This was my first time reading Alice
and I couldn't help thinking, as I was reading it, why it took me so long. That is, I know why I never read it before - it just didn't interest me - but I wish I had, I wish I'd read it as a kid. Any kid who loves Labyrinth
or The Dark Crystal
, as I did (the latter, especially, was deeply formative for me), would enjoy this story. Even as an adult, I had a lot of fun reading this.
If, like me, you're only familiar with the story through movie adaptations, I'll offer a bit of a synopsis because in my meagre experience, the movies begin the same as the book, and then go wildly off in another direction entirely. Or something. To be honest, one of the reasons I never read this before was partly due to the fact that I never watched a movie all the way through until recently. Various adaptations have come my way, including a surreal but visually stunning German (I think it was German, can't quite remember now) adaptation that was playing on SBS once, but I never watched them to the end. So the beginning is very vivid for me, and a little boring because of all the repetition, but once Alice makes it through the door my memory of the story scatters. I have memories of dreaming about the caterpillar when I was little, but I don't know if that's from seeing a cartoon movie of it, or doing a jigsaw puzzle. Or both.
Then there's the recent Tim Burton adaptation, which I did go and see, and I have to say that apart from a similar-ish beginning, it's completely different. Which is fine. I haven't read Through the Looking Glass
, but I'm wondering if Burton amalgamated the two stories, or if he went with a completely different second half in order to make a movie out of it. Because one thing becomes abundantly clear: this isn't a story as you or I are used to. This is a dream, a collection of bizarre little episodes that don't make a whole lot of sense and don't add up to all that much, and yet convey a great sense of suspense, adventure, wonderment and imagination.
Oh right, the synopsis: Alice, so the story goes, is sitting with her sister by the riverbank one day. Her sister is reading a book without pictures ("and where's the fun in that?" she thinks) and Alice is bored, until she sees a white rabbit go by, dressed in a natty waistcoat, staring at his fob watch and muttering to himself. He disappears down a rabbit hole and Alice follows.
She finds herself in strange situation after strange situation, talking to mice and caterpillars and people made out of playing cards playing croquet. Small, simple motivations keep Alice going - above all, she wants to reach the pretty garden she saw through the little door. Along the way she encounters all manner of peculiar creatures who make no sense at all, and with whom Alice often argues the point with, and suffers little setbacks what with growing too big and then too small and then too big again.
Once I'd accepted that this has really very little in common with the story the movies went with, I relaxed and let it take me where it willed, which was a delightful adventure full of unexpected surprises. Which makes me glad the movies vary as they do, in order to tell a more coherent, cinematic story - it enables us to revisit the book free of theatrical baggage. (I actually like it when movies deviate from the books, if they tell a compelling story and reinvent the characters - I don't want to watch a film that's just the book in moving pictures!)
I love all the characters in the story, each of them silly and yet strangely tragic. Alice barely scrapes the surface of this world, and leaves you hungering for more. What a perfect way to engage a child's imagination! Not just with the images - and Carroll always meant the story to be illustrated: he did the original pictures himself, with the handwritten first edition he wrote for ten year old Alice Liddell - but also with words: songs and rhymes and fanciful stories and clever puns. I recognised several now-famous quotes in this book. It was like reading Hamlet: going back to the "original" and realising how much we've borrowed, or rather absorbed, without even realising it half the time.
Alice is a funny thing - not terribly likeable, being precocious and argumentative, and yet somehow endearing all the same. I found she fit right in, though in her clumsy way she causes so many of the problems that she finds so exasperating! But can you imagine having such a story written about you, for you, as a child? While there are some slower sections, it's a zippy book to read, beautifully paced overall and, considering Carroll initially told it to the real Alice in little stories to keep her occupied, it comes together remarkably well.
This is a sumptuous edition, and really, when it comes to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
, I recommend finding the best edition you can - it's worth it. Robert Ingpen, an Australian illustrator (graduate of RMIT!!) has gone back to the original illustrations of John Tenniel, who teamed up with Carroll when he went to publish it, for inspiration. His drawings aren't modern versions of the old ones, but in terms of how characters are depicted, he's stuck with Tenniel and Carroll's original vision. And they are superb, truly gorgeous, a wonder all in themselves. The book itself, a lush hardcover, is well worth the money: with thick pages and a ribbon to mark your place, it also has a reproduction of front pages of Carroll's original at the back as well as short essays about the history of the book and of Ingpen's contribution.
This edition is original and unabridged.