: BY RISSI C.

alice

Falling into a place where a story is going to take place is a unique method of transportation, but that is exactly how the heroine of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s fables arrives at her destination.

Within a reasonably short period of time, two versions of Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland were released in film form. One was directed by Tim Burton for Disney and the other was on the silver screen by way of SyFy’s miniseries Alice. The only thing the two productions have in common are strong-willed heroines who share the loss of a father and the same first name. The blockbuster was a project Burton took seriously; his interpretation of the classic fairytale is a series of events rather than character-driven. He wanted to make a story that told us something about Alice as a person rather than just her wandering through an enchanted forest.

This is a novel approach to material that was really nothing more than a child falling into a world not her own. His Alice is a young woman who goes through the humdrum routines of proper life but doesn’t really know who she is. A bit of a rebel, Alice finds even the smallest social requirements in her life bothersome and her choice to dismiss them makes her stand out; she hates wearing corsets and conforming to expectations and instead demands to know who defines what is proper. Her father died, leaving her in the care of a mother she has never been close to, but her mother expects a good match. It isn’t until she is at a garden party that her future comes clear when she realizes her husband has already been chosen for her. Questioning what she really wants in a split second with a crowd of well-wishers as her captive audience, she spots a funny White Rabbit and that is when her life begins.

Alice detests what her life has become—with her father gone, her life is no longer filled with laughter, understanding, or even by her standards, acceptance. She is pushed toward a conventional marriage but her emotions are in such a jumble that had she not seen an alternative, the answer that would have made her family happy was on the tip of her tongue. She is in an awkward place in her life, considered a woman but not fully emotionally matured. On her arrival in Underland everyone quickly decides she is not “the Alice,” the one to return the kingdom to its former glory; the girl who visited as a child. The wise Absolem implies it isn’t so much a question of whether or not she is who they have been searching for but rather that she doesn’t know herself. Her closest friendship develops with the Hatter; even he is skeptical, claiming she has lost her “muchness” having once been much more. All these exchanges show her lack of direction and it takes a crisis for her to realize it is she who decides her own path and no one else.

Then there is Alice. This miniseries had the potential to become the “same-old, same-old” but instead of falling into that trap it upped expectations by setting its story in modern times, with hints of an old world era. This Alice is interesting and stronger than Burton’s. With an independent streak that worries her mother, Alice is an expert black-belt part-time instructor at a school, and is crazy about a man named Jack. But that doesn’t mean things are rosy in her life; they are not. She has some personal trust issues with a father who abandoned her, so when Jack proposes marriage she isn’t sure she is at that level in the relationship and does what she does best—sends him away. When he leaves the ring behind, she dashes out after him only to see several strange men forcing him into a truck. Not about to stand by and do nothing, Alice follows him and awakens in a land unlike anything she has ever seen before. She is determined to stay until she has reunited with Jack.

What both female protagonists bring to mind are hints of feminism; one in a world dominated by men, the other by her fearless personality. I won’t lie. I like characters (male or female) to be strong leads. A lady doesn’t need to be so independent that her attitude toward life pushes everyone away, but I do not mind if she is confident enough to know her own strengths and weaknesses. That is how I think of Caterina’s Alice. She is independent but vulnerable to a void in her life —flawed as any human being. She doesn’t always have it all together, but she isn’t so lost that she doesn’t know what she wants. Marriage isn’t something she needs to feel “complete,” and though she isn’t afraid of relationships, fear of total commitment does send her running in the opposite direction. Or as her mother puts it, in a split second she weighed all the possible cons with unlikely pros. (Burton’s Alice lived in a time when feminism was just gaining popularity and eventually that was what her choices implied.) Her choice to follow her beau is because she cares for him and is experiencing regret over turning down his proposal.

Seeing an Alice who isn’t as confused is an interesting switch-up, since this one’s one stumbling block is a lack of trust, and it seems to work for the overall wackiness of the series. Her continuing distrust encompasses the small things in life as well as the bigger stuff. At first Alice doesn’t believe in people (Jack, Hatter) then we learn she has grave fears about heights; all fostered by a feeling of abandonment and inadequacy. Alice’s bizarre journey is a rite of passage for her; when all is said and done, her questions are answered, she realizes the truth and doesn’t need to hang onto the comfortable, safe things about her life anymore—she learns what she needs, enabling her to move on in healthier ways. How the filmmakers put viewers in mind of the classic tale was adorable while adding their own unique spin and taking their production and interpretations of it in completely different directions.

Both the retellings give Alice a fabulous on-screen support group, mainly in their respective Hatters; both of whom are memorable for different reasons. In the latter adaptation, writers seem to have a better grip on realizing and bringing out the heroine’s full potential.

That isn’t to say I don’t like the big blockbuster; in fact, the truth is quite the opposite. The set, fantasy design, and costumes are all brilliant, but so is the whimsy in the series. The stronger emphasis on the leading lady and a much more charismatic actress is where it has an upper hand advantage; sadly, for me Burton’s Alice just doesn’t quite capture the heart of its heroine or more accurately, as Hatter would put it, the other Alice has much more “muchness.” ■

mayjune2011

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