Some thoughts on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and children’s literature.
First, I must apologize to my loyal Readers for the long silence this week. It has been one of those bizarre weeks where nothing seems to go quite right, but nothing goes badly enough to feel justified in complaining. So, I decided to forgo my usual midweek post and avoid the risk of it coming out snarky. Fear not, next week will involve a midweek post, which I am hoping to pin down firmly to Wednesday. Hopefully I can find big enough push-pins!
A few things have happened recently in the world of the internet to influence today’s topic. One of them is a story arc over at one of my favorite comics, Ph.D Comics, retelling Alice in Wonderland using the webcomic characters. Another is this article from the Brisbane Times online. The article essentially bemoans the fact that movie producers are taking “children’s” stories and turning them into adult movies, which are too scary for small children (the author’s specific example is her five-year-old son).
Now, I am not an expert in children’s literature. In fact, I’ve never written a story I would be comfortable sharing with a child in my life. I did start reading at a very early age, and quickly read at an advanced level, and further I remember the approximate ages I first read various ‘classics’ and when I first enjoyed them. What follows below is simply my opinion, however.
In the above article, the author complains that Tim Burton’s new film is going to be too scary for her five-year-old son, and most other young children as well. I can certainly accept that, Tim Burton doesn’t really make children’s movies, after all. The journalist goes on to call Mr. Burton “a repeat offender at taking children’s books and turning them into films for adults.” Now remember, the specific movie she is complaining about is Alice in Wonderland, though she also cites Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Where the Wild Things Are. I’ve never read the book Charlie comes from, and I have not (yet) seen Wild Things, so I do not feel I can comment on them.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a different story. And not a children’s one. I have read both the first book, and its sequel Through the Looking Glass (And What Alice Found There), in normal and annotated versions. I feel reasonably confident in stating, that despite its child protagonist, Alice is in no way a children’s story. Don’t get me wrong, I also adore the Disney movie, and devoutly hope my children enjoy it as well, as a precursor to reading the actual book. I highly doubt that they will be able or interested in appreciating the book until after they outgrow the Disney version, however.
We must take both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass together in any discussion of cinematic productions of Mr. Carroll’s works for the simple fact that every movie ever made appears to have incorporated scenes from both, while remaining largely true to the basic theme of Alice. So, looking at the first book, we find that it is not particularly scary to begin with, only confusing. I would say, even more confusing to a child who, for instance, would be unlikely to understand what a caucus race is, or why it is amusing that Alice thinks one would dry you off and why it involves running in a circle (remember we are discussing 5 or 6 year-olds).
While Alice itself isn’t terribly scary, only very strange, Looking Glass is just a bit darker, and every bit as weird. There are the flowers, shown in the scene below from Disney’s version as rather happy dancing things.
Now, in the original version they are actually quite harsh, and Alice’s threat to the daisies, with the tiger-lily’s approval, is just a bit macabre. Then of course the classic poems (Jabberwocky, Tweedledee and Tweedldum, etc) embodied in the text are a bit obscure for a five-year-old to appreciate. Not to mention the rather dark turn the Tweedles’ tale takes with the appearance of the large black crow. And I hardly need mention the heavy dose of philosophical thought (Alice being merely a figment in the Red King’s dream among other things). A final example is the entire premise for this book, that of a chess game, which few children would truly appreciate, unless they happened to be one of those rare children who is a chess prodigy.
Nor is Lewis Carroll the only Lewis incorrectly categorized as children’s literature. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series is also generally assumed to be children’s literature. I would probably accept that designation for the first book, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. However, the books become progressively more message-heavy as the series progresses, and speaking from experience, they also become less interesting to young children. When I was about six or seven, my mother lent me her boxed set of Narnia to read (yes, I come by my love of SF/F honestly!) because I was interested. So I tried, and thoroughly enjoyed the first. That set was organized generally in chronological order, and I made it through the first three books, each boring me more than the last, and finally stopped reading halfway through The Silver Chair. I just didn’t understand it. Less than a decade later, sometime in my mid-teens, I returned to Lewis’s Narnia, and loved every single one, because then I was finally old enough to appreciate the message woven into each story.
The point of all this is simple. Just because a book has an outwardly simple premise, a child protagonist, and a Disney movie, don’t assume that it is suitable, or even interesting for children. What other stories have been popularly categorized as ‘children’s literature’ but are emphatically not?
Thought for the Week: “Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.” Lewis Carroll
Currently Reading: Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll