I’m still thinking about why so many movie and television adaptations of Alice in Wonderland have been unsatisfactory (including, in my opinion, Tim Burton’s latest attempt.) But perhaps the more important question is why the original books by Lewis Carroll continue to be beloved after so many years, even though, as I pointed out before, there isn’t much of a story there.
I think there are 4 main reasons why they are so popular, and the failures of the adaptations have a lot to do with their failure to measure up in these areas.
1) They are wildly imaginative. Wonderland, as conceived by Lewis Carroll and illustrated by John Tenniel, is an amazing place. Actually the adaptations generally do a pretty good job here, piling on the special effects.
2) Alice is a very brave little girl. She finds herself in a strange place, surrounded by monsters who are mean to her, but she remains totally self-possessed. If she feels afraid she is careful not to show it. (She does cry once at the beginning, when nobody is watching.) Of course she is just dreaming, but it is significant that she doesn’t view it as a nightmare. Here the adaptations take a totally different tack, making a point of showing that Alice is frightened and wants to go home.
3) There is a lot of material that appeals to smart adults. All of the satire and logic jokes. The adaptations tend to cut out as much of this material as possible, and garble what is left.
4) The books are subversive. Victorian children’s literature was filled with morally uplifting stories about children who accomplished noble deeds, guided by adult mentors who showed them the correct path, though occasionally hindered by false friends who attempted to lead them astray. Modern children’s literature isn’t all that different, though the Important Moral Lessons that we want to impart are somewhat different from what the Victorians thought were important.
(Lewis Carroll actual wrote a children’s story of that sort, called Sylvie and Bruno, but it is barely remembered today.)
With the Alice books he took a different approach. “Hey kids,” he seems to say, “Suppose that the adults who are always lecturing you are actually crazy! Maybe the things they are saying really don’t make any sense. Suppose that it is up to you to figure things out for yourself? Anyway, don’t expect any answers from me. Nothing I say makes sense either!”
This aspect tends to be missing from the adaptations. Instead they try to give us a more conventional story in which Alice learns an Important Lesson.