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Review of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll, Oxford University Press, 1982, 278 pp., with original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel

Note: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were originally published in 1865 and 1872 respectively.

A few books stand the test of time as enduring classics. Lewis Carroll wrote the two Alice books over 130 years ago, and his work is still read with enjoyment by children and adults alike, and still fires the imagination of creative people. This column will attempt an understanding of that enjoyment, and go on to review a small selection of the many projects inspired by Alice.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland tells the story of Alice, a young girl who follows the White Rabbit down a rabbit hole. At the bottom, she finds herself in a room with a tiny door and a bottle labeled "drink me." She grows and shrinks depending on what she eats and drinks, and as a small version of herself, finds herself swimming in a pool of tears. Swimming to shore, Alice and some other creatures decide that "'the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race'" (26). Alice continues to chase the White Rabbit and the White Rabbit sends her into his house for his fan and gloves. Once in the house, Alice gets into more trouble with an unlabeled bottle, quickly growing too big to move. The White Rabbit and Bill the Lizard try to get her out, and Alice only escapes by eating some small cakes. She runs into the woods and meets a hookah-smoking Caterpillar, who gives her some advice on ways to grow bigger and smaller. Next, she stops at the house of the Duchess with a pig for a baby; the pig escapes, and Alice asks the Cheshire Cat for help. Directed on to the March Hare's house, Alice takes part in the Mad Tea Party, perhaps the most famous scene in the book. Alice moves on to the Queen's croquet ground, where she encounters the Queen of Hearts and tries to play croquet with a flamingo and a hedgehog. Next, Alice encounters a Mock Turtle and a Gryphon, who tell her the story of the lobster quadrille. The book closes with a trial on the case of the stolen tarts, as the Queen accuses the Knave of Hearts. Alice is accused also, and she scatters the attacking cards, only to find herself awake on the river bank where the book began.

Through the Looking Glass picks up the story an unspecified amount of time later, as Alice steps through a mirror. The first thing that she does in the Looking Glass world is read a backwards book, and what she reads is no less than the famous poem "Jabberwocky." Alice leaves the house and stumbles upon the Garden of Live Flowers and also the Red Queen (not the Queen of Hearts from the first book). Alice takes a train ride and inspects some strange insects. Next she encounters Tweedledum and Tweedledee, who tell her the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter. The White Queen comes running wildly through the wood and talks to Alice, only to morph into a sheep before Alice's eyes. Humpty Dumpty explains the "Jabberwocky" poem to Alice, and the Lion and the Unicorn have their battle. An eccentric White Knight shows Alice several worthless inventions, Alice's last stop before becoming Queen herself. Queen Alice has a feast in her honour, which dissolves into reality as Alice wakes up once more. The second book seems to have less substance to it, but I find it to be my favourite of the two, and Humpty Dumpty is part of the reason.

At first glance, the appeal of Alice springs from the visual richness and variety of the stories. Quite apart from any perceived meaning of the plot or any level of characterization, the books can be read as a glorious gambol, an infinite feast of eye candy. Strange wondrous creatures in a fantastical land -- what more could the reader ask for? Indeed, the surface flash of Alice should not be discounted, as it's what younger readers will latch onto first. I remember reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass as a child in just this way, analogous to my child's perspective of Gulliver's Travels. Such books puzzled me, but I liked the way they sparked my imagination (in particular, I remember being fascinated with the scene where the Lilliputians try to tie down Gulliver, and similar scenes where Alice becomes much bigger or smaller than others). As an adult, I still crave that sense of wonder and Carroll never lets me down. Swift's book is not so easy to re-read with the child's perspective as an adult -- Swift's complex screed against the follies of humanity (to characterize the meaning of the book somewhat baldly) obtrudes on the consciousness. It's trickier to discern Carroll's intent with Alice, if there is one, and so it's easier to enjoy the books at the most obvious level. More on the hunt for meaning in Alice in a minute.

The best part of the Alice books is Alice herself, as a fearless and inquisitive child, observant and forthright, scared at times but more often levelheaded in the face of a world which has, along with all the adults in it, been turned upside down. She remains polite while inundated with the greatest pile of nonsense and illogic ever conceived, and she wins through in the end by keeping her head (and not just in the sense of the Queen of Hearts' threat). To my mind, she's one of the strongest heroines in literature, a character fully deserving of her fame. In one sense, there's nothing else in the books! As is obvious from my summary of the books, there's not even a gesture in the direction of a normal plotline, no rising and falling action, antagonist, or w-diagram. Alice moves from one absurd encounter to another. Through the Looking Glass is ostensibly modelled on a chess game, but that does nothing to change the feel of the book. I say all this to emphasize that the books have a strong suit that trumps the lack of plot. Namely, Alice. For the three movie versions that I will be reviewing, my main area of praise or criticism centres on the depiction of Alice (from desperately wrong in the Disney movie to two reasonable versions), since to miss Alice is to miss all.

What do Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass mean? There have been many interpretations, some less convincing than others. Alice seems to have a certain attraction to drug users, memorably stated in the illustrations by Ralph Steadman (see below) or in the song "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane. But Alice is more than a nifty side excursion for drug trips. On the opposite end of the spectrum, many philosophers and mathematicians have used the formal logic underpinnings as ways of explaining or popularizing their own theories. It's not hard to understand the appeal to such a niche audience, but what about everybody else? Another favoured approach to Alice is to take it as a roman à clef or a political novel, with each character or animal standing in directly for something from Carroll's time. This might be, but the book has an enormous attraction for people who haven't read the footnotes in the Oxford edition. The blurb on the back cover of this edition says: "Satire, allusion, and symbolism weave deeper and mysterious meanings, lending a measure of immortality to Carroll's remarkable fantasy." But I'm not so sure that the endurance of the Alice books stems from mysterious meanings. Is it enough to say that visual appeal and a strong sympathetic protagonist carry the books? Perhaps so. The last option would be to descend into the unpleasant morass represented by the process of taking the "facts" of Carroll's life and interpreting the book through them. I'll discuss my dislike of this option in a section on biographies of Carroll.

I've talked about the enormous visual appeal of the Alice books, and I should spend a moment or two discussing the many illustrators of the books. First and most famous would be Sir John Tenniel. His drawings are at once economical and extravagant, realism in the cause of extreme unreality. Tenniel also captures the expressive and odd sense of British humour that characterizes the stories (an example would be the Lion and the Unicorn on page 206). By all accounts, Tenniel made the drawings with extra instructions from Carroll himself. Quite a number of other people illustrated the books in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with Sir Arthur Rackham probably the only name now widely known. Rackham's illustrations are done in his typical style, and not one that suits Alice, but I should add that my tastes have been shaped by my first exposures to Tenniel and Rackham, in books by Carroll and Kipling respectively. As with the line drawings for Narnia by Pauline Baynes that I was most familiar with as a child, a book is not the same without the illustrations with which the book is first encountered. Mervyn Peake illustrated both Alice books in 1946 and Tove Jansson in 1966. Ralph Steadman, known for his illustrations of Hunter S. Thompson books, took a remarkably similar dreamlike (druglike?) approach to Alice in 1967. Interestingly, Salvador Dali illustrated Alice in 1969, and the resulting art is much different than the style known from his paintings (closer to Ralph Steadman as a matter of fact). Many artists have illustrated the books recently, among them Greg Hildebrandt (known to fantasy readers). I must say that I enjoy looking at other perspectives on Alice, and while I prefer to have Tenniel in the copy on my shelf, readers should test out the various illustrations to see what suits them. Carroll's works have inspired an amazing amount of creativity over the years!

I'll close my review of the two Alice books with a mention of the controversies over the life of Carroll and biographies of the man. Normally I don't find myself particularly interested in biographical details about authors, but I can understand perfectly well why people might be interested in the life of Lewis Carroll. What's the fuss? Lewis Carroll is a pseudonym of Charles Dodgson, a man who lived from 1832 to 1898, lectured in mathematics at Oxford from 1855 to 1881, and wrote only a few other books beside the two Alice books. He wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as the book form of stories he told to a girl by name of Alice Liddell. He was also interested in photography, mainly young girls, more or less naked. As the myth of Lewis Carroll goes, he was only friends with girls like Alice until they reach puberty. The biographical blurb in the Oxford edition of Alice states all this as nicely as possible: "With children he lost his stammer and he made friends with a great number of little girls throughout his life." And later: "He was also a pioneer in photography and has been hailed as the greatest photographer of children in the Victorian period." This manages to cover over nicely the madness of the varying Freudian interpretations of Carroll's life that sprang up in the 1930s and 1940s, but it also perpetuates old ideas about his social life. Was Carroll a latent (or not so latent) pedophile? Was he emotionally stunted in his friendships with adults? Many biographies of Carroll exist, and Morton Cohen's Lewis Carroll: A Biography is a solidly written recent one (1996), but it doesn't spend much time on the issues in Carroll's life that cause such a fuss. A recent book by Karoline Leach entitled In the Shadow of the Dreamchild purports to be based on evidence, and refutes many claims made in the last century of biographies. I'm not entirely convinced by her own claims, but I was persuaded by her evidence-based assertions that Carroll was friends with women of many ages, mostly adult, thus debunking the main basis for Carroll-as-pedophile. To my mind, this illustrates the danger of applying facts about the life of a writer to their work: our facts might simply be wrong or poorly documented. Furthermore, I feel that we have a poor emotional understanding of the Victorian age, which leads to a breakdown in intellectual understanding of how the people of the time thought and why they acted the way they did. I don't want to appear as a happy-go-lucky and blind critic, unwilling to admit biographical taint on a nice, sweet story. In this sense, my analysis of Alice as "absurd things happening to a spunky girl" is recklessly ahistorical, a shuttering of the mind to crucial information that may or may not bear on the story. However, the facts about Carroll's life are poorly documented, and I'm simply not persuaded that the whole story has been told, that the biographical approach need be taken in this case, and that any historical approach is easy or relevant in the first place. I suspect that the historical approach may not even be possible with any certainty looking from one age to another, and so that leaves us with best guesses, and the best guesses in the case of Carroll's life don't add up to a compelling case.

Alice in Wonderland, written by Winston Hibler (with twelve co-writers) from the novels by Lewis Carroll, directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske, 1951, 80 min.

Walt Disney's Alice from 1951 is by no means the first movie adaptation of Carroll's works (more like the seventh or eighth), but it's certainly one of the most widely known. This is partly a side effect of the current incarnation of Disney as corporate behemoth and the way its money machines spin day and night, fueled by one "classic" rerelease after another, regardless of the quality of the product. As these things go, Disney's Alice is distinctly middling. It's fairly interesting on the visual side, and the movie smoothly conflates the plots of both books into one story. But Alice is not a snivelling woman! She's a girl with courage and enormous patience. None of the classic era animation can disguise this affront to Alice.

As I said, Disney's Alice has elements of both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, wrapped up into one smoothly flowing package. The movie begins with Alice falling down the rabbit hole, swimming on a sea of tears, and participating in a caucus race, just like the first three chapters of the first book. This is followed by Tweedledum and Tweedledee, with the story of the Walrus and the carpenter, chapter four of the second book. The movie then bounces back to chapter four of the first book, where Alice gets stuck inside the rabbit's house, and poor Bill the Lizard gets blasted. Next up is chapter two of the second book, with the Garden of the Live Flowers. The movie continues with the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat of chapter five of the first book, skips chapter six, and dwells a bit on the Mad Tea Party of chapter seven. The next section is a Disney invention, in which Alice gets lost in Tulgey Wood (I'll talk about this section later). The movie concludes with some of the final sections of the first book: playing croquet with the Queen, and then Alice goes on trial for being rude to the Queen (instead of the trial on the matter of the stolen tarts).

Tulgey Wood is a name taken from the poem "Jabberwocky," but instead of the location of the battle between the hero of the poem and the hideous Jabberwock, Disney makes it something else entirely. More and more odd creatures surround Alice, none of them taken from the books, and Alice breaks down crying, complaining to the Cheshire cat that she wants to go home. Yes, Alice cries in the first book in the scene where she's swimming, as a small version of herself, in a sea of tears, her own tears that she cried as a larger version of herself. However, she was not crying because she wanted to go home: she was actually crying in frustration about the unpredictability of Wonderland and how that might mean she might be forced to go home! Disney represents the sea of tears scene with a reasonable amount of accuracy, but it's the extra scene of crying in Tulgey Wood that bothers me. To say that Wonderland or the Looking Glass world frighten Alice is supported by the book in many places. But her nerve never breaks down in the same way as Disney depicts, and to show this happening changes the entire meaning of the story, if, like me, you consider Alice's courage and resolution to be a large part of the story. In some ways, the typical Disney treatment is on full display: take an original story and purge it of any interest.

Of course, some welcome Disney traits are here: the animation and the songs in particular. Alice might not be known for its innovation in technique, but the animation is a delight all the same, sprightly or stately as necessary. I liked the scene with Tweedledum and Tweedledee, with the bouncy pinball sound effects and fast-moving characters. Similarly, the songs in Alice don't mess about with the formula, and are reasonably successful. I dislike the typical opening pseudo-choral effect of a Disney movie of the time, well in evidence here -- it's too syrupy, even for the formula. However, some of the Alice songs were catchy, especially "Painting the Roses Red." I found myself humming that song long after watching the movie again, and thinking about the lowly (and doomed) playing cards as they slopped red paint onto the white roses.

Alice, written by Jan Svankmajer from the novels by Lewis Carroll, directed by Jan Svankmajer, 1988, 90 min.

If Disney's Alice rounded off every edge to Lewis Carroll's stories, the famous Czech animator Svankmajer restores them all with a vengeance along with a heady dose of his own spiky sensibilities for good measure. This Alice is not necessarily an ideal adaptation either -- swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction of Disney does not make a movie automatically perfect! What's more, Svankmajer doesn't follow the plot of the books slavishly, which can be a chancy proposition with something as well known and well loved as Alice. Svankmajer captures the character of Alice perfectly, but the feel of the events around her is decidedly creepier than in the books. Fans of non-conventional animation will want to check out this version of Alice for Svankmajer's wonderful work at feature length. A cautious recommendation for others.

In this version of Alice, Alice begins as a bored young girl. A stuffed rabbit in a display case comes to life, and the chase is on. Alice follows the white rabbit through the drawer of a desk standing in a field of rubble. She falls for a long time, passing many strange objects. In the sea of tears scene, Alice's changes in size are depicted by some trick photography and the substitution of a doll for the human actor -- and Svankmajer goes on to use Alice's changes in size throughout the film, much more often than happens in the books. Alice also spends more time finding her way through dank or broken down buildings, like the house where the Duchess and the pig baby live. There is a truly scary Mad Tea Party, with a series of mechanized creatures seemingly caught in a behaviour loop. The scene with Alice in the white rabbit's house is also quite nightmarish (more on this particular scene in a minute). The playing cards from Carroll's Alice are here, depicted by ordinary playing cards of course, but painstakingly animated. The Queen of Hearts often threatened decapitation to her subjects in the first book but no heads were ever struck off -- Svankmajer's cards have no such compunction. The intellect insists that these are only pieces of paper, but Svankmajer's animation is masterful enough to create a visceral effect in these scenes. Disney added a scene in Tulgey Wood, and Svankmajer adds a comic sequence with some escaping socks.

I've mentioned several times that this version of Alice is creepy or scary or so forth, so I'll discuss two scenes in detail in order to convey this sense a little more clearly. The first and most genuinely disturbing moment happens when the white rabbit first pulls up his feet from where they are nailed down onto a wooden display unit. The noise of the nails tearing out of the wood is piercing, and more than a little unnerving even when the viewer has figured out what exactly is happening. As the first intrusion of the fantastic into reality, this moment stands alone in the genre as incredibly unsettling. It also effectively sets the tone for the rest of the movie. The second scene happens after Alice has grown too big to get out of the white rabbit's house. In the book, there is some comic business with Bill the Lizard getting blasted out of the chimney. In Svankmajer's version, Alice gets attacked by a whole menagerie of animated skeletons -- not intact skeletons, however, but figures assembled from the bones of several different skeletons. They move in menacing ways and are ominous even while motionless. This sequence reminded me of the short work "The Ossuary" from Svankmajer's collection Alchemist of the Surreal, in which the camera shows us the inside of a Black Plague era catacomb made out of human bones. The parallel between these two scenes probably intensified my reaction to the scene in Alice, but knowledge of Svankmajer's other work is not necessary for Alice to succeed.

During this movie, Alice hardly says a word, which is a shame considering that she has some sharp and well-spoken retorts in the books. However, the character of Svankmajer's Alice is nearly perfect in other respects, played marvellously by a girl named Kristyna Kohoutová. Nothing fazes this Alice, not runaway socks, not the Mad Tea Party, and certainly not squirmy little skeleton creatures. To this last, Alice reacts more with a fit of pique than with fear. This Alice is also the right age. In these two regards, Svankmajer's Alice is superior to Disney's. I also appreciated that Svankmajer did not add a rationale for Alice's behaviour, one of the flaws in the movie I will discuss next.

Alice in Wonderland, written by Peter Barnes from the novels by Lewis Carroll, directed by Nick Willing, 1999, 135 min.

This recent miniseries version has a cast full of celebrities, a spendthrift budget for special effects, a longer running time, and most significantly, a very well played main character. Alice here is feisty, curious, ready with a sharp reply yet still willing to follow normal courtesy - wonderfully acted by a girl named Tina Majorino. This version of Alice comes closest to the Alice I envision when reading Carroll's books of any movie version I have seen. Unfortunately, a high number of the other roles in the movie are poorly cast -- the celebrities often don't fit their assigned character or are treated too reverentially. The longer running time also becomes a double-edged sword, as certain scenes drag on past the point of welcome. This is not a perfect version of Alice, even though there are many things to enjoy.

The miniseries follows the plot of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland scene for scene. In fact, I began to wonder how anything from Through the Looking Glass would be incorporated, if at all. The choice of story order ended up doing great disrespect to the second book, as seems to happen. This version of Alice also adds a framing story (which I mentioned at the end of my review of Svankmajer's Alice): Alice is due to sing a song for a crowd of guests at a garden party for which her parents are hosts. Alice doesn't like the song and she doesn't like the guests, so she runs off onto the grounds. She sees the White Rabbit running into the shrubbery, and so the excursion into Wonderland begins. During her whole time in Wonderland, however, she is conscious of the fact that she is due to sing. The story becomes a kind of morality tale, as Alice learns about herself and gains the courage she needs to sing in front of all those guests. It's a neat screenwriter's trick that unifies the story and propels the action. Unfortunately, the shapelessness of the story is the principal charm of what Carroll achieved by writing his books, using a central character and an episodic storyline. This miniseries version doesn't trust Alice the character to keep the viewer's interest, even though she is portrayed here as interesting, charming, good-natured, and strong-willed.

Alice follows the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole, swims in a sea of tears, runs in the caucus race, grows too large for the White Rabbit's house, talks to the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat, visits the house of the Duchess and the pig baby, and all of this in the exact order of the book and all well played. Next is the Mad Tea Party and this is one of the better scenes in this movie, with Martin Short as the Mad Hatter. Alice moves from the tea party to play croquet with the Queen of Hearts. Still following the book, in the next scene Alice talks to the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle. This is where Alice learns the song "'Will you a walk a little faster?' said a whiting to a snail." More on this particular song in a minute. What follows in the book is the conclusion, with the trial on the matter of the stolen tarts. However, the miniseries goes on a baffling diversion through a few sequences from Through the Looking Glass in this order: the white knight from chapter 8, the garden of live flowers from chapter 2, Tweedledum and Tweedledee from chapter 4, and then returns to the first book with the trial about the stolen tarts. When Alice wakes up, she is ready to sing but not her assigned song. With a rather lovely singing voice, she sings the aforementioned song about the whiting and the snail, to great applause.

I'll briefly mention the two scenes that are symptomatic of the flaws of this miniseries. The Gryphon and the Mock Turtle teach Alice the song she uses at the end of the movie, but they also sing a song about soup. Both songs are taken directly from Carroll, but including both makes the scene tiresome and long. In other words, sometimes too much material from the books is used. The second flaw has to do with the celebrity cast, and my example is Tweedledum and Tweedledee. George Wendt and Robbie Coltrane are cast as the two brothers, and they simply never gel together. Perhaps the conflicting accents are distracting, but their acting didn't suit the roles. They might look the part, and their names might look nice in the list of credits, but this is an instance of celebrity casting backfiring.

Of the three movie versions in this column, I would be hard pressed to choose between Svankmajer's Alice and this miniseries version as the best of the bunch. They are entirely different movies, and their strengths complement each other.

An Alice Symphony, David del Tredici, 1969, 38:30

Note: This recording dates from 1991, from the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Oliver Knussen conducting, and Phyllis Bryn-Julsen soprano.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have inspired many musical pieces over the years, something on the order of 300 or so. As might be expected, quite a few these compositions are intended for children, like settings of the nonsense poems. Many pop artists have also used Carroll's works, in anything from individual songs like the aforementioned "White Rabbit" to entire concept albums, like a collector's item such as Peter Howell's 1969 Alice Through the Looking Glass or recent prog rock nonsense like Nolan and Wakeman's Jabberwocky. There are compositions intended to accompany adaptations of Alice for ballet or the theater, and you can buy the soundtracks for various movie adaptations, including the Disney version or John Barry's music for a 1972 version of Alice. A few jazz pieces exist, and other things like Chick Corea's album, The Mad Hatter. Nor have classical composers ignored the two books. For example, Through the Looking Glass Orchestral Suite by Deems Taylor, composed in 1917, is Romantic program music, in the manner of Pictures at an Exhibition (or perhaps even Carnival of the Animals, although Taylor's music is less whimsical). Modern composers have also used Carroll's works -- Ligeti used two of the poems from Alice in one of his choral pieces. There are a number of operas, and a chamber opera, Wonderglass, from 1994 by a composer named Susan Botti. David del Tredici's An Alice Symphony is also a recent composition, and it's modern music of the type that people tend to misunderstand. More on that in a minute. I chose del Tredici's work for this column because he has dedicated a large portion of his career to composing music about Alice, nearly twenty years in fact, and An Alice Symphony is only one of half a dozen or so major works in the same vein.

An Alice Symphony has four movements. The first is "Speak Roughly/Speak Gently" and it runs about seven and a half minutes. This movement actually begins with the sound of the orchestra tuning up (a sound which I happen to enjoy), and then moves on to demonstrate the dichotomy of its title. "Speak Gently" is a Victorian poem meant to encourage civility of discourse, while "Speak Roughly" is Carroll's parody. Del Tredici summons all of the tricks at the disposal of the modern composer to get the "roughly" effect, and the soprano part in this movement is quite a workout.

The second movement is entitled "The Lobster Quadrille" and is about eleven and a half minutes long. This is the same song that the miniseries version used for its conclusion and the contrast between the two is a good example of how Carroll has inspired such different creative efforts. The miniseries song is a sweet little piece, sung without difficulty by an actor (although in the case of that particular Alice, Tina Majorino, an actor with a sweet but not saccharine singing voice). Del Tredici's song requires all of the training of a professional soprano, along with dedicated effort from the orchestra as the playing difficulty piles up.

The third movement is called "'Tis the Voice of the Sluggard" and is nearly nine minutes long. This movement uses the poem from Carroll about a lobster, and del Tredici's score calls for a theremin. Somehow it works.

The final movement has two parts to it: "Who Stole the Tarts?" and "Dream-Conclusion" and it's about ten and a half minutes long. "Who Stole the Tarts?" is the poem that the White Rabbit reads during the final trial of the first book, and del Tredici chooses to orchestrate the poem with some rhythmic trickery. The movement concludes with the orchestra tuning their instruments -- perhaps they are doing the process in reverse, or untuning, although it's certainly hard to tell.

I've said that modern music like An Alice Symphony tends to be misunderstood, but I'm ambivalent on the matter myself. Modern composers have struggled with the issue of accessibility of their work, sometimes in vain. An Alice Symphony requires painstaking listening: it's a bit of an intellectual puzzle, and there are many types of music that, for one reason or another, are more easily enjoyed. I happen to like del Tredici's work, and I think it's a great testament to Carroll's imagination that so many aspects of the musical world have chosen to use Alice as their source. Not everyone will enjoy An Alice Symphony, but there's some bit of Alice music to suit everyone.

American McGee's Alice, Rogue, 2000

If the future of entertainment is virtual, then woe is us, especially if American McGee's Alice is any indication of things to come. The game is characterized by astonishing visual creativity -- Rogue has produced one of the nicest looking games ever -- but also by complete lack of anything else of interest. The game play is the oldest of old hat and the back story and continuing storyline are both unbearably dull. It's a common accusation against the movie industry that it has a wealth of technical expertise but little to no idea of what to do with it, other than making yet another glossy action movie. The same truism applies here: I have nothing but respect for the artists who worked on American McGee's Alice, and I enjoyed the eye candy that they provided, but there doesn't seem to be contributions from any other department.

Not long after the events told in Carroll's books, Alice survives a terrible fire in which both of her parents are killed. Traumatized, she is taken to an insane asylum. Inside her mind she's back in Wonderland, but the inhabitants are suffering greatly and need her help. The Queen of Hearts is no longer making idle threats and when her minions are after Alice, it's not wordplay but weaponplay that's needed. Of course, Alice's body is still in the asylum, and the game is accompanied by a little booklet, entitled "Rutledge Private Clinic and Asylum Casebook" with the dates November 4, 1864 to August 24, 1874 and a physician by name of Heironymous Q. Wilson, that details Alice's condition as it appears to the outside world. The writing in this booklet is mediocre at best, unreadable at worst.

The game itself follows Alice through various menacing environments, as she faces a number of different enemies and kills them. Alice also faces a plethora of jumping puzzles, the kind that extend the game time but not game enjoyment. Alice has a number of things to help her through her struggle. The Cheshire Cat accompanies Alice, in his own floating, bodiless way, giving hints and speaking in the plummiest British accent I've heard in a long time. To help with the jumping puzzles, a pair of footprints appears in front of Alice to indicate how far she can jump, but unfortunately these footprints are unreliable at best. Alice has a number of weapons with which to slaughter her enemies, and all of these weapons are Wonderland-themed in some way. So there is a vorpal blade, a croquet mallet that shoots bouncy projectiles, various cards for Alice to throw, and a few other things not quite so directly taken from the books, such as an ice wand and some demon dice. The weapons are hard to use or underpowered, but this flaw is complemented by another flaw: the enemies have no intelligence whatsoever. All of this adds up to one of the most disappointing gaming experiences in a long time.

American McGee's Alice is a visual treat, with almost nothing else of interest. I have already drawn the analogy to the movie industry, yet it is still somewhat of a surprise that this version of Alice is, as of writing, in the works as a movie (apparently under the direction of Wes Craven, but these types of projects are notoriously prone to disappearance, anytime up to release). Many people have tried to adapt computer games for the big screen, and flop after flop has resulted. When the source material is a diluted version of a classic of literature, some hope exists, but a movie based on American McGee's Alice itself is a recipe for disaster.

James Schellenberg lives in southern Ontario, Canada. He thinks that some of the best computer games ever came from a company named Looking Glass.

Last modified: November 27, 2001

Copyright © 2001 by James Schellenberg (

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Reviews | Columns | Issue #13

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