The false individualism of consumerism

Consumer capitalism seeks to standardize, package and profit – at the cost of true individuality

For more than a century advocates have claimed the terms of freedom and individual liberty for themselves. A great number of authoritarian regimes that employed technocratic capitalist economies have proven this view wrong, time and time again, but still the vague idea of a emancipatory nature of capitalist economies permeates all western societies. Most strikingly present in the USA, the the idea of the individual as the only relevant measure in society can be seen all over Europe and beyond. And this thinking, whether explicit or implicit, has developed a reciprocal relation with the constructed image of consumer capitalism as the peak of human liberty. The individualist ethos, of course, has its roots in the thinking of the enlightenment and its antecedents and has helped bring about enormous advances, like human rights and more thoroughly democratic schools of thought. But not only is individualism limited in its applicability, but also is it massively inhibited by consumer capitalism, the economic ideology, that most claims to be individualist.

The individualism of capitalism expresses itself primarily through consumer decisions. The choice of workplace, which in many cases is basically just the choice of the employer and acceptance by the employee, gets also mentioned in this context, but it is dependent on so many external factors, that it is only as much a individual choice, as it is a bear’s individual choice to eat the salmon it caught or catch another one in the stream instead. People take what they can get, for the most part. The problem with consumer individualism should become obvious right away. It depends entirely on disposable income. While a rich person in a consumer society might have the choice to consume any (or all) products, available on the market, there is a large strata of consumers for whom consumption is a question of practicalities. The less income available, the less products can be afforded and even more will not be afforded because the consumers can’t afford to indulge themselves. That is to say: Consumer individualism is a profoundly western middle-class (formerly upper-class) idea. But the culture of western consumerism extends far beyond the vaguely defined boundaries of the middle-class of the global north. What is the choice between Apple and Windows for a Latin-American farmer? What is the choice of clothes brand to a Chinese factory worker? An unattainable dream at best, the denial of their individuality at worst.

The individualism provided by consumer decisions is not only exclusionary, but also profoundly hollow. Thanks to market mechanisms rare items (that are desired) will be generally more expensive than common items. But as soon as an item proves profitable replication usually sets in to participate in the profit-making, to the point where the supply approaches demand. That means, that consumer goods are either (artificially) rare and only available to the richest, or replicable at will and thus potentially available to everyone above a certain economic threshold. Being truly individual is thereby impossible for most consumers within the capitalist system. The consumerist individualism usually consists of distinguishing oneself from people with less available income. Glimpses of individuality can only be attained by spending vast amounts of money, obtaining desired items before they reach peak popularity or creating items individually, which usually happens in a non-capitalist mode of production (as a voluntary, self-directed activity in one’s leisure time, for example).

The way individualism within comparable economic circumstances is framed within consumer capitalism is usually as a matter of opposing tastes. Do you listen to rap or to metal? Do you drive a Volvo or a BMW? Do you get a cat or a dog? While these differing tastes may be partially traced to differences within individual personalities many of these decisions are tied as much to practical considerations and outside influences as they are to predisposition. All of the suggested options are readily available to everyone, based on income, and are pushed on the individuals by economic forces, that subside on providing them. Conversely none of the options involves creativity or proactive individual engagement. Many companies actually try to suggest that consuming their products increases individuality in the consumer. Slogans like “be different”, or “stand out” aren’t uncommon the space of modern advertisements. Those messages ring hollow, though, when broadcast to millions at a time, in order to encourage them to purchase the same product.

Individualism depends on diversity of identities, behaviours, modes of thinking. None of those can be acquired by spending money. Creativity, culture and community are the seedbeds of individuality, spaces that allow for diverse developments and open exchange. Capitalist structures, bound on extracting value and standardizing and marketing are in many respects opposed to the former. Individualism exists despite of capitalism, not because of it.

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Imagining Confederate – What could go wrong?

HBO’s announcement of a new project in planning, spearheaded by David Benihoff and D. B. Weiss of Game of Thrones fame, was met with a bit of controversy. The show is set in an alternative history of the post-civil-war United States, in which the confederate side won the conflict. An appealing idea for some, a worrying prospect for others. While alternative history tales can sometimes be helpful in exploring the mistakes of the past, the timing and subject matter of the show in conjunction with the past works of the showrunners caused some well-reasoned concerns. The show will drop in a social context in which people are defending monuments glorifying confederate figures tooth and nail with the support of major political figures and institutions; a society where campaigns against widespread police brutality are considered „anti-white racism“; a society in which white supremacists are making White House policy decisions, but calling the government racist is frowned upon. A show that aims to show “all sides” of this subject of race-based slavery seems doomed to hit all the wrong notes in a society, whose discourse is obsessed with the appearance of centrism, even if it is the center between racism and anti-racism. Furthermore Benihoff and Weiss have caused outrage before with their handling of racism and sexual violence in their current show. Most notably the adaptation of a plot, that originally showed the difficulties of liberation from the outside, that was transformed into a straight-forward white-saviour narrative, as well as an explicit rape scene, that the writers later stated to not have considered rape when writing it, raise worries in this respect.

Considering the concept, setting and previous work of the writers here are some predictions for the show, mainly centered around character-archetypes, that I expect to see in the show and the stories they might be used for. Of course this isn’t meant as a condemnation of the show before it’s aired, but rather an expression of some of the worries people have about this project. I would love to be proven wrong with much of the following.

The bad guys

Confederate will – obviously – be a show about slavery. So the question as to who the antagonists are going to be seems moot. There is absolutely no doubt, that the show will make a strong effort to portray slavery as evil, but herein lies the first possible pitfall. Creating hateable villains is something Weiss and Benihoff excelled at in Game of Thrones, mainly through gratuitous portrayal of violence, but also manipulative and abusive behaviour. It is to be expected that a lot of the same strings will be pulled on in order to create one or more strongly disliked villains early on, lest it be said that Confederate is pro-slavery. That way, however, many people fear, that the show might lean heavily on excessive and/or exploitative representations of quasi-historical violence to create an archetypical image of the slaver as a cartoonish objective evil. This portrayal, while initially seeming fair, considering the very real cruelties of the system of slavery bears the fundamental problem of mythologizing historic evils as something so very distant from our own lived reality that it permits viewers a comfortable distance between past and contemporary wrongs. This, at worst, can lead to a sort of opposite of learning from history: Instead of critically examining the past, we are reassured in the righteousness of the present structures, because of their stark difference to the caricature of historic ones.

That is not to say, that the show should go the opposite route, making slavers sympathetic characters, that viewers might identify with. Unfortunately, in its aim to portray all kinds of perspectives within this alt-historic scenario, the show runs the risk of doing both: I would wager, that a show, which features racism front and center like that, won’t get around featuring at least one redemption arc. It is very likely, that there will be at least one white, affluent character, possibly from the younger generation of a slaver family, that will, over the course of the story see the errors of their ways. That would be an effective way to not only facilitate character development and conflict, but also take a step towards the superficially inoffensive conclusion, that slavery is bad, a relic of a past generation an irredeemable elite of an bygone era, that has been left in the dustbin of history. But is this really a desirable outcome for an ambitious project like Confederate? The debate on chattle slavery is over and has been for quite a while. By now people from the entirety of the political spectrum (with the unfortunate exception of a right-wing fringe) will come together in condemning the historic institution of slavery. They may vary in the fierceness of their condemnation and the depth of their historical analysis, but everyone and their dog are united in their desire to be seen as opponents of the historic slavery in the Americas. The key-term here, however, is “historic”. It is a fact, that is only very grudgingly accepted by the US political establishment as well as parts of the population, that slavery in the US was only abolished for anyone, not convicted of a crime, as per the 13th amendment of the constitution. Combined with the cruel realities of US-American law-enforcement and judicial system a very direct connection between the injustices of the past and the present can be drawn. The systems of oppression in the 21st century aren’t the same as the ones of the 19th century, but they share a lot in common. Any artistic work that deals with the former in such a counterfactual way should be expected to acknowledge the latter in some form or another. If Confederate ends up priding itself with being openly against historic slavery, and historic slavery only, it should be considered an artistic failure.

The locomotives and treadmills of history

This harsh judgment of an, as of yet, unwritten show aside, a pseudo-historical look at freedom fighters, who stand in the way of evil to defend liberty would still have some good aspects: It might encourage viewers, who are more into entertainment than history, to take a look at the historic inspirations of their favourite characters. But what inspirations will those be? There are many ways, this could play out, but, without doubt, one way or another slavery will end with the show (prior cancellation precluded). Historically, as is widely known, slavery only ended in the USA after a bloody, four-year-long civil war. Sure, the war might have revolved around more than slavery –mainly opposed power interests of northern and southern elites– but slavery was the key of southern economic power and also elemental in a system of social subjugation along race lines and thus catalyst and core-cause of the war. In Confederate the war didn’t end slavery, but rather cemented it. So what else could end it? Here are some guesses:

1) Popular unrest: This is the most likely scenario. The characters will through a mix of different tactics, mostly carefully justified violence or peaceful actions. White and black characters will collaborate on different levels to build a movement that will eventually force the system to change by doing a cheesy V for Vendetta (2005) style march on parliament or something along those lines. A grand symbolic gesture, that shows, that people have grown beyond slavery.

2) (Ugh) Capitalism: This is unlikely to be the cause for the end of slavery in the upcoming show, but should be mentioned nonetheless. Some theories claim, that slavery as an economic base was doomed to end sooner or later, due to being incompatible with the development of capitalism. This has, among other things of course been identified as one of the reasons for the end of slavery in Brazil, some 23 years after the abolition in the US. The reasoning behind this theory is, that a grand base of wage-labourers is required for capitalist development to create a consumer-base that propels the economy ever onward. This of course ignores the fact, that even in todays developed capitalist economies not only slavery exists, but that capitalism created new forms of slavery that incorporate the consumption of goods. But even if true a lack of economic development might not lead to such a profound societal change, especially as the institution of slavery was deeply entrenched in the dominant culture of the southern US and the causes for economic problems can be easily misinterpreted or misrepresented. Adding to this it has been historically documented, that the Confederate States aimed at expanding their slave-based economy to parts of the Caribbean and Central America, which could have boosted the economy enough to delay the economic cause for abolition by decades.

This cause for abolition isn’t unlikely to appear in the show due to it’s historical implausibility, but rather because it doesn’t really lend itself well to a satisfying conclusion to a story. Even though it will not be the main-cause of abolition in Confederate one should keep an eye out for traces of this theory making it into the show, maybe in the form of a progressive-minded industrialist, who represents the new economic order. The fantastical thought of capitalism being a force for good certainly seems deeply entrenched in some liberal circles in the USA.

3) Civil War: Yes, another one. I would deem this the second most likely outcome after a variation of point one. The show could end with a “the North will rise again” scenario, in which the elites of the defeated states, together with the suppressed masses start a rebellion, that grows into a fully fledged second civil war that eventually ends in a way comparable to the historic event. Story-wise this could kinda work in a full-circle way and also try to signify, that the historic outcome of the civil war and accompanying abolition were inevitable.

4) Slave Revolution: This version, that I would deem the only sensible and satisfactory one, is distinct from point one in that it would be on the one hand focused on the oppressed, i.e. the afro-descendant slaves and on the other involve violence in ways that many portrayals of sympathetic uprisings shy away from. The focus on black people in this context wouldn’t necessarily mean, that no white characters would be involved, they would, but rather that the movement towards the abolition of slavery would be black-led and run independently of the approval of the general white population. Think Nat Turner or John Brown. The reason I don’t think this scenario is likely to play out in the show is because of the type of violence it would involve. Popular entertainment, for the most part is very particular in the way it depicts violence perpetrated by characters the viewer is supposed to identify with. It is easy for a viewer to be alienated by explicit violence in a medium, that isn’t properly justified, because it is often seen only in its immediate context. Violence is perfectly accepted as long as it is seen as either defensive (which means the character is attacked directly), cathartic revenge (the target of the violent act was seen committing acts of cruelty before) or targeted against a non-human evil. As this is a pseudo-historical setting the third alternative doesn’t apply. The second and first one will certainly be used copiously, but revolutionary violence is hard to work into this framework. It is easy to justify violence against the cruel whip-bearing overseer, the villainous landowner or the greedy slave-trader. In the course of their characterization they will be seen committing reprehensible acts and revenge will seem just. But what about all the minor parts in the machine? The countless people who shared in and upheld the cruel system. Regular people who, with their daily lives made the cruelty of slavery into something regular as well. True revolutions as opposed to idealized, idealistic, vaguely defined uprisings are rarely seen in media, and even more rarely portrayed in a positive light, because to justify revolutionary violence to the viewer they have to be made to understand the violence of the system, that is toppled. But explaining the justification of large-scale violent acts by examining structural processes as opposed to individual injustices is a form of rigour, that I don’t expect of this upcoming program (or most popular entertainment media, really), though it is what I would wish for. And if ever there was a system, the inherent cruelty of which should be easy to understand, it is race-based slavery.

The historical role of violence is often little understood and in a reciprocal process rarely properly conveyed in popular media. This is, of course understandable, because violence is inherently abhorrent and not a conscious part of the lived reality of most people in the global north. We much prefer the story about how Mahatma Gandhi liberated India by non-violent means, than analyzing the role Bhagat Singh’s and other armed rebellions played in the withdrawal of the British. We like to hear how Martin Luther King Jr. paved the way for civil rights, while forgetting how armed black groups forced an unwilling establishment to take action. This perception and reception, in a way, changes history as it is publicly understood. By no means should we, as a society, glorify violence, but it is of critical importance to keep remembering the resistance against the Nazis, the liberal revolutions, that ended feudal monarchy and also the slave-revolts, that while often ending tragically, brought many people freedom and also were critical in destabilizing and eventually toppling the system of slavery in the Americas.

But in entertainment medias tendency to aim for a “feel-good” ending there is a substantial risk, that in a misguided attempt towards centrist reconciliation, exactly this kind of emancipatory thought will be twisted and used as a cudgel. It is a relatively common trope in popular fiction, that aims to not be too “black and white”, to position the protagonists between the evil they are fighting on the one side and people from their side, who know now bounds and in turn commit “evil” acts themselves, on the other. This is used on the one hand to ground the protagonists morally. They are shown to be just, because they will, of course, eventually be victorious without using the radical measures of the fanatics. It also helps identification, as, in a pseudo-political story, the vast majority of the audience will be able to relate the bad guys and fanatics to different political groups or positions on either side of them on the political spectrum. This is massively facilitated by the cult of moderation, that has permeated politics in many countries, particularly the USA and parts of Europe, for decades and has been pushed even harder in response to the growing left-wing movements of the recent years. Moderation and compromise are always seen as the way to go, as the truth never lies all the way on one side, so goes the creed of the centrists. This line of thinking, however, shows it’s truly dangerous and reprehensible side when applied to extreme situations. The UK’s Jeremy Corbyn was labeled as extreme for declaring he would never consider using nuclear weapons, even in defensive situations. When armed neo-nazis marched on a synagogue in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was a lot of talk about the violence of the antifascists, who confronted them, in some cases physically. So what about slavery? Will a piece of mainstream media dare to decidedly take a side in this obvious case, or will they throw Turner and Brown under the bus in favour of constructed moral superiority, in complete denial of historic realities? Unfortunately it happened before and it might happen again with Confederate.

Lastly a quick thought might be spared for the scenario in which the show doesn’t end with the abolition of slavery. Instead it could go for a more dystopian approach, with slavery proliferating way into modern times. This is unlikely from a story-telling perspective, but would be interesting in that it might open an opportunity to show how different (or similar) an openly white-supremacist state in North America be from USA we know.

Heroes, saviours and fanatics

Whatever way the story will play out in the show, the question remains ehich characters will carry the story. Again, at this point one can only take a stab in the semi-dark, but the central question in regards to the heroes of the show will be without doubt: How do they struggle against an unjust system? It is a safe prediction to say, there will be no one way to fight against slavery. With the expressed intention of portraying a variety of figures from different backgrounds, it should be expected that besides resisting slaves there will be a variety of characters on the abolitionists’ side. Maybe freedmen and women, who struggle to keep their precarious position in society, while also helping their enslaved compatriots? Maybe political figures, who seek to achieve change through official channels or by promoting a changing attitude within the white population? Maybe clergymen, who can’t reconcile the cruelty of the system with their beliefs? There will surely be plentiful allusions to the underground railroad and likely a character based on Harriet Tubman.

One justified worry, especially in respect to Benihoff and Weiss’ past work, is who will actually take lead in the story, especially when it comes to liberation. Released in a society, that just barely started accepting black lead characters, fears are that Confederate might lean heavily on white people liberating slaves, a narrative that is particularly popular among the US right-wing, with black characters playing the second fiddle. This would, obviously, be the cardinal sin in a show about the horrors of a white ethno-state. It seems unlikely that the creators of the show have that little sense and end up creating a patronizing piece of white liberal wish-fulfillment, but the precedent set by Game of Thrones’ slavery plot gives one pause. Over the course of the plot a (very) white feudal ruler, Danaerys, uses dragons, a super-weapon only she can control, first liberate a slave army, who follow her and help liberate the slaves in the entire region. While the plot tries to expound the problems of some aspects of the tremendous societal shift and the difficulties of overcoming entrenched social structures, several scenes and the overall tenor tend towards only Danaerys and occasional members of her inner circle having any real agency or vision. The plot serves more as characterization for the queen than commentary on historic or social topics. This may be attributed to merely being a part of a monumentally big story, which will not be the case with Confederate, but it might also indicate a certain tone-deafness in regards to race. If that is the case there is still hope, that their co-writers, producers or consultants will help out. It should be mentioned, that two of the show’s producers are African-American and are probably conscious about the depiction of race in the show, though it is unclear how much they will eventually be involved.

Overall Confederate seems like a risky proposition, given the current political and social climate in the USA. Many pitfalls await the showrunners, who should probably rely heavily on writers and directors of colour. But even if the show avoids overt insensibility in regards to race, it will one way or another present a certain view of history and might help shape how its viewers understand the past. This is a big responsibility for something as relevant to the USA of today as slavery. At best Confederate could be a way to use popular culture to point out social ills and illuminate historic processes. At worst it could be fuel on the fire of race-relations in the USA, a way for white liberals to feel confident in their anti-racism, without ever questioning structures or themselves. Let’s hope for the former, but prepare for the latter.

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.