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ENG460 Research Paper

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ENG460 Research Paper

  1. 1. Price 1 Malachi W. Price What Disney Got Wrong: Cross-Analyzing Two Versions of Alice I. Critical Reception of Disney’s Alice Upon its initial release in 1951, Alice in Wonderland, the Disney adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, received mixed reviews among critics, and particularly harsh reviews among fans of Carroll’s original work. Critic Donald Thomas dismissed it as “owing more to the culture of popcorn and bubble-gum than to the genius of either [Carroll] or Tenniel [Alice’s original illustrator]” (qtd. in Alice’s Adventures, 205). The English press at the time noted its “cheaply pretty songs” and dismissed the adaption as “indescribable hullabaloo” (The Times and Illustrated London News qtd. in Alice’s Adventures, 206). Will Brooker in his critical book Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture claims: “[Disney’s] version would seem a washed-out interpretation that sanitizes and censors the more morbid and violent images of the original along with much of the knowing, intelligent appeal to adults…It promotes Alice as family fun, but cleans up the text…replacing the creatures’ rudeness with zaniness, and their wordplay with music-hall pratfalls” (207). The general consensus among critics at the time of its release—and even now—is that Disney’s adaptation flattens the complexity of Carroll’s original work by trying too hard to make it family-friendly. II. What Disney Got Wrong
  2. 2. Price 2 Instead of being an anti-didactic appraisal of imagination like the original, the Disney adaptation of Alice is quite the opposite, as it dismisses Alice’s Wonderland and her childhood imagination, which Wonderland represents, as horrifying and nonsensical. And because Alice’s Wonderland is also a distorted version of adult reality—a dreamscape that Alice travels through in order to cope with her anxieties and better understand the adult world—the Disney adaptation, by dismissing Wonderland as nonsense with no relation to the adult world, negates Carroll’s appraisal of childhood imagination, rich philosophical themes, and social commentary and supplants them with a shallow adaptation that argues against childhood imagination. III. Analyzing Carroll’s Dreamscape In order to understand the meaning of Disney’s various departures from the original we must first understand the meaning of the original text through analysis. We must see Carroll’s dream-land, which consists of Wonderland and the world within the mirror in Looking Glass, as a fantasy world through which Alice develops an understanding of the real world. Famous critic of children’s literature Bruno Bettelheim claims that a child “has to externalize his inner process if he is to gain any grasp—not to mention control—of them. The child must somehow distance himself from the content of his unconscious and see it as something external to him, to gain any sort of mastery over it” (55). This is why children read books, it helps them externalize and cope with their unconscious anxieties. Alice does this in Wonderland and Looking Glass; she externalizes her anxieties about the adult world in her dreamscape (which consists of both Wonderland and the dreamscape in Looking Glass)–after all, it is revealed at the end of both books that Alice was in fact dreaming the whole time.
  3. 3. Price 3 So Carroll, through Wonderland, creates a distorted reimagining of the adult world. Jonathan Miller’s 1966 live-action black-and-white film adaptation is in many ways a realization of this idea. Miller’s version is a darker adaptation of Alice that strips Wonderland of its color and its animal faces, instead depicting the various animals characters as human adults. Miller explained this approach to Wonderland in an interview: “Once you take the animal heads off, you begin to see what it’s all about. A small child, surrounded by hurrying, worried people, thinking ‘Is that what being grown up is like?'” (“Jonathan Miller’s Alice”) Whether Miller’s adaptation is otherwise similar in meaning to Carroll’s Alice is beyond the scope of this paper; however, his idea that Wonderland is a version of adult reality rings true to Carroll’s dreamscape. As literary critic Edmund Wilson explains, “…the creatures that [Alice] meets, the whole dream, are Alice’s personality and her waking life. They are the world of teachers, family, and pets, as it appears to a little girl and also the little girl who is looking at this world” (201).” Alice’s dream projections of these real-life figures are the characters of Wonderland and Looking Glass whom she confronts in order to symbolically confront her inner anxieties about the world. The sequel to Alice, Through the Looking Glass, has Alice adventuring inside a mirror instead of underground in Wonderland, as in the first book. But the reader could very well imagine meeting the same characters from this novel in Wonderland as well, as they are similarly fantasy characters that confuse Alice with their strange and anxiety-inducing illogic, and they are considered by most critics to be part of the same dreamscape. These characters represent adults in reality, particularly their sphere of symbolic language, which is something anxiety-inducing to children of a pre-lingual psychosocial stage of development. Spacks explains, “through what appears to be mere verbal play, Carroll succeeds in suggesting that the apparent chaos of the dream-world is less disorderly than the lack of discipline in the real world…” This is because in
  4. 4. Price 4 Carroll’s dream-world language tends to have a more intrinsic connection with meaning and reality (268). For example, the barking dog-flower says bough-wough because its branches are called boughs (Carroll 145). But language is also depicted as less intrinsic to meaning, such as when Alice questions Humpty Dumpty’s improper use of the word glory, and Humpty Dumpty responds, “When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less” (198). Humpty uses words to mean whatever he wants and therefore discredits their intrinsic meaning—or rather, demonstrates their lack of intrinsic meaning. Like Derrida, the famous linguist, Humpty Dumpty helps the reader realize that the relationship between a signifier (word) and its signified (meaning) is arbitrary and only established by convention. Alice grapples with the difficult and confusing world of language, which refuses to consistently mean as we traditionally—before Derrida—expected it to. Because Looking Glass—in addition to demonstrating language as having intrinsic meaning, such as with the dog-flower—also demonstrates that the relationship between signifier and signified is most often arbitrary (as with Humpty Dumpty), it is wrong to say that this dream-world is “less disorderly,” as Spacks suggests. Instead it is just as disorderly, or at least a distorted representation of the language- oriented adult world. This, perhaps, is why the dream-world in Looking Glass is located in a mirror, an item that reflects the real world back to itself, but flips—and hereby distorts—it to create an alternate perspective, just like dreams do. In addition to the philosophical commentary on language and painting a dreamscape that reflects and distorts reality, Lewis Carroll’s original Alice was also geared toward affirming the wonders of imagination by destabilizing and mocking didacticism. In fact, Carroll goes as far as mocking the education system in Alice. When Alice tries to use her multiplication tables, the numbers come out wrong; when she tries to remember her geography, she confuses London for
  5. 5. Price 5 the capital of France, Paris for the capital of Rome, etc.; when she tries to recite the Isaac Watts poem “Against Idleness and Mischief”, she instead recites a parody, which has a much darker sentiment, about a crocodile swallowing up unsuspecting fish (Carroll 26). Carroll explicitly and often supplants the didactic values of the education system with mischievous parodies in this way throughout Alice. In supplement to this anti-didacticism, Carroll appraises childhood imagination. When Alice’s older sister (likely young-adult-age) is reading a book with no “pictures or conversations in it” in the beginning of Alice in Wonderland, Alice reflects: “what is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations” (Carroll 15). As a book without pictures or conversations, this book to which she refers is probably an academic book, and Alice’s negative attitude toward it reflects the book’s anti-didactic theme. She desires pictures and conversations—things involving creativity and imagination. The ending of the book in particular, through the perspective of Alice’s sister, views imagination in a positive light. After Alice wakes up from her dream she reflects on “what a wonderful dream it had been” and tells her sister about Wonderland (125). Her sister nostalgically remembers Wonderland and dreams about it herself, imaging the sounds of nature as the sounds of Wonderland’s characters: “she sat on, with closed eye, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had to open them again, and all would change to only dull reality,” and the sounds of nature again seem only mundane (126). Wonderland represents imagination and its ability to raise one’s perceptions of mundane things into a whole exciting world. As a way of coping with harsh reality, particularly in the adult world of language (to which Alice’s sister belongs), imagination is important, as Carroll demonstrates in his dreamscape, and is in fact more important—and somewhat in contradiction with— didacticism.
  6. 6. Price 6 IV. Analyzing Disney’s Alice By comparison, the dreamscape in Disney’s Alice is more of a nightmare realm, which is meant to teach Alice a lesson not to be curious or imaginative. Instead of Alice curiously sneaking a peak at her older sister’s book as in the beginning of the original, her sister is reading to and giving Alice a history lesson to which she must pay attention. Alice, instead of listening to the lesson, is playing with her cat Dina, and when her sister scolds her for being playful and not paying attention, Alice decides to create her own world in which the books are “nothing but pictures”, and her sister disregards this as “nonsense”. The word “nonsense”, in this version of Alice is what sparks the creation of Wonderland: “Nonsense!” Alice says, “That’s it, Dina. If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t.” She goes on to sing about this world of hers, explaining that in this world flowers would talk and animals would wear clothes, just like people; and she wishes things would be this way, because then, as she sings, her “world would be a Wonderland”. This place of nonsense, which Alice calls “this world of my own” and “Wonderland”, is Disney’s version Wonderland, a place belonging entirely to childhood, apart from the sensible adult world, a world where everything is illogical and meaningless. It is right after she decides to create this world that the white rabbit arrives, enacting Alice’s desires (representing more of a be careful what you wish for kind of wish fulfillment). She follows him down the rabbit hole, and while she does so, in order to foreshadow the nightmare she would experience in Wonderland, ominous music plays, and right as she worries and says, “curiosity often leads to trouble”, she abruptly falls down into Wonderland.
  7. 7. Price 7 To add to the nightmarish effect of Wonderland, Alice gets stepped on and nearly drowned during the caucus race, screamed at by the caterpillar, and by the end chased out of Wonderland in a dark, psychedelic sequence—in which Alice’s life is threatened—rather than leaving on her own accord. The flower garden scene in particular has a more horrifying effect in the Disney adaptation, because unlike the original in which Alice is much bigger in comparison to the flowers, Alice is smaller than the flowers. So, when they mock and berate her as they do in both versions, it is much less threatening and in fact comical in the original version in which she threatens to pick them and it silences them (Carroll 145). In the Disney adaptation, on the other hand, their mockery culminates in her having water dumped on her and being chased from the garden. The most horrifying deterrence from the original is that in the queen’s court, later in the movie, it is never mentioned, as it is in the original, that none of the characters sent to be beheaded by the queen are in fact beheaded, and so the nightmare continues when the threat of Alice being beheaded is never distinguished until Alice wakes from her dream. Halfway through her adventure in Wonderland, Alice says, “I have had enough nonsense. I want to go home.” By rebuking nonsense she rebukes the world she herself created. Alice then walks through a dark forest in which “nothing looks familiar”, full of nonsensical birds made up of household objects. This forest reflects her own feelings of confusion and despair: Alice says as she walks through the woods, “it would be so nice if everything would make sense for a change”. Alice is guided to a path, which she is hopeful will guide her home, but her hopes are dashed when she finds a broom-dog hybrid creature sweeping the path away. Full of despair, Alice cries and sings a song of regret. She says, “maybe if I’d listened earlier, I wouldn’t be here. That’s just the trouble with me:”—then sings—“I give myself very good advice/ but I very seldom follow it./” She feels remorse for not listening to her conscience about not going into
  8. 8. Price 8 Wonderland. She continues, “Well I went along my merry way/ and I never stopped to reason.” Since Wonderland in this adaptation is a world without reason, full of nonsense, she is berating herself for creating the world; and by extension, because the world represents creativity and imagination, she is condemning herself for her own imagination. In the queen’s court, Alice’s famous line from the original Alice, “you’re nothing but a pack of cards,” has a different sentiment. In the original it was a declaration of Alice’s triumph over the anxieties of her dream-world, and her growth in size, which is unaided by the magic of either eat me cakes or drink me drinks or magic mushrooms, represents her growing sense of confidence and self. In the Disney film, Alice has to eat the magic mushroom in order to grow, so her growth is superficial, and this famous line (“you’re nothing but a pack of cards”)—among other condescending lines she says to the queen (“why, you’re not a queen, but just a fat, pompous, bad-tempered, old tyrant”)—is said when she has a false sense of confidence that results from her growth in size. After she shrinks back down to her original size, she is again afraid, as is shown by her worried expression, and she gets chased out of Wonderland. Alice’s awakening from the dream in the movie feels like relief (quite unlike the original in which Alice reflects on “what a wonderful dream it had been”), because the English countryside is imaged calmly, with smooth blurred colors and beautiful flowers and green grass (Carroll 125). When Alice awakes in the movie, her sister demands that she pay attention and recite her lesson, and Alice, still befuddled by her nonsense land, recites the “How Doth the Little Crocodile” parody instead. She tries to explain to her sister the dream she had and her sister tries to respond, sighs, and says, “For goodness sake. Alice—oh well. Come along, Alice, it’s time for tea,” disregarding Alice’s dream completely, hereby disregarding Wonderland as well, completely unlike the older sister from the original, who nostalgically praised and wished to return to Wonderland.
  9. 9. Price 9 V. Conclusion Essentially, the biggest difference between the two versions of Alice lies in their perspective on the importance of imagination. Imagination is a means by which a child works through his/her inner anxieties about the world, in the case of Carroll’s Wonderland by projecting them into a fantastical world with fantastic and strange creatures. Carroll’s book embraces imagination as a means for children to cope with the difficulties involved with growing up and transitioning into the adult world, difficulties such as understanding the inconsistency of meaning in language. Disney’s adaptation, in taking a more didactic approach, distorts Wonderland into a nightmare instead, a metaphor for the disorder that childhood imagination might entail. Wonderland is disregarded as “nonsense” and made into a negative example of imagination and wonder. Unfortunately, Disney’s version of Alice is neither faithful to nor considerate of Carroll or his ideas about Wonderland. But what can one expect from an adaptation in which Lewis Carroll’s name is spelled incorrectly (with only one L in Carroll) in the opening credits?
  10. 10. Price 10 Works Cited Alice in Wonderland. Dir. Jonathan Miller. BBC, 1966. Film. Alice in Wonderland. Prod. Walt Disney. Dir. Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske. Walt Disney Productions, 1951. Film. Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf, 1976. Print. Brooker, Will. Alice's Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture. London: Continuum, 2005. Print. Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass. Clinton: Colonial, 1965. Print. Derrida, Jacques. Limited Inc. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1988. Print. Leach, Elsie. "Alice in Wonderland in Perspective." Aspects of Alice; Lewis Carroll's Dreamchild as Seen through the Critics' Looking-glasses, 1865-1971. Ed. Robert Phillips. New York: Vanguard, 88-92. Print. Spacks, Patricia M. "Logic and Language in Through the Looking-Glass." Aspects of Alice; Lewis Carroll's Dreamchild as Seen through the Critics' Looking-glasses, 1865-1971. Ed. Robert Phillips. New York: Vanguard, 1971. 267-275. Print. Thill, Scott. "Jonathan Miller's Alice in Wonderland (1966) on DVD." Bright Lights Film Journal. Bright Lights Film Journal, 31 Oct. 2003. Web. 02 May 2016. Wilson, Edmund. "C. L. Dodgson: The Poet Logician." Aspects of Alice; Lewis Carroll's Dreamchild as Seen through the Critics' Looking-glasses, 1865-1971. Ed. Robert Phillips. New York: Vanguard, 1971. 198-206. Print.

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