Friday, April 6, 2007

Alice, Part Five: The Analysis

As I'm feeling exceptionally nerdy today, I'm really, really tempted to do this as a series of Infocom InvisiClues (who here remembers InvisiClues? Ennis? Abi, did y'all play Zork in Bangalore in the early nineties?)... but perhaps that indulgence will be better saved for when computer screens contain the capacity to absorb those magical "invisible ink" highlighters.

Please refer to the original text and my adaptation for reference throughout this post (go ahead, bring them both up under "new window" or "new tab," whichever you prefer, so you can click-click-click back and forth... if you're one of those really cool people who has a computer with two monitors, well... this would be the time to put them to use).

Here we go!

The biggest issue when adapting
Alice (either the Wonderland or Looking Glass half) is that neither book has a throughline. A throughline is best defined as "that necessary pull that forces the characters to complete their story." With LOTR, it's Frodo getting that fracking ring to Mt. Doom. With KHNH, it's Aman palming Naina off on Rohit before he dies. With "nearly every romantic story ever made," it's one character getting another character to love them (or two characters convincing sets of parents to let them marry, etc.).

Alice contains no such necessary pull. In Wonderland, she wanders, bucolic, through the forest until she happens to find the "beautiful garden" of the Queen of Hearts; but she was not searching for the garden (and in fact she only found it when she had forgotten she wanted to see it). In Looking Glass, there is the issue of Alice making it to the eighth square so that she may become a queen, but there's no sense of urgency; she's certainly not in any hurry. There's also no "if/then" syllogism set up -- that is, there's no real benefit to her becoming a queen (besides the fact that she wants to be one), and no major consequence if she doesn't.

All the
Looking Glass film adaptations (with one exception, which I will note) force a throughline by setting up the idea that "once Alice becomes a queen, she will then have the power to go home." L. Frank Baum already wrote that story, and his version works better. Not to mention that there's nothing in Carroll's text to suggest Alice wants to go home; she seems to be perfectly happy wandering around in Looking-Glass Land, free of the adult-imposed rules and constraints that dictate her life in Victorian England (the book starts out with Alice wishing she could do as she pleases without receiving punishment from her parents and governess, and supposing that she must be able to do anything she wants in Looking-Glass Land, where all the rules are backwards).

The sole exception to this imposed "wanna go home" throughline is the 1966 Alan Handley film Through the Looking Glass, which uses as its throughline the idea that Alice must become a queen in order to have the power to drive the Jabberwock out of Looking-Glass Land (why the Red and White Queens do not have this power is never explained). The Jabberwock, need I mention, is never tormenting anyone in Carroll's book. It appears only in its eponymous poem, and never as an actual character. (The Irwin Allen film also features the Jabberwock as a character -- a hilariously grotesque monster which looks like a man dressed in Hefty garbage bags. He randomly appears throughout the movie and chases Alice around, and his purpose seems to be to drive her to the next interaction. There's also an After-School Special moment at the end where Alice "overcomes her fears" and stands up to the Jabberwock. But... I digress.)

When I sat down to work out my throughline, I thought "what's the real force driving Alice towards becoming a queen?" The answer came when examining Carroll's chess puzzle, and considering that pieces/characters were in fact captured in the game (and in the book). I thought "what happens to these pieces after they leave the board?" and supposed that they left the world of the game -- a synonym, of course, for death. Thus Alice now has a clear driving force to propel herself towards the eighth square; not only does she (like the puzzle suggests) have pieces chasing her every move and threatening to take her off the board, but becoming a queen will allow her greater mobility and power.

This also allowed me a few moments of philosophy, and the opportunity to write the following exchange (which deviates from Carroll's dialogue, but is perhaps in its spirit -- note the knight's description of his move):

ALICE: What happened to the Red Knight?

WHITE KNIGHT: I’m not sure. We don’t really know, do we, what happens to people after they leave this chessboard.

ALICE: I’m frightened.


ALICE: Because I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know where I’m going, and any minute now a knight or a rook or a bishop could come right through here and…

WHITE KNIGHT: Yes, I suppose all those things are true. But that’s what life is, isn’t it? We never know what will come next. And, if you think about it, we never know where we are going! I, for example, always set off on a straight line, goal in sight… but life gets in the way, and I always find myself… oh, at least two squares downwind of where I meant to be! But do you know what the best part of it is?

ALICE: What?

WHITE KNIGHT: I get to meet people like you. Now – do you know where you are?

ALICE: No, I don’t think so, anymore.

WHITE KNIGHT: We’re at the border of the Seventh Square. I’ll see you through it safely. And then you’ll be at the Eighth Square, and –

ALICE: And I can be a Queen!

WHITE KNIGHT: Absolutely. Would you like that?


WHITE KNIGHT: Then I would be honored to help you get there.

(I love the White Knight. He... just gets me all verklempt, every time I read his chapter.)

The other alteration I made had to do with the element of design I mentioned in this post: the idea that I wanted to create opportunity for arresting visual choreography. There is always an issue, in Alice, of how to get the characters on and off the stage. As Alice continually travels, there are two basic ways to do it. Either she leaves the stage, there's a scene shift, and she re-enters, or all the other characters leave the stage and new characters come on.

I didn't like either of those ways. They're kind of boring. Irwin Allen uses the first method, and thus when I watch his DVD and use the "skip to next chapter" button, every chapter begins in the same way: Alice entering Stage Right and "discovering" a group of people. Boring, boring, boring. (BTW, for all my trashing of the Irwin Allen film, it's probably still my favorite because it not only has the best and cleverest songs, it has the best character cameos. Carol Channing, Steve and Eydie, Ringo Starr, Sammy Davis, Jr., and the one-and-only John Stamos.)

Then I noticed that nearly every square Alice visited (with the exception of the third, where she travels by railway) included a poem. I wanted to use these poems, but I didn't want the action of the scene to stop while an actor stood and recited. I decided that the method of transportation in my adaptation of Alice would be poetry -- that is, whenever a poem began, it would "come to life" and Alice would be swept into it; and when the poem ended, she would find herself in a different place. (Sashi, don't you agree that's one of the functions of poetry: to take a person to a different place?)

Here 's an example of how I did it.

ALICE finishes straightening the chess pieces and picks up the book.

ALICE: That’s strange – the pages are all in a language I don’t know. It wasn’t like that before.

ALICE looks at the looking-glass.

It did happen. I did get through. And this is a Looking-Glass chessboard, and this is a Looking-Glass book! And if I hold it up to the glass, the words will all go the right way again!

ALICE takes the book to the looking-glass.

ALICE: Twas brillig, and the slithy toves… no, it’s still in a language I don’t understand.

But suddenly the poem surrounds her, and the ensemble is there creating a forest and a Jabberwocky within a tangle of bodies and innumerable arms and legs while the little PAWN bravely steps forward to fight.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jujub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!

He took his vorpal sword in hand:

Long time the manxome foe he sought –

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

‘And has thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’

He chortled in his joy.

The chair, table, chessboard, and looking-glass – all perhaps incorporated into this moment, i.e. the chessboard serving as the PAWN’s shield – are suddenly swept away; the ensemble is gone, and ALICE is left alone onstage with the RED QUEEN.

ALICE: What a strange poem. I felt as if I were actually in the forest –

RED QUEEN: Speak only when you are spoken to!

ALICE: I beg your pardon – oh! I am in the forest!

I was able to get it to work for every poem and every transition, of which (dare I say) I am infinitely proud. When the White King and Haigha begin reciting "The Lion and the Unicorn," for example, the Lion and the Unicorn appear and begin fighting for the crown; after the ensuing dialogue, when they recite the second couplet (which ends with them all being "drummed out of town"), the drums belong to the Red Knight, who is coming towards the square to capture all within but is driven away by the White Knight, who is then onstage to have his scene with Alice.

The other changes were predominately surface-level; I removed, for example, the exchange about "ham sandwiches and hay" from the White King's scene because, after all, I'm going to a predominantly vegetarian location. I allowed the Sheep in the shop scene to haggle with
Alice, taking my inspiration from this charming young man. I kept as much of Carroll's original dialogue in the play as I could possibly squeeze in, and the play stands at about 80% his writing (organized into script form) and 20% mine. This, of course, you saw with the way I handled Chapter Seven.

Looks like I've come to the end of this series, unless there are questions or concerns I can field from the audience. I'll keep you posted on what happens to the text, particularly as the translation process begins. That ought to be interesting.

'Till next time...

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