Ten years of Tim Burton’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’

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“‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”

To mark the tenth anniversary of the release of Tim Burton’s adaptation of the children’s classic, Alice in Wonderland, it’s important to reflect on the man who originally created such a magical and memorable world: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pseudonym Lewis Carroll.

On a “golden afternoon” in July 1862, Carroll took the three Liddell sisters – the daughters of the Dean of Christ Church, where Carroll worked – out on the Thames in Oxford and was implored to tell them a story. According to his diaries, Carroll spontaneously thought up the ridiculous and nonsensical tale on the spot, and Alice in Wonderland was born.

Although it was only originally presented as a gift in 1864 to Alice Liddell, as Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, Lewis Carroll’s creation has captured the imaginations of all generations since. As soon as it was published in 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was a huge success, inspiring a widespread devoted readership which has meant the book has never been out of print, and resulting in at least 20 adaptions for film and TV in the last century. It’s often easy to forget the extent to which Alice has permeated popular culture, despite the fact that adaptations have been made by Walt Disney and the Royal Ballet, characters have been painted countless times by Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, and the term ‘chasing the white rabbit’ became slang for taking LSD in the 1960s. In this sense, Carroll made more than a children’s book, he created a culture.

Carroll’s Wonderland represented a complete rejection of Victorian earnestness; it was impossible to take oneself seriously in this world of seeming nonsense and, as Tim Burton said, “everything is slightly off, even the good people.” Nothing seems to make sense. Despite this, this chaotic fictional world is actually steeped in logic. Carroll worked as a gifted mathematician and logician at Oxford, receiving the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship in 1855, and so his keen interest in riddles and puzzles, found in his books, is rather unsurprising. Often, the riddles posed by the Cheshire Cat or Mad Hatter seem to be nonsensical, but in fact, these puzzles represent logic in excess and the answer is hyper-literal.

Carroll made more than a children’s book, he created a culture

Although the love of Alice in Wonderland has only strengthened in the years since its original publication, the author’s reputation has faced some controversy. The nature of Carroll’s relationship with the ten-year-old Alice Liddell has been scrutinised by biographers since the 1930s. In particular, many have pointed to the photographs he took of the young Alice, often with her in somewhat suggestive positions. Of the 3,000 photographs Carroll took, half are those of children and 30 of these depict the children either nude or semi-nude. To a modern eye, this is shocking. But by Victorian standards, this was rather common and conventional; pictures of nude children often appeared on postcards.

In contrast, others paint Carroll as an eccentric and shy man, who simply found it easier to socialise with children. According to Edward Wakeling, who spent over a decade analysing the author’s diaries, “He told his brothers and sisters stories, made up games and wrote magazines with them,” and when he grew older, “he really enjoyed entertaining children, and they loved him in return.” Whether his relationship with Alice was problematic remains uncertain, but the legacy of the world Carroll created is not.

He was a real pioneer of nonsense literature and completely revolutionised children’s literature from a purely educational tool to an artform which truly captivated its young readers, even if the books are now enjoyed by those of all ages. When Alice first fell down the rabbit-hole, she welcomed countless readers to fall after her.

Image: Annie Spratt via Unsplash

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