Monday, November 18, 2013

The "Alice" Character

Wasn't last night's episode of Once Upon a Time fantastic? It was like we had been waiting two and a half seasons to see all that unfold--and I guessed correctly about the identity of a certain Peter Pan, I might add. But I'd like to take this opportunity to go over another fantasy-related concept I've been pondering: the "Alice" figure.

The story of Alice in Wonderland has always made for a bit of a conundrum for anyone adapting it to film: there is very little of a real (traditional, I mean) plot line and the main character does not change or progress or anything like that from beginning to end (symbolically, she does--but not within the physical framework of the story). So Alice often looks very flat on film, because she is in fact, purposefully, written fairly flat. Some filmmakers know how to work with this; others just bypass it and turn Alice into an active character. Tim Burton kept Alice fairly restrained while still trying to show outward signs of her growth, as though the Jabberwocky and the proposal. In Alice, Nick Willing made Alice into a dynamic character while keeping her as the straight man to the more comedic or dramatic characters.

It's a very similar route that Once Upon a Time in Wonderland takes. Alice usually speaks in the same restrained manner as we're used to, keeping her facial features in line--but she knows how to sword-fight, she's courageous, and she initiates action instead of just reacting to it. The concept of her is sometimes perhaps a little too evocative of Nick Willing's approach, but we'll just hope that's because the two character interpretations come from the same era in time, right? (Even their outfits are slightly similar . . . but I digress.)

While I still don't much like the book Alice in Wonderland, it's interesting how interpretations of it work. The book is hugely symbolic: you can interpret it based on psychology and social behavior and whatever else. In adaptations, people often make the symbolic level active and alive. Instead of leaving symbolic interpretations possible for the audience, they design their story according to one interpretation. Nick Willing focused on Alice's loss of her father and her need to grow past that childhood event. The TV show also explains that Alice has a troubled relationship with her father, but she doesn't seem overly troubled by it in the present day; her focus is more on getting Cyrus back. So that makes her much more of a traditional character, driven by a simple desire and goal.

It's strange to me that this spin-off show almost entirely takes out the flat "Alice" character when Once Upon a Time itself created its own Alice through Emma. By now, Emma has experienced character development and we've learned about who she is and who she wants to be and all that. But she began much like Alice in Wonderland: she was the fairly flat, emotionally stoic character thrown into the midst of other colorful characters and situations she didn't fully understand. For me, Emma can be one of the weak points of the show because of the way her character is designed. When the Alice character is already so difficult to give to a modern audience, I sometimes wonder why this show (and other stories) decide to create an Alice character. Maybe a story just needs a straight man to contrast with more layered characters?

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