Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Finding Our Muchness


Nearly 150 years ago, a mathematics professor began telling a series of stories to some children. This is a common occurrence that has happened countless times before and since. But there was something different about these stories. Something special enough that the professor, Charles Dodgson, compiled the tales of his Alice into two novels – Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

Although the stories were designed to delight and amuse children, there's always been something deeper about them. Through puns and rhymes and utter nonsense, Lewis Carroll creates a world that makes sense, even if the world itself is nonsensical. Hidden gems of truth about time, wanting, and self-knowledge crop up among grinning cats and playing cards painting flowers.

Although decades have passed and times continue to change drastically, the fascination with Wonderland remains. The stories have been adapted into countless movies, incorporated into clothing, and influenced themes in restaurants.

Still, even the greatest story can only be rehashed so many times before it grows stale. This, combined with the intense love people have for the story, has resulted in dozens of new takes on Wonderland. Video games, books, even zombie stories, have all been made using Carrol's themes and characters.

Often, such as in Gregory Maguire's new book After Alice, these retellings focus on the visual themes of cards and teacups, or the obvious use of absurdity. But on several occasions, artists have hit upon that deeper layer of Wonderland, the layer that I think is what keeps drawing us back to this tale through the years.

There is something about Alice's curiosity that is a form of intense bravery. There is something about the characters that hint at heroism, though it is almost impossible to define. Some of my favourite interpretations of Alice in Wonderland are those that latch onto that heroism and expand it. The two examples that most readily come to mind are SyFy's Alice, from 2009, and the 2010 Alice in Wonderland Disney film by Tim Burton.

In both of those adaptations, Alice is a powerful young woman who has trouble finding herself, and finding a place where she belongs. This theme is illustrated in the original books as well. Her adventures in Wonderland teach her valuable lessons about herself and help her "regain her muchness", as Johnny Depp's portrayal of the Mad Hatter would say.

Ah, yes. The Hatter. His development is one that holds great fascination for me. Since the original stories, the Mad Hatter has always, of course, been mad. But the modern adaptations that have come to mean so much to me paint his madness in a very different light. The Hatter is unique, quirky, fun-mad. But all is not well in the land of Wonderland. In two very different ways, these adaptations show a Wonderland rife with conflict brought about by the tyranny of the Queen of Hearts. The Hatter finds himself in the midst of the struggle, and his loveable madness becomes something darker, mixed with determination and pain. In SyFy’s Alice, the Hatter plays both sides of the conflict in an effort to save himself, until a girl named Alice shows up and turns his life on its head, along with the rest of Wonderland. In the Burton movie, the horrors of war have twisted Hatter’s already unbalanced mind, driving him to wild mood swings. Still, when conflict arises, he pulls himself from his madness and protects his friends. Though both of these adaptations represent the Mad Hatter in very different ways, they both paint him as a powerful figure who protects his friends and stands up to corruption, using his clever madness as an asset.

It is perhaps that last point that is the strongest part of Wonderland, the elusive power that draws in followers over generations. Using clever madness as an asset. We live in a world where conformity is central to society. Children are taught in school to act and think a certain way. Young people grow up with the wish of having a house and a white picket fence and a dog, because we are taught that that is what success looks like. Others rebel against this notion and form their own subcultures, which end up being just another type of conformity.

One of the most commonly quoted phrases from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the Cheshire Cat’s line, “We’re all mad here.” But the important part of this passage is actually what comes after it. The Cat continues, saying, “I’m mad. You’re mad.”  Alice protests the Cat’s assertion, asking, “How do you know I’m mad?” The Cheshire Cat explains, “You must be, or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Lewis Carroll himself was a socially awkward man who struggled to fit in with his peers. The central character in the stories he created, Alice, is a little girl with an enormous imagination. Alice has little concept of what she “ought” to do; she is simply fascinated by the world around her, however strange that alternate universe may be. She knows that she is growing and changing as she journeys through Wonderland, but she does not concern herself about how she is supposed to change. Alice is a unique child, but she does not see or define herself that way. She just is what she is, something that is increasingly rare in our world of labels.

The point that Carroll is making with the Cheshire Cat’s explanation is his justification for nonconformity. Not everyone could, like Alice, follow a White Rabbit and end up falling through a portal to another world. Individual thought, uniqueness, “madness”, if you will, is a powerful positive attribute. In Wonderland, a Hatter can be a madman or a hero or both, and a little girl can recite poetry with a caterpillar and talk down to an evil queen.

This essay was prompted by my overwhelming excitement about the release of the Tim Burton film Alice Through the Looking Glass, which opened in theatres over Memorial Day weekend. Personally, I enjoyed the film. I encourage everyone to go see it themselves and draw their own conclusions. But whether you enjoy it or not, it proves the power that Wonderland still holds on people, enough for major companies like Disney and major names in film like Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to invest vast quantities of time and money to make their mark on the fantasy world.

I believe that Wonderland can mean different things to different people, depending on what each person needs to find. It is much more than teacups and talking cats. It is a story of bravery and exploration and self-discovery. And for those of us who have found meaning in the riddles and mystery of Wonderland, the stories of Alice will always be there to remind us of our Muchness.