Tim Burton’s film version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, though attacked by many reviewers and troubling for Carroll purists, is, unequivocally, an emotionally satisfying, fantastical quirkfest. The movie takes Carroll’s children’s book’s mostly carnivalesque properties and rearranges events into a cohesive plot where Alice finds herself caught in a brewing battle between two queens and moved to fulfill her destiny—to slay the Jabberwocky. The result is a powerful coming-of-age story where a teenage Alice negotiates her stifled Victorian life while she navigates and triumphs her way through war-torn Wonderland.
      The film successfully captures Victorian sensibilities regarding women, social expectations, and sexual development—all issues haunting the pages of Carroll’s story if not explicit in the text. Madness, a term used to describe Wonderland characters, is a disease that Burton’s Alice fears she possesses. Visited since childhood by dreams and visions of Wonderland, Alice fits the Victorian criteria for a “hysteric.” Indeed, at her engagement party in the opening scene, her imaginative independence come across to most around her as a symbol of awkwardness, a severe social handicap best kept repressed. (What “sane” person finds quadrilles dull and corsets and stockings bothersome?) Fortunately, this Alice’s deceased father (I love that he is named for WATER BABIES author, Charles Kingsley!) encouraged Alice’s uniqueness. Thus when she finds herself on the verge of making a milestone decision in her life, whether or not to marry the twitty Hamish, she plunges into a world where women and what women want have no boundaries: Wonderland is deadlocked between two ultra-powerful female rulers. In Wonderland, Alice finds that even her body, has no real limits, growing and shrinking even against her will. Indeed, Alice, in order to restore the more worthy ruler, the white Queen, must embrace the limitless. Alice’s winning moment happens in the scene where she battles the Jabberwocky while simultaneously vowing her belief in the impossible. This part is near genius. I love the visual effects here—I never noticed how closely John Tenniel’s depiction of the fighting knight of “Jabberwocky” resembles his illustrated Alice.
      My main criticism of the movie is that Alice’s “mission” in her actual life seems inconsistent with her values developed in Wonderland. The battles within Wonderland are essentially anti-imperialistic: Depp’s Mad Hatter slips into a Scottish accent during his subversive, political tirades; the Red Queen exploits the natural world, brutalizing animals and the landscape and killing indiscriminately those who displease her. Alice effectively breaks apart all that is undemocratic and ruthlessly imperial. This is why I felt surprise, at the end of the movie, when Alice apprentices herself to the current owner of her father’s trading firm, Lord Ascot, and urges him to expand the trade company to China. Really? Would it have been too much to ask for Alice to become a human rights activist? A suffragette? A physician for the poor? Anything but an aggressive, venturing capitalist riding the waves of British imperialism.
      Still, in spite of this slip in the frame story, I still give three “Callooh! Callay!” shouts for the film. “O frabjous day!”

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DSCN1105In terms of great Halloween children’s books, I have two favorites: Dav Pilkey’s THE HALLOWIENER and Mary Howitt’s THE SPIDER AND THE FLY, illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi.  Pilkey’s HALLOWIENER is not only hysterical, but the book puts forth messages of self-acceptance and doing the right thing.   It’s light and self-depreciating, but also authentic, in its portrayal of heroism.    (BOTH my college students and my three-year old laugh every time I read it!)  DiTerlizzi’s illustrated version of Mary Howitt’s classic poem is also an awesome, but spooky read.  Imaginative and witty, the 2002 book retelling of the poem features silent film styled illustrations.  (The spider looks uncannily like Clark Gable.)

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Romantic writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, who took public stands on issues such as gender equality, and Charlotte Smith, who is noted for reviving the sonnet form, are rarely recognized for having written stories for children.  But, in fact, the children’s literature which emerged during the Romantic period transmitted to children (and to the adults who read to them) subversive ideas regarding spheres of British domestic and political life.   Although, as Alan Richardson has noted, we cannot lump together all women writers for children during this time period as having the same agenda or the same political sentiments, all were linked with the common purpose of promoting change in domestic and public spheres.

The Romantic poet, Percy Shelley wrote, “The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.”  My long plunge into the world of books has ingrained into me the truth of Shelley’s words.  As I worked on my PhD at the University of South Carolina, studying nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature and children’s literature, I realized that the best writers create characters that challenge rather than uphold status quos, characters that complicate the world around them for greater moral purposes.  As a writer for young adults, I hope to create characters that can match in brains and courage some of my favorite radical literary heroines, including Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, and George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke.  When I am not reading or writing, I try to use my imagination for constructive purposes, serving on the board of a local dog rescue organization and reading to my very small children (with very little fear of juvenile anarchy) books such as Where the Wild Things Are.

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