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Plot? What Plot? And Why Do We Need One Anyway?

spleenfiend's picture

Plot? What Plot?  And Why Do We Need One Anyway?
Adaptation Wonderland


Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland is a story that, when given a closer look, defies the construct of a linear story.  The story relies not on a standard plot with a beginning, middle, and end, but on the whimsical qualities of original characters.  Alice in Wonderland and its characters are frequently referred to as "iconic"; a Google search for "alice in wonderland iconic" turns up 222,000 results.  The Swarovski website's Disney section, which contains a lot of Alice jewelry, is one of these results.

Alice in Wonderland thus often shows up in pop culture, even outside standard adaptations of the Alice story.  Hot Topic sold Cheshire Cat t-shirts long before Tim Burton was working on his adaptation, and Alice is a popular children's Halloween costume.  Even outside western culture, symbols from Alice are recognized.  TV Tropes has an entire page for allusions to Alice with a considerable section of examples in Japanese animation.  In fact, the trope of referencing Alice is named "Go Ask Alice" after Jefferson Airplane's song.

Sometimes Alice is taken as a children's story, but sometimes, an adult spin is put on it. The image to the right is one of many "fanarts" for Alice in Wonderland found on deviantArt which offers a more "mature" depiction of Alice.

But while it is common for people to know of characters and symbols from Alice, many have not read the entire story.  The Disney version is a faithful enough adaptation of the book which accurately depicts the events, but it mostly functions to promote the more recognizable visuals of Alice in Wonderland.  Alice in Wonderland remains almost "story-less" to the general public.

Still, as Alice is so iconic, there have been many, many adaptations, and one thing that is curious is that these adaptations often try to make more sense of the story.  Maybe the creators assume that readers or viewers require a coherent story with stereotypical conflicts and resolutions, which is strange if one views Alice as a parody.  Why try to make sense of a parody, which aims to draw attention to absurdities?

One attempt to create more of a "story" out of Alice is actually American McGee's Alice video game, which proves to be Darker and Edgier than the original.  The video game presents an older Alice (pictured to the left) and gives us backstory---that Alice is insane: perhaps an overly logical explanation for her bizarre fantasies, which could easily just be the musings of a creative child.  It presents a plot with an antagonistic Queen of Hearts.  But mostly, it just seems to build on the idea of a more "mature" version of Alice as it presents Alice imagery with a darker spin. 

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010) has a similar concept to American McGee's game: an older Alice, and a coherent plot with the Red Queen as an oppressor.   Tim Burton's reason for making more of a story is that he never felt connected to Alice in Wonderland because "it was always a series of a girl wandering around from one crazy character to another."  Yet he also gives as an explanation for his attraction to the story: "It was just something about the imagery that [Lewis Carroll] created that, throughout lots of different generations, it still plays in people’s minds."  So, he could connect to it (at least enough to make a whole movie!), just for the imagery instead of the story.  If that's the case, why is a cohesive story necessary?

Phoebe in Wonderland (2008), another recent adaptation, does not attempt to create a linear story out of the events in Wonderland.  The movie instead uses Alice's adventures at specific points in the movie to parallel the main character's experiences.  Phoebe is a girl with what the movie says is Tourette Syndrome.  She she also shows extreme signs of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder along with some hallucinations and suicidal thoughts.  As a result, she does not fit in with her classmates.  She acts as Alice in the school play, but our glimpses into the Alice story are more often shown through her hallucinations than through the theatre.  The overall plot of the movie is about Phoebe's school life and the struggles of Phoebe's entire family.  Alice in Wonderland is not only snuck in through the vessels of Phoebe's hallucinations and the school play.  Phoebe's mother's writing is based on Alice in Wonderland, which is why "Wonderland" has always been a part of Phoebe's life.  However, the linear story of Phoebe in Wonderland makes no attempt to parallel the order of events in Alice and only describes a similar journey on a metaphorical level.

Instead, it draws from some of the themes that arise in Alice's conversations and applies them to themes in the movie.  The movie does not simply include the symbol of the Red Queen. It includes her comment from the original that "here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that."  In the context of the movie, the quote is given a deeper meaning; it accurately describes how Phoebe feels about her disorder.  She has to try twice as hard just to act in a way that comes naturally for "normal" people.

Alice in Wonderland is a story that is difficult to label, which may be why various adaptations are able to take it in so many different directions.  Lewis Carroll is defying not only the linear story but the idea that everything has to mean something.  He twists around the meanings of words until they seem like nonsense---or he invents new nonsense words and tries to give them meanings.  Whether or not Carroll meant to speak out against labels, Phoebe in Wonderland has a similar anti-labeling theme.  Phoebe's mother is frustrated by attempts to label her daughter with psychological disorders.

So, Alice in Wonderland asks us to question whether certain literary rules must be followed (like a story having a beginning, middle and end), and how we can classify stories that defy these rules.  Phoebe in Wonderland, like Alice, parodies the education system and questions whether certain rules are useful in the classroom.  It asks whether children should be labeled just because they are different.  The movie is unfortunately a bit ambiguous here: the ending concludes that her real problem is Tourette Syndrome.  Her hallucinations of Wonderland are said to be the result of her creative mind coping with her troubles (though real hallucinations tend to be more serious than that).

Still, Phoebe is Wonderland is a successful adaptation in that it does not attempt to forge a linear Alice story.  It takes the original for what it is and incorporates it as such: symbols and events with meaning that on their own can be thought of as parallels to life.  But like American McGee's Alice, it fails in not accepting that Wonderland could exist in the imagination of a healthy child who isn't disturbed.  Visions of Wonderland must be attributed to disorders in both adaptations.  Breaking rules can good---Carroll's story is proof of that---but Phoebe breaks them because of her disorder. She breaks rules not because she is conscious of what is wrong with them, not because she has some special insight into why the education system is flawed, but because she cannot help making rude comments.

Even in this movie adaptation which preserves the themes rather well, the writers had to rationalize something.  They had to give Phoebe a disability as the cause for her imagination and rule-breaking.  So, if in both American McGee's Alice and Phoebe in Wonderland, the "Alice" character really is crazy, how do we get the message that breaking rules can be good, or even that imagination is not just the result of insanity?  The general public clearly recognizes and remembers these characters without a rational explanation for them or a plot that ties them together.  The strength of Alice is not a plot but events and characters that are easy to mold and re-imagine in all sorts of creative ways.  But if an adaptation breaks the rules and insists on a plot, maybe that's still in the spirit of the original.  It just isn't necessary for a memorable story...or non-story.


Anne Dalke's picture

Culture as Abilizing

So, I see two very strong arguments here: the first is a challenge to ALL adaptations of Alice in Wonderland: "Why try to make sense of a parody, which aims to draw attention to absurdities?" The second is (appropriately enough, I guess, given the context!) the reverse: that "an adaptation that breaks the rules and insists on a plot" does so "in the spirit of the original," which insists on rule-breaking.

Nice. As the physicist Niels Bohr said, "The opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth." So I think this works.

But I actually think the more profound observation you make, in your comparative discussion of American McGee's Alice and Phoebe in Wonderland, is that "visions of Wonderland must be attributed to disorders in both adaptations."   American McGee's Alice breaks rules because she is insane; Phoebe does so because she has Tourette Syndrome. Both, in other words, are pathologized. It would be nice, wouldn't it, if we could simply accept Carroll's story, where, as you say, Wonderland exists in the imagination of a healthy child who isn't disturbed.

Along these lines...? You might be interested in a wonderful essay called Culture as Disability, as well as the various commentaries on it on Serendip, such as The Inevitability of Cultural Disabilities and Cultures of Ability (which imagines the construction of cultures that disable no one).