Setoodeh, Ramin, Newsweek
Byline: Ramin Setoodeh
One of the best running gags in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (and there are many; every line of the Mad Hatter's dialogue could be from a Monty Python film) is that our little ingenue is constantly eating. When Alice falls through the rabbit hole, the first thing she does is drink a cherry-tart liquid and devour an entire cake labeled EAT ME. When she meets the hookah-smoking caterpillar, he offers her a mushroom and she nibbles on it for quite some time. No wonder she gets the munchies. But food is really just a setup. Every time Alice eats something in Wonderland, she transforms. One minute she's 10 inches tall; the next she's so monstrous, she can't leave the white rabbit's house. Near the beginning of the story, the caterpillar asks Alice a simple question--"Who are you?"--and she can honestly tell him that she doesn't know. She defies definition.
The only way to understand Alice is to use your imagination. Do you even remember how to do that? In our society of Web links, Wikipedia, Facebook, and reality TV, everything and everybody comes with a label and an exhaustive definition. There's scant room for ambiguity and interpretation. The genius of the 145-year-old Wonderland is that it forces you to bring your own creative juices to the tea party. Carroll signals as much with the very first line of the book, where he describes Alice as "very tired -- of having nothing to do." Her entire adventure is a reaction to her apathy--what she's really hungry for isn't food but experience, a way to travel outside her own mind. In short, the story is a metaphor for how Alice uses her imagination to quench her boredom; Carroll says her favorite phrase is "let's pretend." What she also does is remind us how little we do that anymore.
Compare Wonderland with the great children's stories of our time: the Harry Potter series. As inventive as J.aK. Rowling's seven books are, they're meticulously detailed (the intricate rules of Quidditch, the class rituals at Hogwarts, all the wizard paraphernalia) to the point of being encyclopedic, which is why the movies work as well as they do--they're road maps of the plot. Those movies have taken Harry and changed him from a literary character to more of a videogame star. Tim Burton's new 3-D movie version of Alice in Wonderland does much the same to Alice, who comes across as a Victorian Lara Croft. The original Alice took pains to show us how smart she was--she has no trouble following a conversation about William the Conqueror. Burton's Alice is a conqueror herself. Even worse is what she conquers: the Jabberwock, the monster from the nonsensical poem by Carroll that was meant to be open to interpretation, down to its very nouns and adjectives. In the movie, the Jabberwock has become a scaly dragon creature that Alice must slay. Burton literalizes everything. Wonderland in Carroll's story is entirely imaginary, as Alice learns at the end when she wakes up from her dream. …