Sunday, August 1, 2010

Blankety Blank's Thisity That

I recently had occasion to watch Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland. It was an interesting experience. Visually lush, technically proficient, and full of interesting performances, it annoyed the hell out of me by grossly embodying so many of my pet peeves. This essay may only be peripherally about the movie; it's mainly a jumping off spot for my rambling concerns.

First of all, I applaud Tim Burton for putting his name on the product, otherwise incautious people might mistake it for Lewis Carroll's actual tale. But even so the title is misleading. Besides mingling elements from both Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass (a habit just about every film adaptation of Alice indulges in), TBAIW is more in the nature of a sequel, with the grown-up Alice returning to her dream-world to work out her real-life problems. A more forthcoming title (Alice In Underland has been suggested) might have been better, but Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland is a lot more honest than, say, Bram Stoker's Dracula, which was all kind of wrong.

That being said, why is Burton playing with this particular cast of characters, with these images? With their actions and personalities so severely different from the originals (think of the buzzwords for this type of "re-imagining": "darker", "more adult"), why must he use them rather than create his own characters to tell his story? As it is, Burton's tale seems to exist as something as a parasite on Carroll's original tale, sucking "name-brand" recognizability and even affection off of Alice. Somewhat more original re-workings are possible: Woody Allen's Alice leaps to mind, where the old story lies under Allen's movie like a skeleton, unseen but providing form and structure.

And to what end does Burton do this? To have a galumphing adventure tale with the moral (that would have been timely in the 1860's, when Alice was first published) that Girls Are People Too And Should Follow Their Dreams No Matter What Society Thinks. Burton's Alice triumphs by using the Vorpal Sword to cut off the Jabberwocky's head (they call it a Jabberwocky, not a Jabberwock, as it is in the book); Carroll's does it by being gentle, kind, and polite. These virtues are not so popular with modern audiences.

All of Western literature can be seen as a long, long conversation. Homer produces The Odyssey, and Virgil answers with The Aeneid, and Dante chimes in with The Divine Comedy. There are influences, and inspirations, and complete quarrels with various viewpoints. It has always been the authors' way to ring the changes on all the myths and motifs. But we have been plagued recently with a spate of work that verges on plagiarism, parody, and sometimes downright theft. All art, all really good art, challenges everyone. It challenges creative people to produce a creative answer to it. Some people merely draw moustaches on it. And Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland (while being generally enjoyable) comes dangerously close to a moustache.

1 comment:

Babel said...

Having not seen Burton's take on Alice I hesitate to chime in, but, dammit, chime I must! A long line of these tales have been coming out lately, (and many times with "Tim Burton's" in the title!) and I have to say they almost all are exactly as you say.I remember when we were kids we could have a great time weaving a tale with our action figures based on movie franchises like Planet of the Apes or Star Wars, (Epics, we called 'em), and sometimes we would whip up such a dandy we would say at its conclusion: "Man, they should make a movie out of that one!" . This seems to me what we have here writ large: Tim Burton grabs up these excellent imaginative "toys" made by Lewis Carroll, (or Roald Dahl, or Pierre Boulle, etc.) and films his "epic" with them, not supplying any real imagination or creativity to it, but putting on his "spin." In lieu of the Masters of Imagination of old, we have Little Boys with their Little Toys. If you want to make a loving adaptation of a classic then bully for you, we have an awfully formidable arsenal of effects at our disposal these days. But to gut, mar and mash up great material just to "make it your own" is, to my mind, a waste of our time. Moustaches..Hear, hear!