Alice has a father…so what?

[posted by Greg]

As we mentioned previously, we’re curious to see the new film version of Alice in Wonderland, which is opening this weekend in the United States. Or perhaps were curious is more the operative phrase here. Apparently director Tim Burton has said that he never felt a connection with the original Wonderland because it was always about a girl wandering around from one scene to another and so, he states, he has made it into more of a real story. And Alice, in the new film, is a nineteen-year-old woman “who doesn’t quite fit into Victorian society and structure” and, moreover, is grieving over the death of her beloved father. To me this sounds simply awful, as it introduces various standard melodramatic elements into the irreality of the original that will effectively ruin what made the original interesting. However, as with so many other film versions of books, it is probably a better idea to go into this film pretending that there never was an Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and instead imagine it to be a wholly original fantasy film by Tim Burton. It would, after all, be extraordinary if the absurdity, undermining of reality, and (to use Clayton Koelb’s term) alethic qualities inherent in the original survived a Hollywood production, and to focus on the lack of them would distract us from the interesting things that Tim Burton might be doing in the film.

One additional question comes out of this, however. Namely, what is it with this father theme? In the original book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll doesn’t see a need to even mention Alice’s father. And yet not only is there a father theme in this new film version, but it was also present in Syfy’s re-make of Alice: in that mini-series the father had seemingly abandoned Alice (who also is now a young adult, and so too fits into that key 18-34 demographic). This causes her great distress, until their later reunion in which he nobly sacrifices himself to save her life. The father theme was also present in the recent television remake of The Prisoner, in which a major theme is the responsibility Number Two feels toward his son. But, again, in the original series with Patrick McGoohan, the issue of offspring never comes up for any of the primary characters. And I could go on. In fact, most films (and TV series) made over the past fifteen years have worked this theme in one way or the other. Try the remake of War of the Worlds, where the divorced protagonist played by Tom Cruise looks after his son and daughter (for whom, of course, he feels great responsibility) as he flees from and fights the alien invasion, though the protagonist in H.G. Wells original had no children, is accompanied by his brother through part of the adventure and is striving to reunite with his wife. Most absurdly, the 1998 remake of Godzilla also included a kind of father theme when the title creature took responsibility for the little godzillas around him which he, yes, he, had begotten. It’s enough to make you wonder if there isn’t some Central Committee somewhere decreeing that the father theme must be inserted into a film if the film project is to get the millions of dollars necessary to make it.

Of course, it’s not the father theme per se that undoes the irreality of a work, Kafka’s great breakthrough work, “The Judgement,” contains an outstanding example of an irreal father theme. It is rather the forced imposition of the father theme onto so many films and TV shows, and its melodramatic, instructive nature, which is the problem for works of whatever genre. One suspects that if a modern day director were to make a film version of “The Hunger Artist,” he or she would be compelled to attribute the protagonist’s behavior to a lack of fatherly love. According to the text on the CD package for the film “The Search for Bobby Fischer” that I came across recently, the hero of the film “wasn’t afraid of losing a match…just his father’s love.” Perhaps for our film version of “The Hunger Artist” it would read: “He didn’t want to starve himself to death…he just wanted the nourishment of his father’s love.”

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