It’s a poorly-kept secret that nowadays, myths have gone to Hollywood. Joseph Campbell spent time holed up with filmmaker George Lucas, helping him hash out the first Star Wars movies (and to my mind, the recent three were missing that timeless spark).
In Campbell’s classic book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he outlines a “universal myth,” or at least a pattern that seems to appeal so strongly to human psychology that stories with similar plot elements and figures turn up again and again. Unfortunately, this has led to some reverse engineering: following Christopher Vogler’s bestselling writer’s handbook inspired by Campbell’s work, a number of fiction writers and screenplay writers have adapted Hero as a formula, plugging in heroes, the “quest,” and plot points as if trying to follow a brownie recipe. It doesn’t work, when done deliberately.
Luckily, some of the most inspired (or insane) filmmakers stumble on mythology by accident. And then it recaptures what the old myths always tried to do: tell us a story, please, a “true” story that transcends our daily life yet tells us things that ring true, a story we already know in our heart of hearts, told in a new and magical way.
Tim Burton’s recent adaptation of Alice in Wonderland received mixed reviews, but to my mind, it is such a story. However, the hero is a girl on the cusp of womanhood, and she follows in the footsteps of Psyche (the grandmother of the “Beauty & the Beast” folk-tale) and Vasilisa than Arthur and Achilles.
Without apology, I’m going to launch on an analysis of this movie as mythology. If you haven’t seen it, you should. I think it’s Burton’s best film in many years.
One of the most important aspects of mythology is its ability to transform. Every era tells the classic stories anew, whether it’s Shakespeare messing with Greek and Roman comedy, or Disney revamping another folktale for what it assumes to be modern tastes. Tim Burton’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass is no exception, ingeniously casting them as the backstory for a new adventure when Alice is no longer a little girl, but a maiden at just the right age for the hero’s quest.
Our tale opens, as all myths must, with a flashback to childhood, setting up Alice as a special child with a special father (this, too, is classic mythmaking). He and she are both mad, inspired. As often happens in such stories, the father passes away early, leaving our hero to find her way.
At first, the world she is in pushes her along an ordinary path: Victorian England with its garden parties, high society, alliances of business and marriage, propriety and property. Alice is to be engaged: it’s all been decided, as her sister informs her. But Alice does not fit; she is different. In the nick of time, a Hermes-like messenger, the White Rabbit, shows her a Door, and she makes a dash for it.
She falls. As Tolkien once remarked, every myth is ultimately about a fall, although he was thinking of a different sort of fall.
Alice lands in Underland (Wonderland), where her party of magical helpers and hinderers are waiting, almost like parts of her own psyche trying to give her advice and doubts. No wonder she thinks it a dream. But myths do not happen in dream-land; they happen in another place, as this movie stresses more than once: Underland is real, and Alice cannot find her way out until she has come to believe in it enough she can learn from it.
There is a prophecy. Of course, there must be a prophecy. And a quest: she is to slay the Jabberwocky. There has to be a dragon, after all. Alice, who hasn’t quite got the hang of the myth she’s fallen into, declares she’ll do nothing of the sort.
Luke has Obi-wan, Arthur has Merlin, and poor Alice gets dragged at once to the Caterpillar, played by Alan Rickman in his usual obnoxious fashion. The “wise old man” figure sneers that she is “not hardly Alice,” and this sets the theme for her quest: the creatures say she’s the wrong Alice, but perhaps, as the Tweedles say, she might be the right Alice after all. But she’ll have to prove it.
Alice has entered the phase of the Reluctant Hero. Heroes almost never want to go off and slay the dragon at the start of myths. They have to be brought to it. Her first nudge — or wake-up call— is a fierce one. She’s wounded by the Bandersnatch, badly. And several of her newfound friends are captured and carried off, giving her a reason to care.
Now at last, it’s time for Alice to meet her sidekick/ally figure, the Hatter. He’s a trickster figure (it’s Johnny Depp, after all), and he is the first one in Underland to show faith in her as “the right Alice.” He is a mentor figure, teaching her about the dynamics of this world with its red and white queens, about why her quest matters, about who she is or could be. He laments that she has “lost her muchness,” but his words goad her into finding her “muchness” — the hero’s quest is always about self-discovery, not only saving the world. The Hatter tells her of the good world that was lost. Most of all, he gives her a personal stake in all this: throwing himself to the dogs, literally, to help her escape the Red Queen’s clutches, the Hatter becomes Alice’s reason to fight.
In another stroke of quirky inspiration, Tim Burton makes the Hatter’s hat an important symbol: Alice is rescued by riding it. When, the next morning, she decides to go rescue the Hatter (against the advice of a faithful hound, and talking animals had to come in here sooner or later), she tells Bayard “don’t forget the hat.” The vorpal sword is the symbol of Alice’s muchness, and she must go and find it, but she knows the hat is important to the Hatter, the symbol of his muchness, and he’ll need it back to be himself again. However many selves that may be.
Deviating from the path seems to be part of Alice’s muchness, to judge by her behavior at the beginning of this story, and so off she goes to the Red Queen’s palace. There she has to pass several tests. Part one is to cross the river Styx — well, a moat of dead heads, anyway, and if that’s not the river of death, I’m a dragon. Part two is the most dangerous: she must win the Red Queen’s favor and join her court. Heroes often wind up taking lessons on evil from evil. At this point Alice is dressed in decidedly tart-like clothes. She is just becoming a young woman now, and so must face her next obstacle: an unwanted suitor, the Knave, whom she brushes off.
There is an oddly touching moment in this part of the story. Alice finds the Hatter now trapped and working in the Red Queen’s employ. At the moment, Alice is larger than he is: she has been growing and shrinking throughout the story, symbolic of the changes she’s going through. While she was almost a child when she first came to Underland, there is a moment when Alice comforts the distraught Hatter, putting her hands on his face, where she seems almost a mother. “Why is it?” he asks her wistfully, “you are always too small or too tall?” She gives him back his hat, and he is himself again. But now they are only back to square one. She needs that hero-sword.
So it’s off to obstacle number four: the Bandersnatch. Now, Alice has been sporting a wound from the Bandersnatch’s claws all this time; the wounded hero is yet another stock motif. And it’s a well-known trope of mythology that the poison of the snake that bit you will often cure you. But Alice doesn’t know that. Bravely, she goes in to face her worst fear (so far), the Bandersnatch, who turns out to be carrying the key to her hero-sword. Symbolism much? She tames the savage beast, Beauty & the Beast style, by giving him back his eye; once he can see (and there’s yet another pile of mythology connected with wisdom and losing/gaining eyes), the Bandersnatch recognizes her as a friend or savior, heals her of the wound he inflicted, and rescues her when the Red Queen’s lackeys come after her.
Having tamed her magical steed, Alice carries the Vorpal Sword off to the White Queen (dispossessed monarchs seem to crop up often in hero-quests). Now here is a point where I’m sure modern audiences may have been disturbed: good ought to be good, yet the White Queen is a little disturbing, with her “buttered fingers” and slightly creepy manner. Seelie and Unseelie in Celtic mythology: neither are quite like us. The gods in most pantheons do things that wouldn’t be right for mere mortals. The White Queen’s strangeness has a dreamlike, mythic quality too.
The Hatter, meanwhile, has been on his own secondary hero-quest, and had to give up his hat (himself) in order to be saved. Alice is relieved to see him, and confides in him her fears about the battle to come: but she still thinks she is dreaming, so she can’t fully open herself to his counsel, or his faith in her.
The next morning, Alice is right back where she started this whole adventure: in front of a large audience expecting her to face a dragon. It helps a little that the White Queen is more honest about it: if Alice says yes, she’s in deep trouble. Alice runs, again. And there she finds the Caterpillar, who gives her a Vision. The vision is of herself, and at last Alice truly realizes who she is. Muchness managed.
Now that Alice knows she is the right Alice, and this isn’t a dream, but some strange mythic reality where dead is dead and queens need champions, she dons her Joan of Arc armor, mounts her magical steed, and goes off to slay the dragon. She recites the lessons she’s learned during the battle — lopping off Christopher Lee’s tongue before he can get in his usual sonorous villain speech — and when Alice slays her dragon, the queen, too, regains who she is. That’s a champion’s job, but it’s a nice change from the usual “knight and lady” pattern that we’ve got “maiden and older woman” instead.
Sadly, part of the usual mythic pattern is the hero’s return. Alice can’t stay in Underland, Never-Never Land, or Circe’s Isle. She has to go home. But she’ll take back what she’s learned to face dragons in the real world: unwanted suitors, obnoxious relatives, and the challenges of growing up and finding a life for herself are infinitely easier now that she’s slain a Jabberwocky.
And lest you think it’s a dream, the scars of the Bandersnatch’s claws are still on her arm when she comes out of the rabbit hole. And the Caterpillar, too, transformed into a butterfly, stops by to salute Alice after she has transformed herself.
I think Joseph Campbell would have liked this film.