Mar 30, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland is one of the greatest stories of all time, with arguably the best story world ever invented. It is also notoriously difficult to turn into a film. And the reasons all have to do with the script. The most recent version of Alice, written by Linda Woolverton, is the latest disappointment, and a close look at the choices she made are very instructive to those of us who love the craft of screenwriting.

Alice is a classic fantasy story, and in many ways it set the form. A little girl, living in a highly organized, mundane world, travels to an upside-down fantasy world of illogic and returns to the real world freer and a little more grown up as a result. The overall structure of the original story is very tight. The problem comes in the middle, because the middle is structured according to the myth form, not fantasy.

Alice is on a journey in Wonderland, which means that the story is highly episodic. Each scene is a new encounter with strange new characters. While these individual scenes are invariably fun and extremely creative, they do not build. This is the great challenge of any writer using what I call “journey plot” (see “The Anatomy of Story”). It has stumped writers from Cervantes (Don Quixote) to Dickens (Oliver Twist) to Twain (Huckleberry Finn). The main reason the episodic element doesn’t hurt the original Alice in Wonderland is that the book is so short. But that won’t work for a feature-length film.

If we look at what Woolverton did in adapting the original story, we can see that almost all her choices were designed to overcome this episodic quality. The problem is that while her choices decrease the episodic quality, they also represent paint-by-number storytelling that gets increasingly boring as the story goes on.

It’s ten years later. The new Alice is a young woman trapped in the same stifling world and facing the prospect of a stultifying marriage to a rich fool. The trip to the fantasy world is supposed to force the heroine to confront her personal weakness. But notice in this set up, the craziness of Wonderland won’t force Alice to change because she’s a rebel from the beginning. The single greatest feature of the original Alice in Wonderland is that the fantasy world is based on illogic. So it attacks the very way that logical Alice and the audience think, the way we construct the world. Because this new Alice is never shown to be part of the “normal” worldview, fantastical Wonderland is just a series of strange landscapes.

To focus the story, Woolverton suggests the ending by showing a scroll in which Alice kills the Jabberwocky in the final battle. This sets up the vortex of the story that is supposed to sequence events at increasing speed. Now Alice’s journey has an endpoint, so each stop is not a stand-alone moment but a step on the path to her final destiny where she will save the kingdom.

But by turning Alice into an action hero, Woolverton has made a pact with the story devil. Action stories typically have even less plot than myth stories, not just because big action set pieces stop plot but also because the audience knows that nothing big is going to happen until the final showdown. And in this film nothing does. Woolverton is still stuck with the journey plot, which makes it extremely difficult to add plot through reveals. Without surprises, the plot must die.

The other major technique Woolverton adds to overcome the episodic quality of the original story is to bring some of the major characters along for the ride. So, for example, instead of leaving the Mad Hatter after the tea party, he comes along as an important ally to help Alice kill the Jabberwocky and defeat the Red Queen. Bringing characters along on the journey and having a single ongoing opponent is always a good idea when you’re writing a myth story. It allows the audience to care about the characters more intensely and increases the power of the opposition. But the value of these two techniques is largely removed when the heroine’s goal is so predictable and mundane as fighting a dragon in a big final battle.

Many people have expressed disappointment with director Tim Burton for this visually stunning but boring film. But visuals have always been what Burton is good at, not story. I find it fascinating to compare how a visual artist like Burton (Batman and Batman Returns) and master screenwriter-storytellers like Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) handled the same Batman story material. Frankly, there is no comparison, and it’s one more proof that movies aren’t a “visual” medium, they are a story medium.

Ironically, screenwriter Woolverton’s efforts to unify and build the story stripped the film of the great strength of the original story, which are the breathtakingly original characters and scenes. And Burton’s vaunted ability to create strong visual worlds totally misfired when he failed to base his visuals on the defining principle of the Alice in Wonderland story world, which is the brilliant illogic and nonsense that only a professor of logic could create.

One day a screenwriter may solve the riddle of making a great Alice in Wonderland film. That will be a great accomplishment that I would love to see.