Oh frabjous day! Syfy re-imagines Alice in Wonderland

8 Dec

Syfy has a way of turning childhood fantasy into dystopia.

In 2007, Nick Willing brought us a new take on The Wizard of Oz with Tin Man, and last weekend returned for a shot at Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland with the original miniseries Alice—just in time to precede Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland. Warning: this is not your (great) grandmother’s “Through the Looking-Glass.”

For one thing, the heroine’s not blonde.  In fact, Caterina Scorsone bears a striking resemblance to Tin Man’s “DG,” Zooey Deschanel—but that’s another story altogether (though for the record, and while this may upset her legions of indie movie fans, I thought Scorsone was considerably better).

Less trivially, Alice brings the classic story into a strikingly modern—if still fantastic (in this case synonymous with “bizarre”)—world.  For a flavor of the updates, consider the Queen’s pink flamingoes: once croquet mallets, the exotic birds now function as motorized hovercraft with a mean carbon footprint, mount of choice of cyborg assassin Mad March.  And that’s the least of it.  Halfway through the first installment, Hatter articulates what most viewers are probably already thinking:

“Does this look a kid’s story to you?”

Wonderland’s changed a lot since the “Alice of Legend” came through the looking-glass (today, it’s more like Stargate Looking-Glass).

Take Hatter—though he still runs a tea shop, in 21st-century Wonderland “tea” is a watered-down euphemism for the drained-and-distilled emotions of captives from Alice’s world.  And outside Hatter’s cozy backroom office, the wildly popular teas—which, we learn, serve as the Queen’s opiate of the masses (how very Marxist of her)—are sold at a frenetic pace in New York Stock Exchange fashion.  Bliss is up 3 points today.

The character adaptations are subtle and often unique.  Rather than a slightly loopy character sipping tea with his pinky raised, Hatter’s a con man with a Cockney accent.  “You know why they call me the Hatter?” he asks Alice, “Because I’m always there when they pass the hat.  Philanthropy.”  Of course.

And the White Rabbit, while headed by a stately-looking man with long gray pigtails, is more correctly an organization—run by the Suits, J. Edgar Hoover-looking bureaucrats with a mission to lure or kidnap unlucky “oysters” (people from our world) into Wonderland to be “drained.”  Just a tad more sinister than painting white roses red.

One of my favorite scenes early in the miniseries is the explanation of the draining process: labcoat-wearing, clip-board toting Carpenter says to his colleague, Walrus, very matter-of-fact even in rhyme:

“The time has come, Walrus old friend, to test our many stills—the oohs, the ahhs, the healing drops, the passions and the thrills.  And see how joy and awe and lust can all be turned to pills.”

It’s my favorite example of Syfy’s ability to make suspension of disbelief so believable.  The instant gratification premise of the Queen’s teas strikes a little too close to home for comfort.  And along with the Orwellian aspects of a security state, brainwashed public, and secret resistance, there’s definitely some Aldous Huxley mixed into the brew as well.

At least once an episode (literally—I counted), Alice gasps, “What is this place?”  But her expression registers more horror than wonderment.

Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.

As attentive high school English students will know, Huxley’s Brave New World looks at a future society rather different than Orwell’s dark totalitarian visions—thanks to the drug soma, the world is populated by shiny happy people on constant highs; the euphoric experience is specifically described as providing a substitute for, and ultimately a replacement of, religion.  Compare that to the teas—Bliss, Excitement, Contentment, Pure Innocence, and more—used to pacify the people of Wonderland.

It makes the modern quest for constant, instantaneous amusement look a little less light-hearted.

Of course, a history student like me couldn’t help but be thrilled by the resistance’s solution to the Queen’s “quick fixes”—the preservation of a great library with 5,000 years’ worth of Wonderland history: Wonderland’s resistance had more luck than the librarians of Alexandria, apparently.  The hideout of refugees, it illustrates the role of information dissemination (three cheers for the Internet) in combating tyranny: “Wisdom’s her biggest threat,” Hatter says of the Queen.

The Queen.  More frightening than her classic counterpart, with a disquietingly tranquil demeanor and only the rarest tantrum, Kathy Bates as the Queen of Hearts is superb.  Her character, however, is, as Syfy advertised, definitely not playing with a full deck.  The legal term is non compos mentis.  When she orders the beheading of a hapless Suit, for example (some things never change), her more kindly husband covertly countermands the sentence: “Bring him back,” he says with a sigh, “Tomorrow she’ll have forgotten she killed him.”

Yet in spite of—or perhaps it’s because of—her obvious instability (insert toppling-house-of-cards pun here), the Queen commands the obedience of even the most unwilling subjects.  Another major theme here, and one that’s as visible in real-world newspapers and political speeches, is pragmatism.

The philosophical view that it’s the expediency of the moment that matters most (again—the idea of instant gratification), pragmatism rears its ugly head in even the most sympathetic of characters.

The White Knight, an endearing Don Quixote-like old man always ready to break into a flight of poetic monologizing, confesses to Alice that his knightly persona is just that, a posture.  When the rest of ye knights of olde were wiped out by the Queen and her Suits, Sir Charles [something something] Malfoy the Third (aka, Charlie), ran and hid.

“When I came out, everyone was dead,” he laments, uncharacteristically succinct.  He abandoned his principles to survive—until Alice (“Just Plain Alice,” he calls her, as distinguished from “Alice of Legend”) arrived, and he made her protection, however bungled his efforts, a matter of regaining lost honor.

Hatter, too, reveals a similar history: “I’ve spent my life playing both sides of the card; it was the only way to survive.  I made the Hearts think I was working for them while I fed their enemies—those days are over.”

Even unsympathetic characters secretly long for a coup as well— like Duchess, “the Queen’s creature, who also longs for her son.  Rescuing him from a head-offing by order of his mother and questioned why she’d suddenly come to his aid, Duchess echoes the line repeated throughout: “I did what I had to to survive!”

This son of the Queen, Jack Heart (cue groan), also happens to be an undercover agent working with the resistance—it’s noble enough, but to do it, he has to lie to, manipulate, and pretend to fall in love with Alice, who in matters of the heart (cue another groan) is about as innocent as her blonde-haired, wide-eyed predecessor.  Good thing this version of Carroll’s story includes a love quadrangle to keep her occupied.

As relevant as some of the themes of the miniseries are to the world on our side of the looking-glass, Syfy does include some things purely as grace notes for those who remember the originals.

No review of an Alice in Wonderland remake could be complete without mentioning the Caterpillar, who—though reinvented as the enigmatic leader of the Wonderland resistance movement—still doesn’t leave home without his traditional, potent mushrooms.  Maybe traditional isn’t the right word.  Captured by the Suits, Caterpillar’s mushroom functions less like a hallucinogen and more like a cyanide capsule.  There’s a revolutionary for you.

Of course, some of these grace notes fall flat: when the Jabberwock raced out of the forest to terrify Alice and Hatter, I broke into uncontrollable laughter (and I’m sure I’m not the only one).  Now I’m the first to support Syfy’s sad special effects—anyone else love that the backdrop for the Dune miniseries was practically a spray-painted bedsheet?—but this chimerical abortion of CGI was so astonishingly bad that horror devolved into hilarity.  A bug-eyed cross between a T-Rex and the Loch Ness monster (what happened to Carroll’s description of “eyes of flame”? too Balrog?), it’s unimaginable that anyone would need a vorpal sword to vanquish that beast.  For karate kid Alice (did I mention she’s a black belt?), it should’ve been a walk in the park.  Let’s chalk it up to shock, or jet lag—a week in Wonderland, after all, is something like an hour in our world.

Unfortunately, Mr. Tumnus was not available for comment.

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