Over the past few decades, the motion picture industry has interwoven with literature, so much so that film adaptations of great literary works have become a popular thread in the fabric of the seventh art, becoming a main branch in the field of interdisciplinary studies. Although the two mediums have their own unique structures, the process by which a literary work finds itself transformed into its visual counterpart can be quite thought-provoking if not even intriguing. Today a great number of the critically acclaimed creations in the cinema industry are based on stories that first appeared in literature, to the extent that some authors are actually mainstreamed after the release of their work’s movie adaptation, that is, if it receives a good reception.
In A Theory of Adaptation, Linda Hutcheon maintains that due to the conventions that make each medium unique, it would be preposterous to expect complete and utter faithfulness when it comes to adaptation; while differing enough from the original, an adaptation should still preserve the fundamental basis of the source. Comparing adaptation to translation and then language, she states ‘just as there is no such thing as a literal translation, there can be no literal adaptation’ (Hutcheon 16). That said, the question that I for one have had for some time is why some adaptations differ so glaringly from their original text. To put in bleak terms, the answer lies in the grime of the modern world; the current commercial culture’s encroachment on almost every other form of culture.
Although the exact degree to which it occurs, its different facets and varying manifestations need to be explored in a more comprehensive way that is not possible here for the sake of brevity, the immense impact of commercial culture cannot be denied. Symptoms of this intrusion are evident in the realm of cinema as well. Alas, it has almost become a tradition for producers to take advantage of a great selling movie by following it up with a sequel, as evident by the sheer number of such films. These sequels hardly ever match up to the first iteration as they do not really need to have the same quality and can merely be profitable through their successful predecessor. The motion picture Alice Through the Looking Glass is no exception. Released in 2016 and with the art of cinematography growing every year, one would expect the movie adaptation to be on par with the novel or predecessor quality-wise. Being the sequel to a highly successful movie, Alice in the Wonderland, it has, surprisingly, managed to do well in the box office regardless of being a disappointment through and through. These failures of a sequel have become a commonplace occurrence in the film industry. What makes this particular sequel worth further study is the fact that it is an adaptation of a much-loved storybook, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, and does this story a great harm and dishonor in its portrayal. Rather than being an adaptation, it feels like a hostage taking situation where Lewis Carroll’s book has been used for its name, one single line of dialogue and nothing else. After comparing the original source and the cinematic version, one might make better understanding of why Virginia Woolf described cinema as ‘parasite’ and literature its ‘victim’ (Woolf 309).
Looking at how different these two are, it is clear that the movie has not modeled itself on the book but has rather borrowed a few elements here and there only to serve its own purpose. To understand the reason behind this disparity, we must first look at how the production of a sequel is normally done to ensure the highest gross profit. A good sequel must bring back the main elements that made the original movie a success, but must also include new elements to keep the new production fresh. Alice Through the Looking Glass accomplishes this through a number of ways: the story line, the setting, and the cast.
In the storybooks, the plot of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are completely separate and do not follow the same story line. What Alice sees in the Looking-Glass world is completely unaffected by her journey through the Wonderland, and the two share very few features, except that they are both imaginary. However, this would not lend itself to the production of a sequel in any way since producers hope to bring back the same audience as the original movie and even hopefully get them to re-watch it to make better sense of the new iteration. To achieve this, Alice Through the Looking Glass starts off where Alice in Wonderland ended. At the end of the first movie we saw Alice going on a voyage, and the second movie begins with her return from that voyage. What we are presented with in the rest of the movie reveals that this sequel functions more as an origin movie. We are given a glimpse of the past with the help of Chronosphere which has no place in the lore of the story books. In this way, the audience learns about Hatter and both queens’ origins as well as realizing why Hatter was stuck waiting for Alice to arrive for tea time.
Another complete disregard for the book happens in regard to the setting. One might argue that in the adaptation we actually do not see the world of Looking Glass. It is true that Alice steps into this alternative world through a looking glass, however, the world beyond the Looking Glass has rules particular to itself, namely everything is in reverse; left is right, far is close, time moves in reverse, and the entire world functions as a chess table, but none of this holds true in the movie. What’s more, it is blatantly announced that Alice is going back to the Wonderland and, of course, where she goes is reminiscent of where she had been in the original movie. The only difference seems to be the passing of time, which has aged the characters and bettered the visual effects. The movie does not stop there, but rather introduces us to another part of this world, the Underworld. The Underworld is colossal and rigid, systematic and calculated, and colored in dark and somber hues. Compare this to the ever-changing, unpredictable nature of the Looking Glass world!
Arguably, a major upside to Alice in Wonderland film was its star power. Johnny Depp (Mad Hatter) and Helena Bonham Carter (Red Queen) portray their characters beautifully. Alan Rickman (Caterpillar) and Stephen Fry (Cheshire Cat) bring weight to the movie with the voices and Anne Hathaway (White Queen) is the perfect eye candy. One can imagine how distraught the production crew must have been when they realized none of these characters were in the Looking Glass World. The characters that the two stories do share are: Alice, Humpty-Dumpty, Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Alice is of course the protagonist, Humpty-Dumpty has just five seconds of screen time and Tweedledum and Tweedledee are basically in the background. Without starts such as Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, Alice Through the Looking Glass may well have been box-office failure; and therefore, the original plot was altered and written to include them as primary characters, but fails in doing so, as they seem to be less characters than merely ornamental benchmarks designed to stir up nostalgia in the audience. The only other newly introduced main character is Sasha Baron Cohen (Time), a well-known actor whose character had no part in the storybooks.
Another point worth mentioning is how a major theme in the movie is the fight of a strong female character against a patriarchal society; the ship captain whom Alice fights for her right to follow her dream through a slew of bushy moustaches, long clock hands and giant syringes. While an admirable effort to empower the young female audience, it would be naïve not to point out that in today’s cinema, gender-bending characters and anti-patriarchal overtones sell. What’s more, they are done so overtly and so frequently that one might have to concede that the primary goal was once again the dollar bolls rather than culture building.
Laurence Raw explain in Translation, Adaptation and Transformation that ‘If an adaptation can maintain fidelity to the original, it will be criticized for being unoriginal. If, conversely, it attempts to interpret the earlier work of provide a new twist, it will be criticized for violating the integrity of the original’ (Raw 4). He later concludes that a properly adapted piece should try to stay in line with the original to some extent, themes namely. The storybook could have been a plethora of inspiration for the production crew, from the beautifully written dialogues and poems to the mesmerizing setting of Looking Glass World with its peculiar creatures who all played a part in a tightly-knit plot to get Alice to the last row so that she would become the queen. All this and more were ignored, and instead we were presented with badly written and at times nauseating dialogue, taking place within a plot riddled with holes and set in a world far from the wonders of Lewis Carol’s book.
On balance, it is not difficult to see how almost every element in this movie is aimed at gathering as much revenue as possible. Using every bit of star power, plot manipulation and misuse of gender studies possible, director James Bobin has managed to rake in 299.5 million dollars of profit. What makes this even more appalling is that the production crew seemed to not have cared even a bit about the quality of the plot, the dialogue, and the general cinematography under the pretext that the movie will sell by the sheer weight of the first movie, an appearance from Johnny Depp and tailoring the movie toward a young audience. It is also greatly regrettable that after seeing this movie, some moviegoers might mistakenly think that the book is the same as the movie, rather than the beautiful and engrossing masterpiece that it is which can captivate even an adult reader, effecting reconciliation with our past infancy, let alone a child. New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael once wrote ‘If some people would rather see the movie than read the book, this may be a fact of life that we must allow for, but let’s not pretend that people get the same things out of both, or that nothing is lost’ (43). Trying to cram as many star power as possible into the movie, you will be sorely disappointed if you are looking for an accurate representation of Lewis Carroll’s story since in this case it seems almost as if everything is lost.