Tricky Books 2: Alice In Wonderland

Reading & Writing

It seems churlish to complain that the book which has just inspired the sixth film in history to gross $1 billion at the box office worldwide has never been well-represented on screen. Clearly Alice is doing something right, even tricked out in 3D with the girl replaced by a grown woman. Alice is now one of the few literary superbrands, instantly recognisable, at least, in the West, which we often mistake for the world. In this it joins Sherlock Holmes and Peter Pan, yet there are two characteristics which should have guaranteed that it would never become famous. Firstly, Alice has virtually no personality beyond a certain amount of crossness and a need to rationalise what she sees and hears. Second, there’s no plot whatsoever. The book is a fugue, a dream-state with no beginning or end.

And the latest film version has a plot – which, I imagine, is the key to its success. How many children have read Alice and become annoyed that it consists of entirely random events? Do they appreciate that it represents the subconscious mind? No, they just like the interplay between a little girl and strange creatures. In this sense, Alice is one of the purest novels in the world – perhaps not a novel at all but ‘a book’ with infinite possibilities of reinterpretation.

Every time an writer decides on the course of a plot, a possible avenue of imagination is sealed off. The ne plus ultra of this approach is the Dan Brown-style novel, which leaves no smidgen of room for the imagination. To rationalise Alice is to stamp out its charm (a charm that certainly didn’t touch me as a child). Often when we read we find that less is more – the French are brilliant at underwriting novels, whereas the literalness of Victorian fiction has left English and American writers with a legacy of over-explanation. Often I’m tempted to cut out the explanations at the ends of short stories to see if they are improved.

And while we’re on the subject of Alice, how about the extraordinary ‘Alice In Sunderland’, Bryan Talbot’s borderline insane overload of information and graphic styles built around the subject of one English place? Using the template of dream-connection, Talbot’s astonishing feat (you really have to look at the book in a shop to see how bonkers it is) is to create a hyper-detailed study of a metropolitan borough that transcends fact into a dream world. It seems that Alice will continue to be reinterpreted for every generation.

3 comments on “Tricky Books 2: Alice In Wonderland”

  1. Yes, Alice in Sunderland is probably Bryan’s masterpiece. It’s brilliant and all over the place, and makes sense in a dream connection sort of way. I have to read it again, but it’s one of those books that bowled me over so much the first time that I’m slightly wary of diving in again.

  2. J.Folgard says:

    Bryan Talbot’s book is indeed one of those monsters that need your complete attention, it’s that brilliant. I was lucky to meet the author once (I was already a fan of his Luther Arkwright stuff), and it was great to chat with him about the connections he made between Alice and his own interests. This is by far my favorite ‘modern’ take on Alice.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    This new version of Alice is the first I can think of that abandons the original drawings. Even the Sunderland keeps her in her original format. The power of those first drawings is incredible. Shouldn’t think that woman would look believable Alice’s pinny so they turned the dress upside down with ruffles on top. Had to tie it on around her neck, though.

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