So last night, in a most atypical move for me, I signed up for the one-month free trial of Netflix; and then, just to try it out, I watched the recent Johnny Depp version of Alice in Wonderland. Friends of ours had told me that they weren’t surprised that it had tanked, but that it was really quite interesting.
A precis for those of you who haven’t seen it. Alice grows up in England, remember her adventures in Wonderland only as a scary recurring nightmare. Then she returns to Wonderland as a young woman, where the Red Queen’s reign of terror has driven the inhabitants to the edge of revolution. They need Alice to slay the Jabberwocky, just returning the White Queen to power and saving the day.
It’s not uninteresting, the visuals are good, I was mildly entertained.
Now for the blood letting.
Let me say a few things up front.
I’m a much harsher movie reviewer than I am a book reviewer, and I’m especially picky about movies made from books. However, I understand that the movie way of telling a story is different than the book way of telling a story. I’m OK with that. I understand that you usually have to elide the plot and merge characters in order to whittle a book down to movie length. And of course, in this case the story they are telling is a sequel of sorts to Carroll’s book, so they can make the story whatever they like. Fine.
What kills me, then, in most book to movie conversions, is not the necessary changes; it’s the unnecessary changes. And especially the wholly stupid, ridiculous, absurd changes that could have been avoided given two minutes thought, no additional cost, and no change to the story the filmmakers have decided to tell.
For example, the monster that Alice must slay is called the “Jabberwocky.” It makes me want to scream. “Jabberwocky” is the name of the poem. The creature in the poem is called the “Jabberwock”: “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!” “…the Jabberwock, with eyes of flame…” “And hast thou slain the Jabberwock!” Why do they call it the “Jabberwocky”? It’s wrong, it’s just plain wrong, and there’s no earthly reason for it except that someone felt superior to the source material.
Do they do this on purpose?
One last thing. (Feel free to stop reading if you don’t like spoilers.) There’s a framing story in which Alice is expected to get married to an upper-class twit with a battleaxe of a mother. He’s a lord, she’d be provided for, she’s nearly twenty, her pretty face won’t last forever, blah, blah. Of course, naturally, (what other narrative have the movies been peddling for decades) at the end of the movie she opts for independence instead, and in a most unlikely turn goes into business with one of her late father’s old business associates. Her father was a merchant who traded in the East Indies. Alice impresses her father’s associate by suggesting that her father didn’t go far enough; they should push all the way through to China! Hurrah, China! No one’s ever traded there, before. We can use Hong Kong as a base, and trade in China!
It’s a throwaway line at the end of the movie, designed to show that Alice has been paying attention to her father’s business and has bold ideas of her own. Fine. But everything about it is wrong.
It’s not clear just when Alice in Wonderland is set; but Carroll first began the story in 1862, and allowing for Alice’s growth to adulthood (13 years, according to the movie), let’s say it’s 1875. England fought the Opium Wars with China from 1839 to 1860, entirely over the issue of open trade. Hong Kong was founded for the purpose of trade with China. The Portuguese had been trading with China via Macau for centuries.
Whatever grown-up, independent Alice is going to be, it isn’t the first English person to trade with China.
Again, do they do this on purpose?
Yeah, I know, it’s just a movie.