Two weeks ago, we talked about the various film adaptations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and honestly, the 5 movies explored there barely scratched the surface. It seems that there’s a new Alice movie at least once a decade like clockwork, sometimes more, and that’s without even touching movies like The Matrix or Resident Evil that also borrow various elements from Carroll’s books. And of course, Alice appears in basically every other medium as well at least once. This article explores some of the more atypical versions of the story in various other forms, from psychedelic anthems to Batman comics.
Video games: American McGee’s Alice (2000) / Alice: Madness Returns (2011)
Both the quintessential Alice video game and the prototypical “Dark Alice” adaptation, America McGee’s game franchise only has two entries but has become a cult favorite, and you’re unlikely to visit a con these days without seeing at least one blade-wielding Alice Liddell. In this reimagining of the original story, Alice’s parents both died in a house fire shortly after the events of the novel, and Wonderland acts as a sort of horrific purgatory, tainted by the now-twisted mind of its dreamer.
The original received critical acclaim at the time, but PS1-era games like this one tend to age quite poorly, and the once-praised visuals now look so blocky that they mute the tone in unfortunate ways. This adaptation shares the most DNA with Jan Švankmajer’s on the last list – the grotesque imagery, the unusually claustrophobic setting, the hideous reimaginings of classic characters. Unfortunately, the dated gameplay bogs down the whole project; despite the imaginative art design, the missions in American McGee’s Alice could be swapped with those of basically any other action platformer at the time.
Alice: Madness Returns shows a much more consistent balance between the bright, cheerful parts of the classic Wonderland and the horrific new aspects of American McGee’s world. This means that, while the scary bits are legitimately freaky, the general depressing atmosphere of the original has been lost. On the other hand, this game remarkably contains new dialogue more in line with Carroll’s writing style than that in nearly any other version of Alice, whereas the characters in the original game talked like they were all Alice’s psychiatrist. But like the original, the gameplay can’t match the visuals, as most of the game involves working your way through repetitive linear levels.
Carroll Connection: 2/5. Most of the primary cast of the book appears, but rarely in recognizable form, and the gruesome backstory deviates significantly from the source material.
Enjoyability: 3/5. Both games contribute something substantial and unique to the Alice universe, even if they might be a bit tedious to play to completion.
Comics: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989)
Maybe the more obvious choice in this category would be the expansive Wonderland arc of the ever-trashy Grimm Fairy Tales series (I mean, come on) but there’s much more to say about Grant Morrison’s stunning Batman debut. This graphic novel, which served as the inspiration for the Batman Arkham video game series, depicts the first instance the titular madhouse was completely overrun by its prisoners, and when Batman arrives, the Joker has arranged an elaborate game of hide and seek for him. As Batman travels through the Asylum, he uncovers the dark history behind its builder Amadeus Arkham while encountering a seemingly endless series of crazed lunatics. Batman has always borrowed elements from Alice – The Mad Hatter is a regular villain, as are Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum to a lesser extent – but this one wears the influence on its sleeve, as Alice’s journey matches Batman’s in many ways and the novel closes with a quote directly from Carroll.
Much of the credit goes to artist Dave McKean, who treats every panel like a canvas and delivers one of the most terrifying takes on the Joker that you’ll find anywhere. His iconic blending of painting, drawing, photography and collage grimly suits the half-dream-half-reality tone of the Alice stories. Morrison’s story, meanwhile, suffers to some degree from a lack of focus caused by alternating between Batman’s story and Amadeus Arkham’s, but it compensates by delivering its incredibly insightful and unique new takes on the various villains, equal parts horrifying and sympathetic, and with considerable rooting in legitimate psychological research.
Carroll Connection: 1/5. Morrison’s comic makes a lot of direct references to the books, but it doesn’t use them as anything more than a very rough guideline.
Enjoyability: 4/5. This twisted, labyrinthine adventure is certainly one of the most unique and visually striking Batman comics out there.
Music: “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Aeroplane (1967)
It was only a matter of time until somebody used Alice as an allegory for a psychedelic trip. Hell, the super-powered mushrooms are already included and everything. Jefferson Airplane just did it first, right in time for the Summer of Love, in one of the original instances of the now-common practice of masking drug references in music with elaborate analogies and vague lyrics. Singer and songwriter Grace Slick fondly remembered reading Carroll’s book as a child, and she wrote the song to point out how parents read surrealistic books to their children about magical mushrooms or potions, only to wonder why those kids grow up to try mind-altering drugs.
Interestingly, the song is effectively composed as one long crescendo, growing louder and more energetic as it continues without pause. “White Rabbit” works so well because devices like this apply equally to the original story and to its retelling as a drug narrative; this might describe going farther and farther “down the rabbit hole” and exploring the increasingly bizarre world of Wonderland in the original work, or it might attempt to simulate the feeling of the “come-up” on an LSD trip (the song was famously used in this exact context in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Same goes for the lyrics – “When the men on the chessboard / Get up and tell you where to go” sounds like an acid-head’s whacked-out description of overbearing authority figures, except that it literally happens in Carroll’s book. Everything works perfectly on both levels, and it’s for that reason the song has stuck.
Carroll Connection: 5/5. Slick maintained a boatload of respect for the book, and the song fits both the tone and the plot of the original with hardly any deviation, at least on the surface.
Enjoyability: 5/5. Once one of the great anthems of the 1960s counterculture movement, “White Rabbit” now acts as a better time capsule of that era than almost any of its contemporaries, not to mention that the song’s subtle groove and alluring vocal performance has lost nothing with time.
Television: Once Upon A Time In Wonderland (2013)
I’ve never watched Once Upon A Time and I’m not about to catch up on three years of television so that I can understand what’s going on in their Wonderland spinoff, so this is just an encouragement for you to check out our existing coverage of the series, which describes it all far better than I ever could.
Fine art: Salvador Dali’s illustrations (1969)
It turns out that one of the best versions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is nearly impossible to obtain. In 1969, Salvador Dali collaborated with Carroll on a new edition of the book that features 12 new chapter illustrations and a new cover, all painted by Dali. The book only received a small printing, and these days copies of the book on Ebay go for around $6,000, but you can see all the paintings online right here.
Dali’s abstract take on Alice features the recurring image of Alice seemingly jumping rope, a metaphor I completely fail to understand, and the reappearance of the classic melting clocks from The Persistence of Memory. But look through the “high art” guise and you’ll find a vibrant collection of illustrations which recreate the setpieces of Wonderland with an intensity and surrealism Carroll himself never managed to accomplish. Notice how the image for “The Pool of Tears” appears tangibly, aggressively wet? See how he blends familiar and alien images of the insect in “Advice From a Caterpillar?” Can you feel the sense of dread and chaos in “Who Stole The Tarts” that captures the high stakes of the situation like no other depiction? Alice is perfect territory for Dali, and he doesn’t put his skills to waste.
Carroll Connection: 4/5. This one’s hard to say, given these versions of the characters and locations look nothing like the familiar original book illustrations nor the Disney versions. But given the pictures originally accompany the novel directly, let’s presume they’re meant to match up pretty close.
Enjoyability: 4/5. It’s not Dali’s absolute best work, but these paintings imagine Wonderland with a vibrancy and strangeness that fits such a surreal journey.
So ultimately, the question remains: why Alice? What is it about this story that continues to resonate for generation after generation in numerous retellings with completely different tones and agendas? Well, there’s the answer right there: Alice is about nothing so much as imagination, curiosity, exploring the unexplored, surprising yourself. These themes are no more or less relevant now than they were when Carroll wrote his novel 150 years ago. And the unfamiliar only manages to stay that way when it takes this many shapes: from grounded and familiar to surreal and psychedelic, from light and whimsical to dark and horrific. If Alice is to remain relevant, it demands these constant retellings, all of which add something new to the ever-expanding mythos behind this humble children’s book.