Isn’t it intriguing how some things just become so ingrained in pop culture?
That is a rhetorical question. But consider this: there are probably virtually no people in the developed world that are unaware of the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s come a long way from its origins on a river boat holiday in Victorian England—the story was created as a gift for the family friend of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (pen name Lewis Carroll), a little girl named Alice Liddell, and is set in a fantasy land that showcases the need for logic in the world, and not (contrary to popular belief) a world whose author was on shrooms. It’s got surrealism, it’s got poems and songs, it’s got Victorian charm, and subtle satire that has long since faded out of recognition (but is explained in The Annotated Alice). Something about the nonsensical and upbeat dream story has stuck in our culture.
The characters and story are so ridiculously well-known, they’ve become an archetype of their own. They are instantly recognised and so new writers taking on the story can tweak it as they wish…
There are far too many adaptations to count, ranging from the earliest days of film (a short piece was made in 1903 using some of the first special effects) to modern graphic novels and electronic games. Most famous of late would be Disney’s two movie adaptations, the 1951 animation and the 2010 dark, stylish and edgy reincarnation brought to life by Tim Burton.
Both Alice and Wonderland often undergo some degree of darkening and sharpening in their adaptations and allusions, for some reason, possibly because the juxtaposition of the grim and gothic against the upbeat sugar of the original fits with the bizarre, topsy-turvy tone of Wonderland itself. The Victorian era was also one for the spooky and so they fit together strangely nicely, especially if you think too long and hard about some of the logical implications of Wonderland (abusive parents who own disappearing cats? Mad tyrannical queens? Running in one spot and never being able to move? Being trapped in an unreal world down a hole?!)…
The dream element is often played with for the purposes of darkening the narrative and aesthetic, as in American McGee’s Alice and Alice: Madness Returns where the happy-go-lucky nonsensical characters that populate Wonderland are twisted hallucinations the Alice character finds herself trapped with.
Japanese fiction has leapt on the archetype, possibly connected with its fashion culture’s adoration for all things pseudo-Victorian. And of course, being Japan, they can’t let anything go through without making it a bit more awesome: In the adaptation Alice in the Country of Hearts, a visual novel (like a choose your own adventure game, in basic terms) and adapted manga series, Alice is whisked off to Wonderland by the White Rabbit where she discovers that not only are all the well-known characters given human guises that are all shockingly attractive (it’s a romance game, after all) but the Hatter and Queen are involved in a vicious gang war that Alice is now caught in the middle of.
The manga series Pandora Hearts is also weighted with allusion and draws on darker versions of the themes and characters—a young noble falls into a strange, illogical and haunting world known as the Abyss where his only help is a mysterious girl named Alice, who traverses the strange and dreamlike underworld and is looking for her lost memories. Are You Alice? features a murder game and a genderbent hero… the list goes on.
Several anime series also feature Alice in Wonderland themed specials, Black Butler and Ouran High School Host Club among them.
In the Western world, The Looking Glass Wars trilogy by Frank Beddor explores a war-torn version of Wonderland with a young heroine named Alyss as its rightful heir, but stowed safely in our world to keep her out of reach from her vengeful Aunt Redd. Both the DC and Marvel comic universes have Wonderland inspired characters, usually villains. There’s Beatrice Sparks’ diary-style story of a girl’s descent into a mad world of drugs, Go Ask Alice, and French-Canadian horror novel Aliss that sees the beloved character archetypes turned into murderers and drug-addicts.
There it is again, violence, sin, darkness and madness drawn out of the happy-go-lucky, upside-down world of Wonderland. Part of the fun of all this is that the characters and settings are so ridiculously well known that adaptations and allusions can get crazier and crazier without abandon and still be recognisable. Designers and writers have enormous amounts of fun recreating and putting new spins on beloved and by now generic characters, and new imaginings are coming to life at least yearly.
Alice in Wonderland is a huge part of our popular culture, locked into association with dream logic, journeys to magical worlds, drug imagery, surrealism, satire, Victorian and gothic charm, and everything in between. It can be presented for children and families but adapted and tweaked for an older and darker audience, playing with the characters and archetypes we know so well for viewer engagement and shock value. It’s come on a long trip from that golden afternoon where it was first created, and it can only get madder from here.