Why generations of artists insist on attempting the impossible—adapting Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Why generations of artists insist on attempting the impossible—adapting Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures In Wonderland
(illustration: Gluekit)

Back in the 1990s, I starred as the Red Queen in Alice: The Rock Opera, a student production at the Claude Watson School for the Arts in North York. My costume was a red power suit with eye-gouging shoulder pads and a giant heart cut out of the back. There were lengthy hallucinogenic Alvin Ailey–inspired dance numbers. The Caterpillar sucked on a bong instead of a hookah. It was, of course, beyond terrible. But at the time, we thought our creation had hit on something scintillatingly deep. The show’s source material—Lewis Carroll’s beloved 1865 children’s classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—and the way it revelled in the topsy-turvy nature of reality—was alluring to our rapidly expanding (i.e., hash-addled) adolescent brains.

Alice has proven equally irresistible to dozens of filmmakers, theatre directors and opera librettists. There was even a 1953 elementary school production in Queens that has gone down in history as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s first collaboration (Simon played the White Rabbit, Garfunkel the Cheshire Cat).

This month, a ballet based on the book is opening at the Four Seasons Centre. It’s a first-ever co-production between the National Ballet of Canada and Britain’s Royal Ballet, lavishly staged by the illustrious English choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (whose decade-old breakout modernist ballet, Polyphonia, was revived by the New York City Ballet earlier this year). The show was the hottest ticket in London this past winter, playing to sold-out houses and receiving standing ovations from audiences that included Prince Charles, Camilla Parker Bowles and Kate Middleton. Modern ballet fans have come to expect splash and spectacle, and Alice delivers, with wildly fantastical sets heightened by cunning optical illusions. Alice’s descent down the rabbit hole is staged with the help of dazzling light projections, as are her fluctuations in size—not an easy thing to convey when one is working with a tiny dancer on a very large stage. The Cheshire Cat is played by several dancers, who separate and come together like an ephemeral Trojan horse. The Caterpillar’s psychedelic interlude is enhanced by dancers in barely-there Aladdin-esque costumes doing the worm.

While the staging is splendid and the choreography polished, Wheeldon’s Alice, like so many previous adaptations, is ultimately hobbled by the wild and woolly narrative. The problem with Wonderland, as Alice herself is constantly pointing out, is that nothing makes any sense. In Carroll’s authorial imagination, we visit Wonderland through Alice. We hear her thoughts, and we sympathize with her feelings and frustrations in a way that just isn’t possible in more externalized, visual art forms. In dance, theatre, opera and film productions, Alice often seems strangely removed from the action, an alienated spectator rather than an active participant. While Lauren Cuthbertson did an admirable job in the ballet’s title role in London, her episodic journey was without a defining arc. There is, after all, only one way to go on the trip through Wonderland, as the King instructs the White Rabbit in court: “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end; then stop.” Not exactly a recipe for dramatic success. So why all these adaptations? The answer is a riddle in itself.

Nearly a century and a half after the publication of Alice, its characters and settings are still as compelling, its sentiments as funny and fresh. Even its whimsical-yet-buttoned-down aesthetic—as defined by John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations—are fashionable again. In Britain, minimalism is rapidly being replaced by the ornate and velvety pleasures of the neo-Victorian revival. There’s the rise of lace in contemporary women’s fashion and tweed in men’s. And there’s the success of art-world darling Polly Morgan, a young taxidermist who delights in coiling dead white rats in champagne coupes. The chic London hotel Home House, with its block print wallpaper, dark wood and elaborate floor-to-ceiling bathroom tiles, looks exactly like a place Carroll would have wanted to hang his hat. But despite its ability to stay current, Alice still firmly resists being reimagined. That’s because, as a work of art, the book is much like the character of Alice herself: curious yet circumspect, and utterly unchanging in the face of the chaos raging all around.

Alice is ultimately hobbled by its wild and woolly narrative. The problem with Wonderland, as its heroine is constantly pointing out, is that nothing makes any sense

There’s a much more self-serving reason producers keep diving down the rabbit hole: for all its shambolic plotlessness, Alice has an excellent track record at the box office. In addition to myriad film and television adaptations, there was the famously sanitized 1951 Disney movie Alice in Wonderland. More recently, there was Tim Burton’s computer-animated live-action adaptation starring Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Mia Wasikowska as a teenage Alice. It earned over a billion dollars at the box office and a place in cinematic history as the sixth highest-grossing movie of all time, despite being pretty much panned by critics.

The netherworld into which Alice falls is such an anxious, nonsensical place that it’s a wonder we keep following her there. And yet we do, over and over again. Artists will continue trying to improve (and cash in on) Carroll’s universe. But for me, there will only ever be one plucky little girl, one white rabbit and one maniacally grinning cat. The others are simply not the real thing. They seem to me, just as Alice did to those portly twins, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, little more than a self-indulgent dream—tinny banjo renditions of a great symphony.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
June 4 to 25
Four Seasons Centre