`But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked. `Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: `we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’ `How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice. `You must be,’ said the Cat, `or you wouldn’t have come here.’ Alice didn’t think that proved it at all… (Carroll, Chapter VI)
Unsettling interpretations have bled through the years to present themselves within numerous adaptations and derivative works of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, ranging from vaguely disconcerting to downright creepy. While some variants indulge themselves with cannibalistic stuffed rabbits (Alice, 1988) or somewhat uncanny flowers (Alice in Wonderland, 1955), one of the most common themes to reappear is that of madness, a word plucked directly from the original text (for heaven’s sake there is a syndrome named for the book). The twisting of Alice and the themes of insanity in its adaptations are an inevitability built into its place in time as a literary work.
It is safe to say the Victorians had an unhealthy obsession with insanity; or at the very least a worrying preoccupation. Which, in their time and place, would be pretty much the same thing. The 1840’s asylum reforms pushed the subject of mental health and its treatment to the fore of the public conscious (Showalter, 158), still shot through by the horrific (and now wildly publicized by the reform movement)memory of the eighteenth century madhouses, so much that come the 1860’s people were still talking (and writing) about the matter.
Alice does not exist in a vacuum and Victorian authors were pretty big on crazy. The rate of occurrence of the “mad woman” in contemporary fiction approached trope-like levels. Inspired in part by the newly inordinate disproportion of women to men in the post reformation mental institutions (Showalter, 159). While the image of madness had been made palatable to look on, the more gruesome memories remained more engaging to write. Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic: Bertha Antoinetta Mason, Lady Audley of Lady Audley’s Secret, and of course the eponymous Anne Catherick of Woman in White (and later Laura Fairlie), all products of the latter half of the 1800’s, many of which concern a sane woman whose circumstances push her to madness, usually after her institutionalization rather than prior. Suffice to say, crazy ladies were a certifiable “thing” in Victorian pop-culture, baring little surprise that the theme could worm its way into the work of one Lewis Carroll.
As works contemporary to Carroll’s Alice ruminating on similar themes of sanity and madness, some degree of intertextual examination is invited. Except, in the above listed works, these narratives were dark, dangerous, and twisted things, representing horrifying transformative experiences for the characters involved. Then there is Alice, with her whimsy and nonsensical adventures, where lighthearted references to madness are tossed about like a then-timely joke, aware of their relevance but without embracing the macabre aspects of the others, women transformed not by drink and cookies, but by their confinement. One article gushes about Alice’s expressive, inquisitive and determined perfection, about how her adventure was brought on by her inability to remain still (Levin, 596) and another points to the asylums’ regimens as restricting women to the Victorian “quiet, virtuous and immobile” ideal of femininity (Showalter, 167.) If the pattern of the above texts is to be followed, it’s the most natural thing in the world for an adaptation to view Alice’s dreams of Wonderland and through the looking glass are merely the inciting incident, with the confinement character and true insanity to follow.
Some modern adaptations address mental and neurological disorders in more specific ways than the blanket term of Victorian “madness”. Malice in Wonderland (2009) afflicts the surrogate Alice character with amnesia. Phoebe of Phoebe in Wonderland (2008) is diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome. Whereas others embrace the full tilt psychosis implied of madness, more effectively complete the confinement and subsequent true insanity of the popular Victorian arc: Sucker Punch (2011), described by director Zack Snyder as, “Alice in Wonderland with machine guns,” is set in an asylum wherein the main character escapes to an imagined reality. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G68fHZig9nA And of course, there is American McGee’s Alice (2000). More a continuation than an adaptation, it directly picks up the original story after Alice’s time in Wonderland and the looking glass, she is struck by personal tragedy, leaving her confined to an asylum, where she retreats to a Wonderland as bent and broken as her own mind.
The cherry on top of the matter is the syndrome named for the work: Alice in Wonderland Syndrome. For what it’s worth we are assured that, “In the writer’s experience the anxiety… can be appreciably lessened by the assurance that… symptoms are not necessarily the prelude to insanity (Todd,704).”
So here at least, Alice isn’t completely mad. Not yet. Not necessarily.
Braddon, M. E. Lady Audley’s Secret,. New York: Dover Publications, 1974. Print. Brontë, Charlotte, Fritz Eichenberg, and Bruce Rogers. Jane Eyre. New York: Random House, 1943. Print. Carroll, Lewis, and Martin Gardner. The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass,. New York: C. N. Potter, 1960. Print. Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. New York: Knopf, 1991. Print. Levin, Harry. “Wonderland Revisited.” The Kenyon Review 27.4 (1965): 591-616. Print. Malice in Wonderland. Dir. Simon Fellows. Perf. Maggie Grace, Danny Dyer and Matt King. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2009. DVD. McGee, American. American McGee’s Alice. Vers. 1. Electronic Arts, Rogue Entertainment, 2000. Computer software. Phoebe in Wonderland. Dir. Daniel Barnz. Perf. Elle Fanning Felicity Huffman Patricia Clarkson Bill Pullman Campbell Scott Peter Gerety Bailee Madison. THINKFilm, 2008. DVD. Showalter, Elaine. “Victorian Women and Insanity.” Victorian Studies 23.2 (1980): 157-81. Print. Sucker Punch. Dir. Zack Snyder. Perf. Emily Browning Abbie Cornish Jena Malone Vanessa Hudgens Jamie Chung Carla Gugino Oscar Isaac Jon Hamm Scott Glenn. Legendary Pictures, Cruel and Unusual Films, 2011. DVD. Todd, J. “The Syndrome of Alice in Wonderland.” Canadian Medical Association Journal 73.9 (1955): 701-04. Print.
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