Through the Looking-Glass (2016): Failing at adapting literature

Many people, at one point of time or another, have watched a movie that felt insulting to them. This may be the result of an incredibly simplistic plot, that makes you feel as if the film-makers have little regard for their viewers. It may also because a new addition to a beloved franchise, to which you have an emotional connection, adds something that casts a shadow on past installments. Iffy social commentary, false advertising, unfinished stories, that serve only to set up a sequel; there are many causes to feel this way. While I personally rarely feel that way, there was one recent movie that evoked this feeling strongly for me, despite me expecting it to be terrible: Through the Looking-Glass (2016).

A squandered classic

As I mentioned, my expectations for this film were very low to begin with. After Its predecessor, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland turned the classic story into a bog-standard fantasy adventure covered with a thin layer of Carroll’s fiction, a sequel didn’t sound very promising. But since Through the Looking-Glass had always been my favourite of the two Alice books it inadvertently caught my interest nonetheless. Through the Looking-Glass, while largely similar to the first Alice book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in tone and style, had always captured me more, due to some of its more explicitly dream-like sequences. The irreal distortions of space and dreamlike movement, along with some of the more memorable encounters, such as Alice’s meeting with the Quixotian White Knight or conversations with sentient plant-life seemed to me like a perfect basis for a capital S surreal film. Of course it was clear from the get-go, that this Hollywood adaptation wouldn’t be it. The episodic nature of the Alice books doesn’t lend itself well to a formulaic Hollywood story and the 2010 film suggested that this franchise wasn’t interested in taking any narrative chances. Still, the book offers some prime material, that even loosely adapted, could be nice to see brought to the big screen.

The 2016 movie, however, quickly makes it clear that it was going to be an adaptation in title only. Its predecessor had taken a similar route, though some key story beats from the book had been kept in a significantly altered form, particularly the meetings with three of the most famous characters: The Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts. The story had been set up as happening some years after the events from the books and with the sequel happening some years after the first film a close relation to the book plot wasn’t likely in any case, but that’s not where the problem lies. The plot of the books, as it is, isn’t really the thing that enthralls people still some 150 years after their publication. It’s the characters, the encounters, the dialogues and the themes. It’s just a shame that none of those show up in the 2016 film either. As Alice first enters Wonderland in this film, a passing reference to the book is made as she falls past some sentient chess pieces as well as Humpty Dumpty. From this point on the movie completely abandons its namesake and starts off a plot that couldn’t be more of a boring Hollywood cliché if it had been a parody. While admittedly some of Through the Looking-Glass‘s characters had been present in the first movie already and some reappear in this one, there is only one new addition, Time (more on that later), and the plot largely centers around the Hatter and the Queen of Hearts (which is identical with Through the Looking-Glass‘ Red Queen in this adaptation) again.

An ugly frame

As in the first movie, the Wonderland story is framed by a real-world segment, in which Alice faces a problem, which she eventually overcomes, due to the courage and knowledge she gained from her adventure in Wonderland. In the first movie this element was unspectacular, but functional. Alice was to marry a posh man, whom she neither liked nor knew very well. After running from the wedding, escaping into Wonderland, resolving a classic „chosen one“ plot and returning, she is spirited enough to proclaim to the world that she will not marry her arranged fiance and will instead follow her own inclinations from now on. The film ends with her setting out to sail the seas as the captain of her own ship. This rejection of Victorian social norms is something that pretty much everyone in the audience can wholeheartedly agree with. It frames her visit in Wonderland as a form of positive escapism and delivers a (in the context of our time) very mild emancipatory message.

The second installment, however, hits a more dissonant note in its framing. Following the events of the first movie Alice has become a merchant and we first see her returning from China to England. Though the movie tries to hit the same vaguely emancipatory notes as the first one, having Alice diagnosed with hysteria and even pitting her against her former fiance again the outcome doesn’t work quite as well. The main conflict is that Alice is made to choose between her ship and her home, due to financial pressure. In the end she is ready to give up her ship, thinking about the well-being of her mother, who then comes out in support of Alice, allowing her to keep the ship instead. The inspiring end of the story is, that Alice is able to make bold new trading expeditions into the Chinese mainland and continue her life of adventure. The story clearly takes place around the end of the 19th century, when British trade companies were indeed eager to open more and more trading routes from China, with or without their consent. The film’s story likely takes place relatively shortly after the second Opium War, in which western colonial powers, among them Great Britain, forced the treaty of Tianjin on China, which obliged them against their will to open their ports to exploitative European colonial trade, including the trade of opium, as well as ceding land to Britain to expand their colonial foothold in Hong Kong. This context, obviously omitted by the movie, undermines the film’s vaguely emancipatory message. The great liberation in the end is a wealthy British woman being able to further British colonialism in the name of adventure. China remains a faceless landmass throughout and is only represented in the film through the character of Alice, who has taken to wearing colourful Chinese silk dresses, shocking the Victorian establishment. The only Chinese people appearing in the movie are pirates, whose ship is seen from afar, before being defeated by Alice in the beginning of the film, though even then only the ship and none of the people are shown. This tacit acceptance and misrepresentation of colonialism gives the film’s ending a sinister note for receptive audiences.

Wonderland: Origins

This framing device is of course not the focus of the film. The uncomfortable presentation of colonialism is easily explained (though not excused) by the small amount of time spent on it. The main story in Wonderland goes a completely different route. It is a time-travel origin story for the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts. Over the course of this plot the movie shows a complete disregard for, or misunderstanding of its source material. As Alice arrives in Wonderland, she learns that the Mad Hatter is declining rapidly after his family has suddenly disappeared. Inexplicably Alice is told to use time-travel to save his family from this fate, even though this solution bears the risk of destroying the entirety of Wonderland and despite the personification of time itself telling her that the past can’t be changed. The plot (of course) eventually concludes with a nonsensical time-paradox element, that is shallow, even by the standards of Hollywood time-travel plots, and serves merely to facilitate a high-stakes finale. Before this happens, however, Alice travels to certain points of time in the past, learning the origins of some of Wonderland’s inhabitants. As such she witnesses a moment from the Queen of Hearts’ childhood during, which a false accusation and subsequent accident make her head grow large and heart-shaped and her character turn emotionally unstable, which eventually leads to her being declined rulership and setting up the conflict with the White Queen. Explaining, that her heart-shaped head is basically just a random result of an accident, rather than a reasonably clever visual representation of a playing-card-character, and her evil personality is the result of childhood trauma doesn’t really add anything to the character. The Queen is a one-dimensionally evil character constantly calling for the heads of anyone that annoyed her in the slightest and these events don’t make her appear sympathetic or nuanced. Her visual abnormality didn’t appear out of place at all in the context of the fantastic visuals of Wonderland, until it was established, that she came from a aristocratic family of normal-looking humans. Similarly the Hatter’s origin story includes him being shunned by his father, a conservative hat-maker, who shows no appreciation for his son’s eccentric designs. This sets up a cheap emotional scene of reconciliation at the end of the movie, when the Hatter is reunited with his family, but doesn’t really help expanding his character much. At the same time both origin-stories, while failing to add real depth to their characters do considerable damage to the setting and surrounding fiction.

In the books Wonderland is not a real place. It is the dream-world of a little girl, incorporating all manner of things around her in a fantastic way. This is something, that is changed in many adaptations, making Wonderland either into a real place, or leavingthe reality of Wonderland ambiguous. Either way Wonderland is fundamentally static. It is not really a place with a history or a future. The characters in it just are. There is a queen and a duchess, but there is no suggestion of a larger society or political structure surrounding them. Characters in wonderland don’t have jobs, they have roles and as Alice passes through this irreal world she encounters a slice of a world that forms just around her. 2010’s Alice in Wonderland established Wonderland as a real place. Not only that, but it was place with distinct states of being. There was the Wonderland that Alice had visited as a child, being the Wonderland from the books, Wonderland under the tyranny of the Queen of Hearts, as it was at the beginning of the film, and a liberated Wonderland, as it was at the end of the film. 2016’s Through the Looking-Glass unnecessarily expands on that, showing the viewers visions of an even older Wonderland. And this Wonderland is basically just a somewhat colourful feudal monarchy. The Queen of Hearts and the White Queen aren’t representations of chess-pieces or playing cards. They are the children of a monarch, who rules over a realm of expressedly non-mad subjects, such as the Hatter’s parents. They are relatively normal people, as they would appear in any lighthearted work of fiction set in medieval England. They work at a regular job to make a living and they live in an actual monarchic system. Wonderland is basically just a land. A land in which some fantastical creatures exist, sure, but the Wonderland from the books, in which the entire land itself was a fantastic imaginative escapist fantasy can’t be reconciled with that. The Mad Hatter is almost as much of a stand-out in this Wonderland as he would be in the real world.

Time heals all wounds

One major new character appears in 2016’s Through the Looking-Glass. It is Time. Time, of course, is a character from the original books, though there is no direct appearance. Time is mentioned by the Mad Hatter during the tea-party-scene and spoken of as a person. This is the basis for some word plays („beating time“, „killing time“) and also an explanation for the irregular passage of time both for the Hatter, for whom time is static after having a conflict with Time and Alice in regard to the perceived differences in the passage of time being explained with the whims of a personfied Time. The movie takes those few lines from the books and extends them into a very real person (played by Sasha Baron Cohen), who operates time from a huge clock-tower-like structure. This again shows the above tendency of taking something abstract and making it literal in an effort to transform the irreality of the literary Wonderland into the reality of a movie Wonderland, that can be used in a fantasy adventure plot. While the character of Time might not be the worst part about the movie, it is a relatively clichéd choice. Portraying the personification of time as a watch-maker (with a German accent) jumping between god-like status and very human flaws feels unsatisfying to watch. Of course this poses the question as to how it could be done better, to which the obvious answer would be not to do it at all. Time, as a character, works well as the aside he is in the books. Something non-visual, unexplained, something abstract. Including a literal man, who literally controls the passage of time in order to facilitate a time-travel plot, that shows the audience an over-explained origin-story for two literary characters, that have been doing fine without one for 150 years, seems cheap. There could also be a discussion on the decision to make Time into a comical character through casting, writing and the addition of whacky clockwork minions, which given the context of the film doesn’t seem completely misguided, but in my opinion just falls flat, most of the time.

There is always a next time

Altogether Through the Looking-Glass (2016) remained in my memory as the worst movie I’ve seen in 2016, even considering the low expectations. It seemed uninterested in its literary source, bereft of original ideas and misguided in its message. It’s relative lack of commercial and critical success lets one hope, that it will be the end of this series of movies. Lewis Carroll’s books have inspired hundreds of movies to-date and so I’m holding out for the next adaptation, hoping that it will have something to offer, other than big-name-actors overacting at each other in an (admittedly impressive) CGI-laden environment.

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