Books · Film & Television

Movie Review: ‘Alice Through the Looking-Glass’

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This past year, a curious little girl named Alice celebrated her 150th birthday.

Alice first appeared as the bemused juvenile heroine of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865. Six years later, she returned in Alice Through the Looking-Glass.

The author, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was a mathematician and Anglican deacon at Oxford’s Christ Church. He was recognized there as a young man of brilliant promise but “irresistible distraction.” He suffered from a life-long stammer or what he called “a hesitation.” He also may have had a thing for little girls.

Through a combination of recorded events and contemporary conjecture, Carroll is believed to have been inspired — literarily and romantically — by a young neighbor, Alice Liddell. His two great novels grew from stories he told Alice and her sisters on summer outings, rowing on the river Isis. Both books focus on an innocent but inquisitive young girl transported to otherworldly adventures. In Wonderland, she falls down a rabbit hole, changes size, interacts with enchanted animals and playing cards, and is eventually sentenced to death by the Queen of Hearts. She awakens to find it was all a dream. In Looking-Glass, Alice goes through a mirror and again meets fantastical beings. She becomes a pawn on a life-size chessboard, only to be crowned a queen herself before once again waking.

Carroll’s fascination with the real-life child Alice — he sketched and photographed her nude, seemingly with her parents’ knowledge and permission — raises all sorts of flags today. In his 1995 biography, Morton N. Cohen notes that Carroll “apparently convinced many of his friends that his attachment to the nude female child form was free of any eroticism,” but asserts that there was more to it.

He contended the preference was entirely aesthetic. But given his emotional attachment to children as well as his aesthetic appreciation of their forms, his assertion that his interest was strictly artistic is naïve. He probably felt more than he dared acknowledge, even to himself.

Other scholars have countered Cohen’s conclusion by pointing out that Carroll was a product of a society that celebrated childhood innocence. He was by no means the only amateur photographer shooting naked children (there was even a commercial market for the images at the time) and he was romantically involved with grown women throughout the Alice years.

Nevertheless, when the real-life Alice was eleven, Carroll proposed marriage to her through her parents. Some time soon after, he and the Liddells broke company permanently. There are missing pages and entire volumes of his diary from the period, which have fueled much research and speculation over the years. But again, in the mid-nineteenth century, contracting a marriage with an underage bride through her family was not unheard of.

Regardless of Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell, the two Alice books were immediate commercial successes and have remained popular ever since. They are foundational childhood stories, nursery standards that have been reinterpreted countless ways. Perhaps sadly, for the past 65 years, more children have been familiar with the Disney cartoon that the original texts.

Sadder still, today’s young people may think first of Tim Burton’s wildly imaginative, but ultimately soulless versions.

Burton directed an epic Alice in Wonderland six years ago. In some ways it was a sequel to the original Wonderland story; in others it was a mashup of the two novels. Now a teenager, Alice doesn’t remember her childhood adventure. But, the friends she met underground years before need her help rather desperately. And, she needs help, rather more desperately, escaping an arranged marriage to a rich imbecile. Once she returns to “Underland,” Burton can unleash the latest CGI techniques as well as his own fertile fantasies to deliver a truly wild ride filled with outrageous characters new and old. The movie, which had mediocre reviews and angered many Alice purists, earned an astounding billion dollars worldwide.

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