Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For Just Doesn't Cut It: A Look at The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

“So intent was Frank upon solving the puzzle of Lemarchand’s Box that he didn’t hear the great bell begin to ring.” –Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart

Did you know that “the seasons long for each other, like men and women, in order that they may be cured of their excesses?” That the world itself is apparently so overcome with lust that even the seasons experience it, sweating and freezing for each other like four lovers in a never-ending battle of unrequited passion? That in a world such as this everybody has unspoken yearnings they must either give in to or die resisting? No? Then you should read Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart and get a quick, lyrical, oh-so-creepy look at the birds, the bees, and the things they make us do.

The book begins and ends with a box. A box that if opened correctly can summon a peculiar brand of demon. These demons call themselves the Cenobites and they specialize in providing those who summon them with so-called unimaginable pleasure. Trouble is, the Cenobites, being inhuman, have trouble distinguishing pleasure from pain and this, understandably, has some sadomasochistic consequences. Throughout the course of the story, the box disrupts the lives of four very different people—Frank, Julia, Rory, and Kirsty—who, like the four seasons, are a jumble of frustrated passions, longing for things they can’t (or shouldn’t) have. To reveal how they’re connected would spoil the meat of the book but it’s appropriately complicated and utterly real. It’s to Barker’s credit that the emotions at hand never descend to the realms of soap opera even as the story itself grows more and more outrageous (and horrific). The path to fulfilling one’s darkest desires turns out to be slippery slope and nobody reaches the bottom unscathed.

Be forewarned. This book isn’t for everyone (for awhile there I wasn’t even sure it was for me). The psychological scares rely largely on how far your imagination is willing to go which is always a potential Forest of No Return. And it’s gory. Oh, so very, very gory. Skin that has no idea who it belongs to. Hooks going where no hooks should EVER go. Descriptions of sensory overload so extreme I had to put the book down more than once. Crude bodily functions. The worst “come hither” catchphrase ever. A lot of blood. And as if it needs repeating…sadomasochistic demons. More appropriately, sadistic demons who really don’t care if you’re a masochist or not. Oucheroo. Still, if you can dig that (or learn to) it’s a heck of a ride. I read this in two big gulps and it kept me entertained throughout—once I got past that first chapter.

Barker is an excellent, imaginative writer. If you think beautiful prose can’t exist alongside the aforementioned activities, think again. Certain passages read like poetry even when describing the most sickening things. This wasn’t my introduction to Clive Barker (thanks to The Thief of Always, I always dread that “great gray beast February”) so I was not surprised, but I was still impressed, exhilarated, thrilled, and when I had finished it, eager to share.

The Hellbound Heart was made into the movie Hellraiser in 1987. It was written and directed by Barker himself. Despite its status as a modern classic and place of honor on the List (number 19!), I doubt I’ll be watching it anytime soon. Not only does it sound like Barker made some significant changes to his own story, but this is the kind of trip I would like to keep in my imagination for awhile.

Image Via:

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Devil Went Down to Skid Row: A Look at Little Shop of Horrors ('86)

“On the 23rd day of the month of September, in an early year of a decade not too long before our own, the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence. And this terrifying enemy surfaced, as such enemies often do, in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places.” –Little Shop of Horrors, Prologue

There was an appalling lack of montages during this year’s Oscar ceremony. Perhaps I’m in the vast minority here but one reason I look forward to the Oscars so much is because I love a good montage and the Oscars usually has about four per broadcast. Even if it’s just a montage of all the movies that came out during the year, with good editing and the right music, I still get chills. However, this year there was only one montage: HORROR MOVIES!!! Even though I suspect this montage was nothing more than an excuse to include Twilight in the proceedings (it was introduced by stars Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner), I was pleased to see genre movies get some respect. I was also pleased to see that some of my favorite movies made the cut, despite being not exactly horror movies, at least not in the sense that Psycho, Jaws, or Alien are horror movies. One of these was the 1986 version of Little Shop of Horrors.

Little Shop of Horrors began its life in 1960 as a B movie filmed in two days by legendary director, Roger Corman. I think another reason for the montage may have been that Corman was one of the recipients of an Honorary Oscar this year and in lieu of letting him speak, they did this. The 1960 version is now a cult classic, featuring Jack Nicholson in one of his first screen roles. It also appeared in the montage. It became an award-winning off-Broadway musical in 1982 with songs by one of my favorite songwriting teams, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. These two would go on to provide the songs for Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, paving the way for what is now known as the Disney Renaissance. But before Disney, there was Little Shop of Horrors.

Released in 1986 and directed by Frank Oz, Little Shop of Horrors tells the sordid, satirical tale of Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis), a nerdy flower shop clerk living in 1961 New York City. Seymour’s been down on his luck his whole life. An orphan, he lives in a dismal slum known as Skid Row where “depression’s just status quo.” The shop hasn’t had a customer in forever, his boss (Vincent Gardenia) treats him like dirt and the girl of his dreams, co-worker Audrey (Ellen Greene), would love to go out with him were it not for her abusive boyfriend, a sadistic dentist (Steve Martin). However, things start looking up when Seymour finds an unusual flytrap that attracts customers to the store. Unfortunately, he quickly discovers that this new plant, dubbed Audrey II, needs human blood to survive. Seymour manages at first by giving the plant his own blood, but as Audrey II grows bigger and stronger, he learns to talk (in Levi Stubbs’s voice!) and starts demanding bodies. In return, he promises Seymour anything he desires—even a chance to finally be with Audrey. An omnipresent girl group—Crystal (Tichina Arnold), Chiffon (Tischa Campbell), and Ronette (Michelle Weeks)—watches over all, narrating Greek chorus style. Cameos include: John Candy, Christopher Guest, James Belushi, Miriam Margolyes and Bill Murray (reprising Jack Nicholson’s role in the 1960 film) as a masochist who comes to Steve Martin for “long, slow root canal.” If you’ve ever wondered what a sex scene between Murray and Martin would be like, this movie will give you a pretty good idea.

I love Little Shop of Horrors. It’s Faust meets Menken and Ashman meets B horror meets SNL/SCTV meets Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop. It’s a little like watching a live action cartoon with deliberately over the top acting and a very dark story played (almost) entirely for laughs. And the music is amazing. Everybody does their own singing and there isn’t a bad song in it. One standout is “Somewhere That’s Green,” in which Audrey describes her fantasy of running away with Seymour to the suburbs and living happily as a Donna Reed-esque housewife. With lyrics like “Between our frozen dinner and our bedtime: nine-fifteen/we snuggle watching Lucy on a big, enormous 12-inch screen,” the song manages to be both a hilarious send-up of Cold War American idealism and a genuinely moving portrait of Audrey’s longing and pain. And no matter how much I remind myself it’s a movie about a giant man-eating plant, I still cry during the love duet, “Suddenly, Seymour.” The romance between Audrey and Seymour is the sweet center of this absurd universe. It’s clear from the beginning that they love each other very much but both are too insecure to believe they’re worthy of a happy relationship. I love all their scenes together.

Plus, it has Steve Martin singing about how much he enjoys being a sadistic dentist. Sample lyric: “I am your dentist and I enjoy the career that I picked. / I am your dentist and I get off on the pain I inflict. / I thrill when I drill a bicuspid / It’s swell though they tell me I’m maladjusted.” I want to meet the Disney exec who watched that scene and said, “We need these guys to write our music. Stat!” I mean the song mentions the Marquis de Sade. Really.

This movie fills me with a wonderful sense of nostalgia. It’s filled with many beloved faces from my childhood and evokes the wonderful “anything goes” attitude towards movies in 80’s. Like so many films released in the 80’s, this is not a kid’s movie but I’m sure many, many kids saw it. Ever heard the term “tough titty” used in a family film? In song? Well, here you go. And the special effects are breathtaking. They were all done by hand with puppets. Still reeling from the CGI suffocation of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, I miss the magic of puppets more than ever. Audrey II was made with such detail and texture and accuracy (even down to the lip synching), there are some moments when you will swear he is real. But then, he is real, having actually been built and brought to life on the set. Puppets always are. I don’t mean to dismiss computer effects completely; a lot of great movies would have been very different without them. But I’ve always thought computers and puppets could peacefully coexist and movies now seem to be made with the assumption that computer effects are better without question and that isn’t always the case, especially in a movie like Little Shop where Audrey II needs to look real. The 1960 version of Little Shop of Horrors recently joined the long list of movies to be remade or “updated for the effects age” as one article put it, though they were unfortunately talking about The Wizard of Oz (also on the list). No doubt Audrey II will be played by a computer effect and we’ll all be expected to think that’s better.

With its constant references to blood, sadomasochism, and murder, Little Shop of Horrors is an acquired taste. I don’t like to admit that, but it’s true. I once showed it to a friend of mine who loves musicals but hates horror movies. Seeing her initial reluctance, I innocently tried to convince her with: “But it’s not a horror movie. It’s a comedy! Look who’s in it!” She agreed to watch it and during every scene showing Seymour feeding Audrey II from cuts on his fingers (with musical accompaniment, of course), she looked like she was going to be sick. It’s very funny but also very dark and a little offbeat despite its mainstream cast. The jury’s still out on whether it can really be called a horror movie, but either way, it’s one of my favorites, sure to brighten up any day or montage.

Image Via:

Possible Spoilers Below

P.S. Those familiar with Little Shop of Horrors are probably aware that the movie ends completely differently than the musical. The original ending was filmed but cut when test audience reacted negatively to it. Many now feel that the ending is a major weakness in an otherwise well-done movie. Frank Oz has said he hopes to one day rerelease the movie in theaters with the original ending restored. I really hope this comes to pass. Until then, a rough print of it is on YouTube.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wonderland Goes Under: A Look at Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

Oh dear. Why, Tim Burton? There was a time when I thought we were on the same page. I had Beetle Juice memorized by the time I was seven and I still have a huge crush on Jack Skellington. Sure, your Sleepy Hollow has nothing to do with Washington Irving’s but you put Ewan in Big Fish and Ed Wood makes me howl with glee. I always enjoy a movie with a dark side, and with you that’s a guarantee. Lately, however, it’s been touch and go. Your Charlie and the Chocolate Factory left me confused and mildly horrified (not in a good way), and Sweeney Todd was okay….but you cut out Kiss Me. So when I heard you had gotten your hands on one of my favorite things (counting both Alice books as one thing) I didn’t know whether to be excited or concerned. For the sake of anticipation, I decided to be excited. So what if I tend to wince when you use the word “reimagining”? It’s Alice. Under a subversive and gothic eye, it would be fabulous, right? Besides, there are literally dozens of movie adaptations of Alice…despite the fact that the books have been called unfilmable due to their heavy reliance on word play, clever jokes, and obviously, nonsense. But still one more wouldn’t hurt, right? Right? Especially a version starring not one but several actors I admire and enjoy. Right? (Below be possible spoilers).

Well maybe this would be the case if Tim Burton’s new movie were an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books but it isn’t. It’s an appropriation of Alice’s most iconic imagery squeezed into a cookie-cutter formula and overloaded with CGI. It bares some visual resemblance to Lewis Carroll’s world (and I’m being kind saying that) but under the surface, there’s little to salvage. I’ve been suspecting this since I saw the first trailer a few months ago and I went in fearing I wouldn’t like it. And I was right! The plot summary didn’t do anything to assuage my nerves—if anything it made them worse. See—this isn’t Alice exactly. It’s a sequel. In this sequel, Alice, now 19 years old and faced with the prospect of an unwanted marriage, returns to the Wonderland of her childhood to find it in chaos. In chaos and—wait for it—in need of a hero. Unfortunately, she’s forgotten everything and it’s up to her Wonderland friends to make her remember so she can learn how to fly again and fight Captain Hook and rescue her kids…wait. Sorry, I seem to have wandered into Hook. Why? Maybe because Hook has the EXACT same plot. At first, I took this as a positive. I love Hook. It manages to be a new story while still being faithful to the book that inspired it. So I went to see Tim Burton’s Alice figuring there would be no recitation of The Walrus and the Carpenter but still hoping for plenty of references to the books.

It's not Alice. It’s NOTHING like the books. They stole bits of Narnia (armor, sword, battle, chosen one) and The Wizard of Oz (young girl overcoming evil female tyrant with aid of freaky friends) and plugged them in accordingly. They only use the most famous characters. No Gryphon, no Mock Turtle, no White Knight, no Duchess, no Man in White Paper. In Carroll’s books, Alice’s “friends” in Wonderland are notoriously unfriendly. Many of them are downright mean. Here there are “good guys” and “bad guys.” Here the sense of eeriness that pervades the books has been replaced by outright violence. Here the place is actually called Underland. Why?!? The reason for the books' immediate popularity back in the 19th century was that they weren't didactic and preachy like most of the literature that plagued Victorian children.This isn't the first Alice movie to add a moral of some kind, but holy cow, by the time this movie is over, you WILL know that you MUST Believe in Yourself, Believe in Impossible Things, and Be Loyal to Your Friends. You WILL, goddammit!

The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) dominated the advertising for this movie so it’s no surprise he served as Alice’s right-hand man here, evoking Dorothy’s three faithful comrades more than Carroll’s character. Unfortunately, all the warmth that flows naturally between the four friends of The Wizard of Oz felt forced and manufactured here, due largely to the fact that I could only understand every other word Depp said. Also the character seemed have split-personality disorder and went into a Scottish brogue every time he got angry. What happened to his fight with Time (the reason he was always having tea)? Did he and Time make up? I love Johnny Depp and think he’s a great actor, but this performance missed the mark for me. Meanwhile the movie treated the March Hare (voice of Paul Whitehouse) like a piece of airport luggage, shuffling him around from scene to scene, not really doing anything with him. They let him spend one scene banging things about in a kitchen, throwing peppery soup everywhere (an hommage to the Duchess's Cook and one of my favorite scenes in Wonderland) but for the most part, the movie ignores him. He and the Mad Hatter shared maybe one scene together. They’re supposed to be (for the most part) inseparable. Also I couldn't understand a damn thing he said either. The Dormouse (voice of Barbara Windsor) has gone from a treacle-loving narcoleptic to a smaller, more annoying version of Reepicheep from Prince Caspian, only female and fond of popping eyes out. I wanted to scream every time the little shit appeared onscreen. The White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) and the Tweedles (Matt Lucas) barely got enough screen time to register as characters. The Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) showed up as a sexually threatening version of the Huntsman from Snow White. The Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) and the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) both made it out okay but there was too much warm fuzziness tacked onto both of them. Despite her fantastic performance, Helena’s Bonham-Carter’s turn as the Queen of Hearts (mistaken for the Red Queen) was undercut by the movie’s insistence on giving her a sob-story to explain her evil, head-slicin’ ways. Anne Hathaway gave wonderful life to an awesome character—who I guess was supposed to be the White Queen though she bears no resemblance to Carroll’s dowdy creation—a pacifist queen who had a mad scientist lab strewn with cadavers! Make a movie about this character, Tim Burton! Just make her the villain because I am sick to death of these gorgeous (pure white) princesses being on the side of the right. To add to the confusion, the movie decided to name everything. The Dormouse, the Caterpillar, the Queens, the Eat Me-Drink Me refreshments. They all had completely pointless, hard-to-keep-track-of names. Why? I don't know. Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Worst of all is Alice herself. I didn't like Mia Wasikowska’s performance, which is a shame because I've seen her in HBO’s In Treatment and she is a fantastic actor. Here she made the same face throughout and acted vaguely sleepy. Book Alice has presented a problem for filmmakers over the decades. Even Walt Disney called her a heartless character, but I've never found Book Alice that heartless. She has moments of confusion, bewilderment, joy, anger, and wit. It all depends on how you send her through. What I love about the Alice books is that they really ARE about female empowerment, if you want them to be. They are vague enough to project and interpret without rehashing. Alice is the only one who stands up to the Queen of Hearts with a confidence she's gained throughout her journey. She had moments of weakness but she still stands up for herself. Reviews have praised the movie for being “refreshingly feminist” (because Alice, of course, dons armor and takes up a sword). I didn't see anything "refreshingly feminist" about this movie, just the same underdeveloped anachronisms you see in all these movies: she doesn't wear a corset! she doesn't want to marry the jerk they've picked out for her! she’s able to leap Victorian gender boundaries in a single bound! They didn't give Alice her own journey and mission. They just turned her into Elizabeth Swann from the Pirates movies and halfway through morphed her into Narnia’s Peter Pevensie. Just because it ends with Alice in armor with a sword doesn't make it empowering. In the books, she grapples with her identity and finally calls for an end to the nonsense. Here, they cut out her vital inner monologue that so defines her character in the books. I felt no sense of passion for her. It didn't feel like her fight. I would love to see a girl hashing it out with a monster more often, but that's not Alice.

It's not just the differences from the book that bothered me. Most of the performances are very good, but the story was so explosive and uneven, I had trouble latching onto anything. There was NO character development apart from a bit of business in the beginning setting up Alice as Not Like Other Girls but before we could really get to know her, she fell down the Rabbit Hole and off we went in the CGI. There was too much CGI. The visuals overpowered everything else. The sound was so choppy, I could barely hear the actors (Depp’s character being only one offender). Also the story feels like an after-thought necessary to give the special effects something to do. Alice is supposed to be returning to Wonderland, but since she's been gone the Red Queen (read: The Queen of Hearts) has taken over. Um...then what was going on the first time Alice went? The queen was still calling for executions and being generally tyrannical. Why didn't they need a champion then (and why was little Alice painting the roses red IN FRONT of the Queen?)? They make much of the fact that she remembers her previous trips as dreams (which makes sense because in the books they are!) but we only get to hear about the dreams. We never see them. I would have liked the movie to open with Alice in Wonderland as a kid and waking up or….but then if they’re not dreams, how did she get back? What made her think they were dreams? In the beginning, we see her in bed having just woken up from one of these “dreams.” Um??? Did she float up from the rabbit hole and not realize? Also everything is so rushed, you can barely follow along when she finally catches on to the "truth." They do show some flashbacks about ¾ through that purposely replicate the famous John Tenniel illustrations, but these do nothing except taunt the audience with what might have been. Speaking of which, certain scenes (Alice chasing the White Rabbit, the Mad Tea Party actually sitting down at their tea party) gave me chills thinking about how this movie might have turned out had it been more faithful to the books but none of these lasted long enough. I expected more from screenwriter, Linda Woolverton (who also penned Disney’s Beauty and the Beast) but I was disappointed.

I think what made me angriest about this movie is that it had VALUABLE COMMODITY written all over it. Disney knows Alice is popular (or Alice imagery is popular). Disney knows Tim Burton is popular. Disney knows Hot Topic is popular and trades in the likes of Alice and Tim Burton. Ergo: movie. But this isn’t an Alice movie. It’s barely a Tim Burton movie. The whole movie doesn’t have half the creativity of the waiting room scenes in Beetle Juice. In my humble opinion, Burton needs to stop “reimagining” things and go back to his own ideas. As for Lewis Carroll’s books, gone is the satire, gone is the humor, gone is the eeriness, and most baffling of all, gone is the nonsense. Carroll’s books were built on nonsense and here his world comes across as Generic Fantasyland in Peril. In Carroll’s books, the fantasy becomes oppressive and Alice’s final assertion of self is to wake up and come back to reality. But where’s the buck in that? Alice gets made into a movie about once a decade so hopefully, this won't be the last impression the Alice books make on the cinema, but it will be this generation's impression of what they're about and that PISSES me off.

And there was no recitation of The Walrus and the Carpenter. Not that I was expecting one.

Monday, March 1, 2010

"Life, what is it but a dream?" A Look at the Alice Books by Lewis Carroll

"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here." -Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Oh, you had to know this was coming. Lately, the TV has been veritably flooded with advertising for Tim Burton’s new “reimagining” of the Alice books. These books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1872) were written by Oxford mathematics professor, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson—or Lewis Carroll as he’s more popularly known—at the request of a ten-year-old girl named Alice Liddell, and promptly caused a sensation that continues to this day. They tell of a young girl who dreams her way down a rabbit hole and through a looking glass into new worlds filled with nonsense, poetry, royalty, beheadings, chess, madness, existentialism, tea parties, and a wild cast of now iconic characters who challenge our heroine with all of the above. Sir John Tenniel provided illustrations that have become as famous as the stories themselves.

Marking a change from the didactic, moralistic stories written for children during the Victorian Age, the books were an instant success. In the century and a half following their publication, they have never gone out of print and their readership rivals Shakespeare's. They have been interpreted as a hero’s journey, an allegory of childbirth, a mathematical guidebook, a plea for women’s rights, an exaltation of childhood, a coming-of-age story, a pedophile’s manifesto, and the ultimate drug trip. Whatever the interpretation, the Alice books are literary classics, representative of children’s literature, fantasy literature, English literature, Victorian literature, and literature itself. And they are two of my favorite books. What with all my jabber (wock!) about kid lit, fairy tales, and reimaginings (of all sorts) it only makes sense that I revisit them before the new film arrives. It’s especially appropriate since this healthy slice of self-indulgence takes its name from a Looking-Glass character (the Man in White Paper). But that’s all for later on.

First of all, I’d like to begin by saying, if you want an extensive analysis of the Alice books that’s actually extensive and truly analytical, look up Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice (which I think just made an appearance in an episode of Lost). It’s a brilliant work filled with fascinating information about Lewis Carroll, Victorian England, the real life inspirations for some of the most outlandish characters (many of them are caricatures of people Carroll knew) and the surprising logic behind some of the books’ most confusing and/or philosophical moments. Reading this is what truly made me fall in love with Alice and I recommend it to anyone with even the slightest interest in delving deeper into the books. But be it ever so humble, you are here with me, so let’s continue.

Wonderland begins on a sunny day in May and seven-year-old Alice has nothing to do but sit on the riverbank beside her older sister who is preoccupied with a dull book without pictures or conversation “and what is the use of a book, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?” She soon snaps out of her boredom when she catches sight of a white rabbit. Not just any white rabbit, of course—The White Rabbit, dressed in a waistcoat, checking his pocket watch, and muttering about his unpunctuality. And soon we’re off after the rabbit, down the rabbit hole, and into Alice’s dream. Something I particularly love about the Alice books is how accurately Carroll captures the seamlessness of falling asleep and entering a dream. One minute, everything is as per usual—Alice is your average kid, shackled in the care of an older sibling who really can’t be bothered—then suddenly Wonderland enters the real world, and Alice begins to dream without even realizing that she’s asleep. Wonderland doesn’t have much a plot apart from Alice trying to catch up with the White Rabbit and trying to get into an elusive garden she sees through a door keyhole (this winds up being the property of the Queen of Hearts). The bulk of the story is made up by Alice’s episodic encounters with crazy creatures! She nearly drowns in her own tears (after an unsettling experience, growing and shrinking, thanks to some magical refreshments), participates in a Caucus Race (a race with no victor), seeks advice from a hookah-smoking caterpillar and directions from a grinning Cheshire Cat, and rescues a baby from his abusive mother (the Duchess!) only to watch him turn into a pig. Later on, she takes tea with the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse, and plays croquet with the King and Queen of Hearts only to get shanghaied into testifying in court as part of a ridiculous (sentence first! verdict after!) trial. All the time, she keeps on growing and shrinking until she barely recognizes herself anymore. Almost everybody she meets is abrasive, if not outright mean. Some are even quite enthusiastic about their murderous tendencies. And yet she wakes up with only happy memories of her curious dream.

Appropriately for a book without a plot, Wonderland can be viewed as a story about identity. Beginning with the fall down the rabbit hole, Alice’s Wonderland adventures send her on a existential journey. Every time she eats or drinks anything in Wonderland (starting with those infamous Eat Me-Drink Me refreshments), she shrinks and grows and shrinks again. She begins to doubt her identity, and wonders if she’s actually changed into another person. When the Caterpillar asks her who she is, she answers “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.” Similarly, a few pages later, when she’s asking the Cheshire Cat which way to go, he replies in his snide, Cheshire Cat way, “That depends a good deal on where you want to go to.”
“I don’t care much where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you walk,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

This dialogue is so much more haunting to a post-grad than a seven-year-old kid. At least it is to this post-grad.

Luckily for Alice, as her journey progresses so does her sense of self. In spite of the fact that she occasionally talks likes a middle-aged woman, Alice leaps off the page as a very real girl. Her emotions change with the scenery. One minute she’s scared, the next she’s laughing, the next she’s annoyed. And she’s always curious. She tries to impress the other characters with extensive knowledge only to get most of her facts wrong, but this never deters her. Despite her initial confusion, she manages to navigate Wonderland as the lone voice of reason in a literally mad world. Before long, she’s able to calculate just how much mushroom to eat in order to fit into specific buildings (all the buildings in Wonderland are different sizes). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that even the sinister Queen of Hearts (OFF WITH HER HEAD) ends up being more funny than menacing. Though she orders executions right and left, none of them are ever carried out because the King just pardons everybody. Otherwise, there would be nobody left in the kingdom. Still, it’s not until Alice has gained enough confidence to be the one who puts the Queen in her place (“Oh, who cares for you…you’re nothing but a pack of cards”) that she’s able to finally grow back to her right size and wake up.

If Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an existential meditation, then Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There is the Hero’s Journey (hey, Joseph Campbell!). Even though Looking-Glass is considered a sequel to Wonderland, the term companion is more appropriate. There’s nothing in Wonderland you need to know before reading Looking-Glass. Alice doesn’t even go to back to Wonderland in Looking-Glass; she goes to, appropriately, Looking-Glass Land. Only Hatter and Hare (or Hatta and Haigha as they are called in Looking-Glass) cross over and they play such a different role in the story, I’m not even sure they’re supposed to be the same Hatter and Hare. Also The Queen of Hearts in Wonderland should not be confused be with the Red Queen, Alice’s dubious mentor in Looking-Glass. Despite all the movies versions that claim otherwise (including Burton’s from what I understand) they are NOT the same character and are not interchangeable.

Okay, now that that’s off my chest.

In my personal opinion, Looking-Glass is the better book, though it’s not as well known as its predecessor. Both books are episodic in nature, detailing Alice’s encounters with the mad residents of alternate worlds, but in Looking-Glass, Alice is on her own personal quest. Serving as a human pawn in a live chess game, the book follows her on her journey across the board, in hopes of becoming a queen when she reaches the other side (in accordance with the rules of chess). The Red Queen offers guidance, giving her dry biscuits to quench her thirst and suggesting she curtsey while trying to think of things to say. Halfway across, Alice also meets the White Queen who lives backwards in time (she screams before she pricks her finger) and is so helpless, she walks around with her hairbrush stuck in her hair because she doesn’t know how to fix it. Dubious mentors, indeed.

Along the way, she encounters a pair of strange little fat men in schoolboy uniforms—Tweedledum and Tweedledee. They recite “The Walrus and The Carpenter,” and plant the frightening notion in her head that she may not be real; she may just be a “sort of thing” in somebody’s dream (the Red King in this case). This question haunts Alice for the rest of her journey even through to her waking, though she never reaches a conclusive answer. The book ends by asking what we think about the matter. On her journey, Alice also engages in an intellectual spar with Humpty Dumpty, gets the Mean Girl treatment from a bunch of talking flowers, discovers a treasure trove of bizarre bugs (bread-and-butterflies!), and of course, shares a train compartment with a man dressed in white paper. She no longer grows and shrinks, but she still listens to a lot of poetry and ponders many philosophical questions. She also hovers between laughter and tears on almost every page. Meanwhile, the shadow of the ominous Jabberwocky, Carroll’s famous nonsense poem, hangs over all. As Alice says, “It seems to fill my head with ideas and yet I don’t exactly know what they are.”

One striking difference between Wonderland and Looking-Glass is the tone. Both books are filled with humor and are often laugh-out-loud funny, but Looking-Glass has a melancholy tone that Wonderland lacks. Wonderland begins outside on a bright sunny day; Looking-Glass begins indoors on a dark, snowy night. In Wonderland, Alice must question the nature of her own existence, but in Looking-Glass, she’s faced with the question of existence itself and what it actually means to be alive. One character who represents this shift in tone is the White Knight who accompanies Alice along the last stretch of her journey. The White Knight rescues Alice from capture by the Red Knight, but instead of being dashing and handsome, he’s an old man in ill-fitting armor who can’t stay on his horse and has a gift for inventing useless things. But he also gives Alice her greatest memory from the Looking-Glass Land: an absurd but poignant song about the meaning of usefulness.

“Of all the strange things that Alice saw on her journey Through the Looking-Glass, this was the one that she always remembered the most clearly. Years afterwards she could bring the whole scene back again, as if it had been only yesterday—the mild blue eyes and kindly smile of the Knight—the setting sun gleaming through his hair and shining on his armour in a blaze of light that quite dazzled her…and the black shadow of the forest behind—all this she took in like a picture, as, with one hand shading her eyes, she leant against a tree, watching…and listening, in a half-dream, to the melancholy music of the song.”

In The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner suggests that Lewis Carroll may have based the White Knight on himself. Carroll remains a mysterious, even controversial figure, to readers and scholars of today. A brilliant mathematician and remarkable author, Carroll is now also suspected of having been a pedophile, or at least a man who entertained an unheathy fascination with young girls as evidenced by the many (occasionally nude) photos he took of them. Granted, photos of naked children were all the rage in Victorian England, representing the Victorian ideal of childhood’s inherent purity and innocence. Perhaps this is all Carroll intended with his photographs as well, but the image of him as a man awkward around adults (he had a stutter that plagued him with insecurity) but vivacious around little girls--his so-called "child-friends"--has not helped his contemporary reputation. Alice Liddell, the ten-year-old who asked Carroll for the story she eventually lent her name to, was one of these girls. Some scholars believe that Carroll’s feelings for Alice were innocent while others believe he was in love with her. In Looking-Glass, when the White Knight guides Alice to the final brook, only to ask her to wait until he’s ridden away to cross it and wave her handkerchief to encourage him, it’s very easy to see this as Carroll’s own bittersweet goodbye to Alice Liddell—who was almost 20 when Looking-Glass was published. If, for Carroll, becoming a queen meant becoming a woman, the real Alice had already gone where he couldn’t follow (he infamously ended his friendships with most of his “child-friends” as they reached womanhood). So it is with the White Knight. He can only see her part of the way; Alice must cross the final brook by herself.

And speaking of becoming a queen, does Alice finally get her crown, fulfilling her Hero’s Journey? And how can becoming a queen live up to the hype if it means enjoying your newfound majesty alongside the eternal nonsense of the Red and White Queens? Does Looking-Glass end happily with all questions resolved? I’ll let you decide. The answers tend to change.

A Few Tempting Tidbits to Leave You With In Case You Aren’t Sick Of Me Yet

1. Over the course of both books, illustrator Sir John Tenniel became very involved with the creative process of the text as well as the illustrations, giving Carroll criticism based on what he thought would and would not make a good illustration. Carroll ended up cutting out a whole chapter of Looking-Glass (featuring Alice’s encounter with a Wasp in a Wig) because Tenniel found it boring and had no idea how make a picture out of it. Tenniel also played a pivotal role in the creation of “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” Carroll gave him three options—a carpenter, a baronet, or a butterfly—and told him to choose based on what he wanted to draw. Tenniel chose the carpenter. So all those theories about the Carpenter representing Christ…meh.

2. Alice Liddell had short dark hair cut off at her shoulders and wore bangs. Carroll specifically requested that his heroine NOT be made to resemble her—hence, Alice’s long blond hair sans bangs.

3. Carroll was born in Cheshire, England and named the Cheshire Cat after his hometown.

4. Wonderland takes place on May 4. Looking-Glass takes place exactly six months later on November 4. In Looking-Glass, Alice gives her age as “seven and a half exactly” revealing it to be her half-birthday, making May 4th her actual birthday. May 4th was also Alice Liddell’s birthday. She asked Carroll for the story on July 4, 1862, exactly two months after she turned ten. Carroll was 30.

5. The iconic image of Humpty Dumpty as an egg began with Tenniel’s illustration of him as an egg. Note: nowhere in the rhyme is it mentioned he's an egg. Before Looking-Glass, I guess he was just a guy on a wall.

6. Many of Carroll’s poems, including “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” “You Are Old, Father William,” “The Lobster Quadrille,” “Beautiful Soup,” and “The White Knight’s Song,” are parodies of poems that were popular at the time.

7.“Remember what the Dormouse said”—the penultimate line of Jefferson Airplane’s Alice-inspired song “White Rabbit”—might be a reference to a moment during the courtroom scene in Wonderland when the Mad Hatter is called to testify and the King threatens to have him executed unless he can remember something the Dormouse said. This line later went on to be the title of a book of popular quotes from children’s literature.

8.Wonderland’s original title was Alice’s Adventures Underground. Alice’s Golden Hour was also in contention.

9. At the Mad Tea Party, the Dormouse tells a story about three little girls, Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie, who live in a treacle well. These girls are, in fact, the Liddell sisters—Lorina Charlotte or L.C. (Elsie), Alice (Lacie is an anagram), and Edith (whose family nickname was Tillie). All three sisters were present when Carroll first told the story. Their two younger sisters, Rhoda and Violet, are mentioned in Looking-Glass as part of the Garden of Live Flowers—as the Rose and the Violet.

But that isn’t even the half of it. If you want to know more, read The Annotated Alice. Even if you don’t want to know more, read (or reread) the Alice books anyway. Good for the mind and soul…as a little madness always is.