While it should be self-evident that different media allow for different kinds of storytelling and different forms of expression, it’s good to be reminded of this in enjoyable ways in this Age of Adaptation, where so many films, TV series, games are adaptations of material in other media. Last week I saw the London production of Gypsy, which was brilliant, startling – and a great example of a story that works best on stage. We’d previously seen the ’60s film version of Gypsy, which works well in its own right, but it’s on the stage that the story came truly alive.
Alice in Wonderland (and its sort-of-sequel, Through the Looking Glass) is an odd book, and my memory of it is just as odd. I can remember liking it, but when I try to remember the book, what comes to mind is John Tenniel’s illustrations, images from the Disney movie, scenes from Jan Svankmajer’s surrealist dream/nightmare – or, more recently, American McGee’s Alice with its twisted, dark Wonderland and music by Chris Vrenna.
Anything, but not the actual Alice in Wonderland. The original has become a sort of collection of memes: the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the Jabberwocky. It’s a hypotext whose influence throughout literature, cinema, comic books, video games etc. is strong, but Alice itself has become distorted and murky behind all the copies, pastiches and parodies.
Tim Burton’s most recent film is called Alice in Wonderland, but it’s less of a direct adaptation than a hodgepodge of half-digested ideas and images from over 100 years of Aliceology. Like most of Burton’s films, it looks gorgeous, but like too many of his recent movies it feels like warmed-over Burton, down to the Danny Elfman score. The visuals are admittedly cool (and I have to admit that I watched the film on a BA transatlantic flight – small, fuzzy screens aren’t the best way to appreciate a Tim Burton film), with some fantastic character design, but the plot is predictable, the dialogues leaden and most of the acting vanishes behind the CGI. It’s as if Burton was given a beautifully surreal world but basically decided to tell Generic Fantasy Story X in this world. Despotic ruler, check. Chosen one, check. Needs to discover her powers and believe in herself, check. Special blade, check.
It’s a shame that such a creative, talented cast and crew could have come up with something that combines Lewis Carroll’s original story and Tim Burton’s sensitivities in weird and wonderful ways – but Burton’s sensitivities at this point seem to be a pale shadow of his earlier creativity. Worst of all, the man seems to have gotten old the way that Steven Spielberg has gotten old, meaning that in creating something that should burst with childlike energy and wonder, he’s come up with something that feels like a director in a midlife-crisis trying to pander to what he thinks is youthful and energetic. The worst example of this is the dreadful dance the Mad Hatter does towards the end of the film: even Johnny Depp with his considerable talent and charm can’t make it into anything other than an awkward attempt by the film to be ‘cool’ and contemporary.
Anyway, enough about Alice in Wonderland. I may get back to my 12 hours of blurry free films at a later date, but for now I want to leave you with this strange, strange video telling the Complete History of the Soviet Union through the lens of Tetris: