Just last week, I was privy to one of the most enchanting exhibitions I have ever witnessed! The fall into this ‘Wonderland’ exhibition was definitively elevating! Curated and made beautifully by ACMI, Melbourne, it was the cherry on the crown of the Art Science Museum, Singapore. A complex narrative celebrating Lewis Carroll’s timeless tale and Alice’s adventures on film, since it first delighted us in 1903, ‘Wonderland’ explores how this precocious heroine inspired avant-garde filmmaking, from revolutionary special effects and animation to evocative storytelling.
While I was speechless at the technological advancement as I looked into this immersive experience, I realized the verity of Alice’s, “Curiouser and curiouser!” Apart from more than 40 cinematic adaptations, growing further and further apart, the tale remains one of many lessons. Perhaps, that is the most rewarding part of Alice, its life-art.
Tripping through all the knotty linguistics and everyday wisdom, here are some of my favourite lessons from this classic in children’s literature:
How many times have you stumbled upon the question, “Who are you?” When the same question was posed to Alice by the Caterpillar, she found it difficult to give a simple answer. Not just because all parameters of her life’s altered, and she is in a motion of surreal activities, but because she is simply unsure of who she is.
While her adventure might appear mad and surreal on the surface, the main goal lurking within is in indeed being able to answer the Caterpillar’s question – ‘who in the world am I?’ Life often seems a platter of options, but by discovering who we are, and accepting ourselves, we can assure ourselves a much smoother journey.
In the real world where logic and proportion reigns supreme, following a rabbit into its burrow is more likely to result in injuries and infections, than an adventure through a magical parallel universe. It’s simple, if you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t win the lottery! Although that is not to say that Alice wasn’t faced with any dilemmas or life-threatening obstacles during her escapade, it is also true that when she finally makes her way out of Wonderland, she’s armed with a unique experience that will help her navigate her way through life.
Though deciding upon a risk can be both time-consuming, and consuming, without taking risks and challenging ourselves, we really don’t grow. Alice’s own lesson on advice is a priceless one, ‘She generally gave herself very good advice, though she very seldom followed it.’ By learning to listen to our instincts a little more objectively, we can apply the wisdom we offer to others to ourselves.
‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.
While learning to accept who we are, is one of life’s great lessons, so is learning to tolerate and accept the differences in others. The earlier we come to terms with the fact that people around us aren’t always going to be who we want them to be – we will be fine. Celebrating people’s differences exposes us to new perspectives, just like Wonderland. It edges us to not remain stuck in the past.
‘Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.
‘I won’t!’ said Alice.
What does a bully do? They single out the weak-willed and coerce them into submission, terrorizing them with violent behaviour. The Red Queen, a quintessential bully hassled to cover up her own insecurities, seizes the opportunity to be “Off with her (our precocious heroine, Alice’s) head!” When Alice stands up for herself, she becomes an important example to be followed by any young person. The lesson is to not to let bullies get you down. The Queen of Hearts may have built an illusion of authority by having a court of people nodding along to her every word, but at the end of the day, they are merely a pack-of-cards. Alice unmasks this superficiality, in time stripping the Queen off of her perceived power.
And now for some tech-talk:
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has inspired a curious visual dreamscape that has expanded far beyond the words found in its pages. Historically, it is a tabula rasa onto which we can express and explore any dream, vision, or anxiety, with the simple sight of an underground tunnel, a pocket-watch, or tea party. Alice is a key to the cultural imagination of the collective will of the believers in fantasy.
Lewis’s exploration of the scope of a child’s curiosity came to symbolise the unlimited range of psychological power and imagination in the 1960s. Jefferson Airplane made metaphorical use of the story in their psychedelic paean to drug abuse. In response, the National Institute of Mental Health in the USA reported that Alice’s adventure in Wonderland with the Hookah-smoking caterpillar and a diabolical queen who wanted her head chopped off could also deter children from experimenting with hallucinatory substances.
Wonderland collapses the division between the waking world and the realm of dreams, the conscious and the subconscious. It dissolves the borders between the real and the unreal. Continuously revived in popular fiction, Alice has at times served as the archetype of cynicism, cautioning that we need to escape the dream world of logic and rationality by ‘waking up’ to absurd reality. In a surrealist musical adaptation, she sings and dances her way through the macabre rendition of her alternate world. “Eat Me!” the label says, and Alice transforms to gigantic proportions, embodying the confounding principles of adulthood. The world inside the book or through the looking glass can contain anything we desire, including an ideal version of ourselves.
In Alice’s pop-cultural journey, she has also popped up time and again to embody some of our darker fantasies. Now commonly reoriented within stories for adults, she can personify innocent discovery of the enchanting and unfamiliar. Yet in a time of cultural upheaval Alice can now be represented as psychologically disturbed or murderous. A striking contrast to her traditional role which places her as bastion of sanity in a “mad, mad world”, these alternative visual manifestations reconstructs Alice in ways that Carroll never imagined.
A single template is rendered to create a different kind of Alice – whatever the variables of time, place, or audience may be for our perfect dreamscape. Curiosity is a key that unlocks the door to Wonderland – a cultural silver screen projecting a reality, albeit a thousand times more fantastical. Alice’s adventures are an ode to our own personal evolution, and we resonate with it as we remind ourselves the ways in which we’ve grown over the years, or even in the past month or so. By closing past chapters, we can write our future without stewing on the regrets, mistakes and disappointments we all encounter.