Alice Liddell, the “Alice” in Alice in Wonderland, photographed by C.L. Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll).

Two new essays, both pegged on Tim Burton’s Alice, each taking subtly different (though hardly contrariwise!) angles of analytical attack.

In the Las Vegas Weekly, I’ve published “What’s inside the hatter? The surprising significance of the top hat, in Alice and other wonderlands.” It’s a meditation on the deeper meanings of the Mad Hatter and his hat, featuring a lengthy digression on the social history of the top hat.


Consciously or not, Tim Burton hints that the Mad Hatter is [Alice author C.L.] Dodgson’s funhouse-mirror reflection. His Hatter has CGI doll-eyes, larger than life and slightly cockeyed for that zany effect; Dodgson’s eyes were asymmetrical. And he always wore a top hat. Depp reads his character as “hypersensitive”; Dodgson was painfully sensitive in social situations, grateful for any little kindness, acutely conscious of slights. Depp’s Hatter needs “to travel into another state, another personality, to be able to survive,” the actor says. Dodgson, too, lived a double life. He was chloroform in the classroom, a humorless bore tripped up by his stutter. In the company of the beautiful “little misses” he worshipped as icons of innocence, however, his stammering vanished and he morphed “into another state, another personality,” transforming into a charming joke-teller and talespinner of endless ingenuity. His dean’s daughter Alice Liddell was one such girl; for her, he free-associated the story that would later become Alice in Wonderland, dreaming it out loud as they rowed along the river on a drowsy summer’s day.

Over at True/Slant, I’ve posted “Coming of Age in Wonderland: Burton’s Alice, Depp’s Hatter, Carroll’s Dreamchild,” a related, yet far from redundant, essay, theorizing Depp’s Hatter as one of the “beautiful boys” (bishonen) in Japanese manga (graphic novels) for teenage girls, and tying that analytical thread around the tweenage-girl cult that worships Johnny Depp and Carroll’s own obsession with 10-year-old girls such as Alice Liddell.


“Tarted up with bruise-purple eyeshadow and grenadine-red lipstick,
Depp’s Hatter is an emo-punk dream of adorable weirdness, packaged for the Hot Topic shopper. He’d totally let you give him a celebrity makeover, and when he looks at Alice with those lost-puppy eyes and says, “Why is it you’re always too small or too tall?,” you just know he’s talking to you. That’s why Avril Lavigne—and every tweenage girl in the audience—wants to have tea with him (as Lavigne does in the video for her song “Alice”), not Wasikowska’s palely loitering Alice.”

Reeling and writhing, HERE and HERE.

lewis-carroll 2.JPG

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll.

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      • Kate

      • 12 years ago

      Just saw the movie yesterday. Take slight issue with the notion that the depiction of a young female lead in armor slaying a dragon is somehow promoting narcissism. She looks like Joan of Arc up there. There is nothing wrong with girls that kick ass. It’s a good archetype.
      Killing the Jabberwocky was cool but taking the apprenticeship in international trade was awesome. That almost never happens in these stories. Usually the girls get to choose between two guys. The fun free-spirited, less socially acceptable choice (the Hatter) and the over-confident rich asshole type (the red headed suitor). That she turns them both down to pursue a career had me cheering in the aisles.
      Could not detect a shred of sexuality, even the sublimated kind, in any part of Depp’s performance. (But then he’s never been my type.)The anime boys exude some sensuality at least, but the Hatter in this version of Alice is nothing but jangled nerves. The “you are either too tall or too small,” was a cheap tack-on line. Nothing in his performance indicated that he had any romantic interest in her up till that point. So if we are supposed to feel some poignant moment of love lost, I think it fell really flat. He is trying so hard to keep it together he can’t really look outside himself toward another person. He doesn’t seem capable of conducting any kind of relationship, even an inappropriate one.
      Costume and makeup were beautiful. Curious to see what the mad hatter line at Hot Topic looks like. That should be good.
      (Not sure how to fix the formatting. I made paragraphs in the text box, but the preview seems to erase them.)

      • M. Dery

      • 12 years ago

      Kate: Deft, sharply argued rebuttal. Thanks for that. You’re quite right to note that Alice’s decision to take the helm of her father’s interests, or at least to sign on as an understudy to colonial power, is grrrl power, although it’s a curiously (curiously and curiously?) imperial version of grrrl power, as I argue. So, point scored for feminism, point lost for anti-colonialism. And anti-corporatism. As well, I would never argue against girls getting all whupass on flying lizards. That said, I found Burton’s reduction of Alice’s verbal fencing with the adults of the original books to vorpal swordplay predictably anti-intellectual—a vulgarization sprung from the brow of GRAND THEFT AUTO. As well, there’s the implicit imputation that the only way for female heroes to be the equal of male ones is for them to administer a savage beatdown in the closing scene, if not throughout. But your point that, for once, the girl chooses not to pursue *either* guy but rather is the master of her own destiny is well-taken. As for the Mad Hatter’s sexuality, agree that it was mostly epicene sylphing around the set, but that’s what anime man-boys do. I found his lip-licking relish at Alice’s return, in the initial tea-party scene, weirdly lascivious, but maybe I’m overreading. Which would be very unlike me.

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