Tuesday, 09 March 2010

Alice in Fantasyland?

Humbly bearing in mind my maximum readership of two, as well as the fact that I write these pseudo-academic ramblings mostly for my own satisfaction, I shouldn't have to begin by making this point again, but I will. The essay writer's imperative to begin with the assumption that one's readers are completely unfamiliar with one's subject is too deeply etched within me:

I am not a story purist. When I approach retellings of stories, or re-imaginings, and, especially, film adaptations...of previously known tales, I don't dislike deviations from the original simply because they are deviations. It is true that I always enjoy spotting the deviations, and pointing them out to less-than-enthusiastic friends, but that doesn't mean I disapprove of them per se. My approval depends on several factors, among the most important: what they accomplish (or fail to accomplish), and how they facilitate dialogue across mediums (film and novel) and/or generations.

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland was a toss-up for me. Let me state for the record that I enjoyed it. I like Fantasy, and that is what the movie has turned the Alice books into. The Alice books are certainly not Fantasy stories, but Dream tales, and the difference between the genres of Fantasy and Dream is a crucial one, but I'll get to that. Right now I want to state my central observation, which is that in converting the genre the film has essentially sacrificed the most striking value of the books: their peculiarity. And in return it has given us a story so generic that we can, as my sister aptly stated, predict exactly how the story will go simply by looking at the movie poster. Which is not to say the film-makers have done a bad job. A good story told before, even many many many...many many many many times before...is still a good story.

In terms of genre the one family trait that Dream and Fantasy share is their unreality...their offer of the avowedly impossible. And in both genres, the key to their impossible visions may lie in psychology...but that is where they part ways. Because if Dream is a map of the subconscious, then Fantasy is most certainly closer to the conscious, systematically resolving the unconscious impulses that do not tally with the conscious notions of the morally (meaning socially) acceptable. What sets Fantasy so far from the Dream tale is that its writers are strictly constrained by structure and above all, by morality. Fantasy stories are profoundly moral. Dream tales carry no such restriction. They can be whimsical, and idiosyncratically so, without relying on myth to give resonance to their visions.

The Alice books have the distinction of being the first children's tales that were written without the intention of trying to teach children something, which, in the strict socio-cultural context of Victorian England, was a big deal. If anything the books parody that most ubiquitous trait of children's literature, didacticism, with particular glee. If there is one theme that is continuous in the books, it inheres in the recurrent image of various characters assuming authority over Alice and attempting to teach her something, or reprimanding her, while Alice notes that they speak pure nonsense. Such exchanges provide abundant plays on language, with rhymes and maxims turned upside down and inside out. And they are truly dream tales, which accounts for an almost complete absence of a plot. Therein lies the fun of the Alice books, their wit, and most importantly, their uniqueness.

Despite my admiration, however, the Alice books do leave me unsatisfied on one count: they do not move one emotionally. Why should they? They were written to amuse, and so they do, and in a way that has become iconic worldwide. But it seems that even more than a hundred years later, we still cannot fathom the value of telling a story simply to amuse kids.Oh no. We love the imagery that the Alice books provide, but let's give it a plot: a hero, a quest, a battle, and thus give it that one thing that it seems to be sorely lacking: a message. In other words let's make it into something completely different from what it is, a fantasy, and moreover of a kind that is as common as it is predictable.


Waseem said...

I really never saw it that way nor did I know the difference in genres till you pointed it out in your post.

I think if Alice in Wonderland was taken as a stand alone movie rather than as an adaptation it would have been better received, but maybe would not have had the popularity.

I think Alice, the movie as well as the books, was a great example of escapism, which I'm not sure if I mentioned on your blog before, is the main reason I read books and watch movies.

Libra said...

Waseem: I think you're right about "Alice..." as a stand-alone movie. It might have restored Tim Burton the reputation for charming, genius oddness he had with Edward Scissor hands.

I read the Alice books when I want a psychological landscape, irradiated by strangeness, without a map.