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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
II. What Disney Got Wrong
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.
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
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
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—
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.
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
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.
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?
Alice in Wonderland. Dir. Jonathan Miller. BBC, 1966. Film.
Alice in Wonderland. Prod. Walt Disney. Dir. Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton
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