There are a handful of trusty through lines in new reviews of Alice Through the Looking Glass. To begin with, it’s apparent enough that Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays “Time,” is doing a not-at-all veiled Christoph Waltz impression. And most critics agree the film is a wonder-free, effects-drunk slog meant to bank on its predecessor’s curious global success. (Alice in Wonderland is now the 23rd highest grossing film of all time.) Last, the film bears no resemblance to its literary source material. “What does all this have to do with Lewis Carroll?” Stephen Holden asks in a disappointed review at the New York Times. “Hardly anything.”
To be fair, there was no indication, based on Tim Burton’s Alice, that director James Bobin and screenwriter Linda Woolverton would return to Lewis Carroll’s books. Still, there is a brazenness to the way that Bobin and Disney reduce the Alice books to a brand — by gutting Carroll’s language and nonsensibility. Given the new film’s time-bending plot and mish-mashed Victorianism, you’d be forgiven for thinking it an expensive, guest-directed episode of Doctor Who. But, in case you forget which literary work you’re watching, Bobin makes sure to cram the screen with every character from the books at once.
And that’s the problem. It’s not so much that the film veers from the “content” of the books; it’s more that it gentrifies Carroll’s approach. The Alice films offer a bankrupt maximalism; they douse the audience with layered effects and dopey, bit characters. The digital creations would look at home in Harry Potter, and even Johnny Depp’s lead “Hatter” is just another of his wine-slurred grotesques. But the books are economized. A “character” in Wonderland or Looking Glass is little more than a few lines of prose or lyric. But 150 years later, they’re just as familiar as ever.
In the case of the new film, the contrasts with the book come fast and early. The book opens with a modest, intimate frame that features two adorable kittens (one black, the other white). But the film’s frame is grandiose and confusing. Mia Wasikowska’s “Alice” has returned from a voyage to China, only to find she’s been tricked out of her future by Hamish, the Tory she refused to marry in the earlier film. Before we know it — without much warning — she climbs her way through a looking glass and into a Wonderland we recognize as Burton’s alone.
This is not to say that turning from literary source material is a crime. To be fair, the Alice books are murkier for contemporary audiences than most would like to admit. In his Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner nods to their difficulty (while justifying his gratuitous note-making):
No other books written for children are more in need of explication than the Alice books. Much of their wit is interwoven with Victorian events and customs unfamiliar to American readers today, and even to readers in England. Many jokes in the books could be appreciated only by Oxford residents, and others were private jokes intended solely for Alice.
But here is where the ironies stack up. In the films, Carroll’s rich allusiveness is changed into a dense but anti-allusive visual world. The images in the film adaptation of Through the Looking float free of any significance; they become (ironically) a form of 21st century nonsense — like when Alice pilots the ill-named “chronosphere” in-and-out of an “ocean of time.” (It’s hard to think of a less inventive visual metaphor.) It’s as if the Alice films have been nightmared into existence by haywire algorithm, or Google’s Deep Dream AI.
“The last level of metaphor in the Alice books is this,” Martin Gardner writes in the introduction to The Annotated Alice, “that life, viewed rationally and without illusion, appears to be a nonsense tale told by an idiot mathematician.” Yes, there is an ironic similarity between the Alice books and the Alice films. What is an algorithm but an idiot mathematician? But the irony ends there. For Carroll, nonsense was the hidden art of language. In the Alice films, nonsense is just the business of not making sense.