Many people remember Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a childhood story about a young girl who goes on an adventure in a strange, fantastical land. Walt Disney’s animated movie, Alice in Wonderland, does a good job of giving the story colorful and childlike charm, using the same iconic animation process as Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Disney’s decision to turn Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into one of its vastly popular movies made Carroll’s stories much more visible and established the Alice stories as classic children’s tales. However, Alice in Wonderland hasn’t always been completely childlike and magical — fans of the books and movies have been giving the story a darker twist in more recent years, and this has even been incorporated into major video games and Hollywood movies. While it could be argued that this is just a result of fan theories, it cannot be denied that the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass books both have dark undertones.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass both focus heavily on surrealism and dreams. This is because Alice is dreaming throughout the events of the two books. Both stories are not especially plot-heavy because of this, and it has been argued that the point of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass is that they’re not meant to make sense. This is primarily because of Alice’s aforementioned dreaming throughout the events of both stories but also because Lewis Carroll originally wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for the child of a family friend, and so the stories most likely focus more on interesting aspects of Wonderland instead of a complex plot because they were originally written for young children.
Alice in Wonderland remains fairly true to the source material, as it focuses on Alice’s interactions with the different residents of Wonderland and doesn’t assign an overarching plot to the movie. It is arguably much easier to focus on the movie adaptation of the book, as Alice in Wonderland provides visual representations of the concepts that Carroll could only describe with words in his original stories. However, this also makes it easier for audiences to realize how dark some of the scenes in the books really are.
Many fans remember the court scene and the Queen of Hearts chasing Alice back to the little door at the end of the rabbit hole as some of the scarier moments in the movie. The scenes where Alice cries so much that her tears drown a room and the story behind the walrus and the carpenter song are also pretty dark for a children’s movie. While these may not stand out to older viewers, they have definitely created an impact on younger audiences.
The first real dark on-screen retelling of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was in American McGee’s 2000 game, American McGee’s Alice. American McGee’s Alice shows Alice as an inmate in a Victorian mental asylum and connects her experiences in Wonderland with delusions and childhood trauma. McGee was previously known for his work on Doom II, which made American McGee’s Alice popular enough to gain a respectful cult following. McGee himself went through a traumatic childhood, as he mentioned in a 2000 interview with Wired.
In an interview with The Screen Savers, McGee stated that American McGee’s Alice shows the titular character’s journey back to sanity and even implies that Alice has post-traumatic stress disorder. The story McGee created for Alice got even darker in 2011 with the release of Alice: Madness Returns, with improved graphics and gorier fight scenes. By assigning psychological reasoning behind the existence of Wonderland, McGee opened the door for darker retellings of the classic children’s books.
It’s easy to imagine Tim Burton’s live-action Alice in Wonderland movies coming right after the release of American McGee’s Alice, but the next dark retelling of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland actually came in the form of a Syfy miniseries. Syfy’s Alice features Caterina Scorsone as Alice, Tim Curry as the Dodo and Andrew Lee-Potts as the Mad Hatter, or in this case, just “Hatter.” Syfy’s Alice is about a young woman from the present day who finds herself in a strange land where emotions are sold as drug-like substances, and she is forced into a political struggle between the Queen of Hearts and her son, Jack. Alice includes darker elements that bear a resemblance to features in American McGee’s Alice, like the CGI Jabberwock that attacks Alice and Hatter and the interrogation scenes with Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
Tim Burton’s live-action adaptation of Alice in Wonderland was released one year later in 2010. Starring Mia Wasikowska as Alice, Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, Burton’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s books and the subsequent animated Disney movie was expected to do well. With previous dark films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride under his belt, Alice in Wonderland seemed like the perfect story for Burton to adapt.
However, Burton’s Alice in Wonderland adaptations failed to win fans over. They completely deviated from the original stories to the point where they felt boring in comparison. Wasikowska was also accused of wooden acting in the role of Alice, who had previously been one of Disney’s most active heroines. The choice to center the story around a political struggle between the Red Queen and the White Queen also brought a sense of order to Wonderland, when the whole point of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is that Wonderland has no order.
Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland movies and Syfy’s Alice miniseries both failed to stand the test of time. This is because they strip Wonderland of its core values — its nonsensical nature. By attempting to establish some kind of order to a world that thrives on disorder, Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Syfy’s Alice both failed to understand the original concept of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
American McGee’s Alice and Alice: Madness Returns may be the only two dark adaptations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that have managed to stay true to the original concept of Carroll’s stories while providing audiences with an interesting narrative. With a third game, Alice: Asylum, in the works, fans of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and American McGee’s previous works have been eagerly keeping up with the game’s progress since its announcement in 2021.
Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass both have plenty of scary moments and surrealism that make it easy to adapt the stories in a darker light. However, the nonsensical nature of Wonderland makes it extremely difficult for directors and writers to make new adaptations of Carroll’s books, which often results in darker adaptations that leave fans disappointed. Wonderland itself is a mystery, and it’s often best to leave Carroll’s original writing up to interpretation instead of trying to assign any kind of meaning behind it. McGee’s interpretation of Wonderland as a coping mechanism works because mental illness and processing trauma doesn’t always make sense. However, putting political stories into Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland strips the story of its original meaning, as seen in the Tim Burton and Syfy adaptations.
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