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Saturday, March 06, 2010

Alice, the Mother of Invention

Tenniel, Alice and the Dodo


I am Red-Queen wroth with Richard Corliss. In Time, the much-published film critic starts out a lively article on Burton’s treatment of Alice with the question, “Did many children truly love Lewis Carroll's Alice books? Did they embrace the absurdities and antique wordplay of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass with the same rapt fervor they invested in other favorite stories, or did they find the Carroll works dry and remote? Couldn't it be that kids were listening out of politeness to the big person sitting by their bed? Martin Gardner, author of the 1960 The Annotated Alice, thought so. ‘It is only because adults — scientists and mathematicians in particular — continue to relish the Alice books,’ he wrote, ‘that they are assured of immortality.’ Make that scientists, mathematicians and '60s potheads, who saw Alice's descent into the rabbit hole, the EAT ME cake and the mushroom-borne caterpillar as evidence of the first great psychedelic trip.” He ends his feature by referring to “the kids who find this film much livelier than earlier versions and easier to warm to than the original. And is Burton's vision trippy enough to serve as a hallucinogenic blast? Go ask Alice.”

High, all right.

Very high dudgeon.

I haven’t seen Tim Burton’s movie yet. N, age 12, saw it today and liked it. R will see it tomorrow with the group of high schoolers who are doing “Alice” as the senior play--and she will no doubt be more measured and analytical than N. In the senior play, R is playing the Dodo, although I would guess that in her heart of hearts she is Alice.

No doubt the rest of us shall get around to seeing the movie some time. Of course, it would be difficult for me to like a movie better than the original.

And that leads me back to Richard Corliss. He asks, “Did many children truly love Lewis Carroll’s Alice books?”

Dear Richard Corliss, I was given a slipcased copy of the two books when I was five years old and living in Gramercy, Louisiana, a suitably down-the-rabbit-hole kind of place where our tomato plants grew up into the live oak trees and giant spiders lived in holes in the back yard and where I wore earrings that were live lizards, their throats pulsing helplessly. And yes, I “truly loved” the Alice books. If love means to read them over and over, then I loved and loved dearly. I read them under the covers. In the tub. Down the rabbit hole and up in a tree. And over many years. The Alice books taught me the fine art of re-reading, which is the very best sort of reading and should never be discouraged in children.

“Did they embrace the absurdities and antique wordplay of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass with the same rapt fervor they invested in other favorite stories, or did they find the Carroll works dry and remote?”

a.) Yes, this “they” did—and with the fervor of a March Hare in intoxicating spring grass or a Mad Hatter spinning in a mercury hat.

b.) Dry and remote? Dry and remote?

Despite all of your charm and all of your fame as a movie critic, Richard Corliss, I am in the highest of dudgeons.

These are fertile books. Little boys and girls have grown up to draw and paint and write and compose who drank at the sparkling fount of Wonderland. Have any other books intended for children given birth to so astonishingly many illustrators? Or to so much opera, fiction, and art of all sorts?

“Couldn't it be that kids were listening out of politeness to the big person sitting by their bed?”

This is a very odd conception of children and is entirely too coy, Richard Corliss. Children do not listen to “the big person” out of a desire not to be rude. They just don’t. Any book that doesn’t hold its own is quickly jettisoned, either by being clearly rejected (verbally or by tossings) or by the child tumbling into that other Wonderland, slumber.

Mr. Corliss, I want to tell you in all confidence that there is something rather creepy about “the big person” you imagine sitting by the child’s bed. Perhaps “the big person” has crawled out of that horror zone under the bed with the dropped books, socks, and dust bunnies: the lair of monsters. To your imagined “big person,” I say to keep altogether out of my children’s rooms!

On a side note regarding rejections, it is wrong to think that any book can be the right book for every child, just as it is wrong to think that any book can be the right book for every “big person.”

I am not a “big person.” For once, I am relieved and satisfied to be 5’3”. And maybe a tad over that mark? But not more than a tad.

“Martin Gardner, author of the 1960 The Annotated Alice, thought . . . ‘It is only because adults —scientists and mathematicians in particular — continue to relish the Alice books,’ he wrote, ‘that they are assured of immortality.’”

And now I must go head-to-head with Martin Gardner, it seems . . . This is wrong-headed. What assures the immortality of the Alice books is that they are wonderfully, impossibly fecund! They give birth to new works of art and have done so over many years. That is, Richard Corliss, why you are writing a review about a movie sprung from Alice for Time: because a little girl called Alice is the mother of invention.

So there, dear Mr. Richard Corliss.

It’s a rather nice name, Richard Corliss.

I wonder if he would let me borrow it for a whirl of adventure . . .


  1. Well said, Marly!!
    i hope you send it to him directly, or at least email him with a link to your Palace.

  2. While I realize that a lovely spring zephyr wanders and gambols where she likes, I am afraid that I plant my little seeds in my private garden and don't inflict the produce on anybody unless they stop to look!

    Mine is no doubt an obscure garden. People (and zephyrs and other creatures) flit by; occasionally one leaves a note. I am incapable of collaring anybody and still believe in reticence.

    My ancestors with their good Southern manners look at me disapprovingly when I cross a certain line. Too bad for me in today's naked shouting, I suppose.

  3. Thanks, Marly. Point well made. My oldest daughter (12) decided Monday to read the books before seeing the movie this weekend. I am big (5'11") but didn't make her read them! She just picked up my old used bookstore volume and read them and loved them!
    PS. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your Val/Orson!!! Thank you!

  4. Halloo, Tonya--

    That is grand; I'm glad she is a Carroll-reader. And I'm glad you are a Youmans-reader, too. So glad that you liked "Val/Orson"!

    My daughter is as well. And I remember very vividly being up with her in the night at our old house in South Carolina. She was sick and had a fever and was lying in the big clawfoot tub, feverish and miserable, and I read her all of "Alice."

  5. I love Alice, and have done so since I was even smaller than I am now, which is less than 5 feet tall. I agree wholeheartedly with you about these books, and wonder what he considers a real children's classic.

  6. Rah! Short Alice-fans and assorted munchkins unite!

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. Revised version.
    Well voiced Marly. These critics get far too uppity on occasion. Prejudice of a most unseemly kind has reared up to neatly betray this particular critic's ignorance.

    One of the things that I love most about Alice, and the aspect that invariably suffers in cinema and stage versions, is the sheer delirium of the wordplay. I haven't seen the Burton film yet, though if past examples of his work are anything to go by, he'll be more committed to the images than to the wordplay. All the CGI in the world can never for me replace the fabulousness of Jabberwocky spilling from my lips as I repeated and repeated it as a child, committing it to memory so that I could take it out and play with it even when I didn't have a copy of the book to hand. (Burton is going to have to work particularly hard to win me over, as I haven't yet forgiven him... and I suspect that I never shall... for the travesty that ruined Sondheim's Sweeney Todd in the transition to film!!! There, that's MY prejudice aired!)

  9. Clive,

    A revised comment! Dearie me, you shall be setting a new standard in comments!

    Yes, we are Jabberwockian reciters as well. My middle child has memorized a number of poems over the years, and I believe the very first was "Jabberwocky." Grand swing and sound, no matter one's age.

    There's a Burton show ongoing at MOMA--think it's near the tail end now. And there is a lot of Burtoniana up at the MOMA site.

    I'm not surprised that you think he ought to pay more attention to the language in his movies. A great many people in the visual arts fail to ground the visual in the verbal when they combine the two, and Burton definitely comes at film from the visual side. Not Clive-the-painter, of course: you have a grand background in word and theatre.

    I've often had artists show me children's picture books they wanted to place--and found that the pictures were accomplished but that they didn't have a strong enough text to make them meaningful.

    And I'm not revising this comment! (Is that why word verification is "suckalat"?)There are children to be herded this morning!

  10. Oh please, please delete my original comment Marly. i must have been foggy with sleep and my brain wasn't working properly. And it's embarrassing now everyone knows how anally retentive I am, revising my comments on your blog!!!

    For me John Tenniel will always be the definitive Alice illustrator, quite simply because his drawings were the ones that I first knew. There have been good and bad re-imaginings ever since (more of the latter than the former) but still I come back to JC. There's enough in his meticulous penmanship to fire the imagination, but not so much as to distract from the text. I find them to be a springboard, where so many that followed just fought for the reader's attention and tried to overwhelm the words. I find in my head I know what happened visually BETWEEN the Tenniel illustrations. That's some trick!

    Text-thin books for children work wonderfully when the narrative is conjured masterfully through imagery, as in Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. But word-rich stories, of which Alice is a good example, need images that don't derail the attention too much. Edward Ardizonne was another artist who knew exactly how much visual stimuli to contribute to any text that fell to him to illustrate. But the best of them all is of course Beatrix Potter, whose stroke of genius was to make books of a size easily held in children's hands, and who perfected the unfurling of her tales with just the right amount of text per page opening balanced against the illustration opposite. She prefigured the episodic nature of cinema in her engrossing picture/narratives. You can finish a Beatrix Potter book in one sitting, or close it at any point in the certainty that the story will stay in the mind until you return to it. And her painting is quite simply sublime. Decades ago I saw a magnificent Beatrix Potter exhibition in the V & A, and was staggered by the detail in the original watercolours that hadn't been apparent in the copies of the books I'd had as a child because the plates from which the publishers had printed had degenerated through frequent use. She has a genius for capturing the true spirit of animals, even though they're dressed in clothes and walked upright. She catches the salt and the astringency, and isn't at all saccharine, which is the criticism sometimes levelled at her. She well knew that nature is invariably cruel and usually ends badly, and she didn't hold back from inferring that. Even now I find her writing perfect. But perhaps you can see that I'm a huge fan!

  11. Clive,

    Meant to do and will do! Just too busy as ever...

    I dearly love Tenniel, though I find Carroll's drawings interesting and have a big book of Alice illustrators lying around somewhere. I have a fondness for Mervyn Peake's illustrations for "Alice." But I see exactly what you mean and agree with it.

    That business about the images "in between" is interesting and rather like what is "left out" or cut in a text--the unsaid thing that has power. Lovely that the first match made for the books was so perfect.

    I like Ardizonne, too. Who do I know who is related and has a lot of his work? Is it you, Clive? The mind is in tatters... Or is it Amanda-the-sculptor? Confusion is rioting in my brain.

    And Potter: yes, I love Beatrix Potter. I've read her to all three of my children, and I still drink my tea out of a Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle cup. I guess we have to say that all dressed and talking animals are "peopled" (can I use that word?), but her animals capture something more than most--and I also like her rural landscapes and outbuildings and houses. I suppose that is only natural for a painter-writer-conservationist. Didn't she contribute an awful lot for a Victorian daughter who had a hard time escaping the long reach of her mama and papa?

    Okay, now I shall go see if I can find the Clive-bin! Rough drafts shall be tossed. Still, it's a good example to the rest of us, scribbling on the net! Then I must get back to work. And I hope to have a few minutes to go visit Ty Isaf and see what is burning on the easel.

  12. I eat my oatmeal out of a Jeremy Fisher bowl myself.

  13. If you seat your oatmeal out of a Jeremy Fisher bowl, what does your son Jeremy eat his oatmeal from?


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.