Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do …
So it began, the story of a precocious young girl who falls through a rabbit hole into a mind-bending, subterranean land — casting a spell worldwide.
Lewis Carroll simply had intended to entertain the dark-haired 10-year-old who inspired the tale when he first told it to her and her two sisters during a lolling, midsummer boat ride up England’s River Thames. The girls loved it so much that they asked him to write it down. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” became a book, and was released to the masses three years later.
That was in 1865. The masses are yet to let go of it.
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Few literary works in history have been more widely and unendingly adapted and referenced than the now 150-year-old “Alice’s Adventures” and Carroll’s subsequent “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.”
Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” grossed $1 billion at the global box office in 2010, and Mia Wasikowska as Alice and Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter will return for the “Alice Through the Looking Glass” sequel in May. It adds to a catalog of some two dozen film and TV adaptations.
A new biography on Carroll by Oxford scholar Robert Douglas-Fairhurst has drawn heavy praise since it joined a canon of Alice-related books earlier this year.
Alice courses through popular music and dance. Through art. Through comics, video games, theme park rides and ski runs (you can schuss down the March Hare, Jabberwocky, White Rabbit and Cheshire Cat at Winter Park, Colo.). Carroll’s original text has been translated into approximately 175 languages, including Klingon.
Kansas City is about to chase Alice, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, and Carroll’s menagerie of other curious characters down the rabbit hole. Commemorating the book’s sesquicentennial, the Kansas City Public Library and Mid-Continent Public Library are spearheading a two-month Great City | Great Read celebration of “Alice’s Adventures” featuring lectures and other special events, youth programs, book discussions, film screenings and an art exhibit.
“I don’t know what else has had that kind of resonance,” says University of Missouri-Kansas City film professor Mitch Brian, who will be one of the featured speakers. Maybe L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” he says. Or outside of the Bible and Shakespeare’s works, maybe nothing in the written language.
Jazz singer Angela Hagenbach will pair the music of John Coltrane with her original lyrics inspired by the book. Her production, which will be performed twice, sets the story in the free-spirited 1960s and makes Alice a student of jazz studies.
Hagenbach, a Kansas City native, recalls reading “Alice’s Adventures” for the first time when she was about 9, then coming back to the book two or three times in her youth. “It’s just so smart,” she says. “Each time you read it, you find more that either you didn’t notice or you’ve had some life experiences that have allowed you to grow and expand in a different direction. You read the same thing, but it says a lot more to you each time around.”
That’s a start in explaining the enduring popularity of a story that dates to the Victorian age, conceived by an Oxford mathematician with a religious bent.
Before Carroll (real name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) died in 1898, other writers began drawing from “Alice.” Then the first film adaptation came in 1903 — a silent, eight-minute short with impressive special effects for the period. Walt Disney launched his career in part with a series of 52 “Alice” comedy shorts mixing live action and animation and starred 4-year-old Kansas Citian Virginia Davis. He returned to “Wonderland” for his 1951 animated feature.
Large- and small-screen productions from “The Matrix” to TV’s “Star Trek” and “Lost” have borrowed from “Alice.” So did the music world’s Jefferson Airplane (“White Rabbit”), the Beatles (“I Am the Walrus”) and Tom Petty (playing the Mad Hatter in the Alice-themed video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”).
DC Comics named one of Batman’s villains after the Hatter. Alice tattoos are plentiful — “the tale is filled with craziness and trippy imagery that translates perfectly into the world of tattooing,” Inked magazine says. Even medicine has taken a cue, giving the name Alice in Wonderland Syndrome to a rare neurological condition in which people perceive parts of their body or other objects to be larger or smaller.
“It functions on all these different levels,” says Brian, who teaches film studies, advanced screenwriting, directing and film adaptation at UMKC. “It’s a whimsical kids’ story on one hand. But it’s also a political satire, a social satire, and adults connect with it on that level.
“And there are these iconic characters — the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar smoking the hooka, the Cheshire Cat. They’re so strong, and they’ve become so ingrained in our consciousness.”
The book’s young heroine has held up especially well over a century and a half. Alice is inquisitive and confident, more modern-day than the prim, modest child she might have been in the Victorian age from which she sprang.
Brian notes that, at its core, “the story is so simple. This little girl winds up in a magical world that’s very confusing. She’s trying to figure out how to get from one place to the next, and they keep changing the rules on her. It’s like a dream, this disorienting dream.
“We’ve all felt that way. We’ve all felt like Alice.”
In the biography “The Story of Alice,” selected by Time magazine as one of its top 10 books of 2015 so far, Douglas-Fairhurst acknowledges the “unstoppable cultural momentum” of both “Alice’s Adventures” and “Through the Looking-Glass.”
The books and the world they portray change how we think and feel, he writes. They make the real world seem fresh and new.
“Carroll’s stories do not ask us to worry about what is true,” the Oxford lecturer says, “instead they entertain us with what we can imagine as true and encourage us to enjoy being puzzled at what we do not know. They are invitations to wonder.”
Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer for the Kansas City Public Library.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a “book of the moment” selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along.
Members of FYI and the library staff chose “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll.
You have two opportunities to participate in a discussion of the book:
▪ 2 p.m. Sept. 28, Smithville Branch, 120 Richardson St., Smithville
▪ 1 p.m. Oct. 3, the Rabbit Hole, 110 Southwest Blvd.
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” 150 years old, is still eminently quotable. Here are 10 of the best lines:
▪ Alice to the Cheshire Cat: “‘How do you know I’m mad?’ ‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’”
▪ “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” — Alice
▪ “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” — Alice
▪ A “lullaby” from the Duchess: “‘Speak roughly to your little boy, and beat him when he sneezes: He only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases.’ Chorus (in which the baby and cook joined): ‘Wow! wow! wow!’”
▪ “Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, ‘What road do I take?’
“The cat asked, ‘Where do you want to go?’
“‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered.
“‘Then,’ said the cat, ‘it really doesn’t matter, does it?’”
▪ The Mad Hatter, getting the song all wrong: “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! How I wonder what you’re at! … Up above the world you fly, like a tea-tray in the sky.”
▪ “Off with her head!” — Queen of Hearts
▪ “No wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.” — Mock Turtle
▪ Alice asks the Mock Turtle what he studied in school: “‘Reeling and Writhing of course, to begin with,’ the Mock Turtle replied, ‘and the different branches of arithmetic-ambition, distraction, uglification, and derision.’”
▪ “Curiouser and curiouser!” — Alice
| Sharon Hoffmann, email@example.com
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE CELEBRATION
The Kansas City and Mid-Continent public libraries have joined forces for the two-month Great City | Great Read celebration of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” from mid-September to mid-November. It’s part of the KC library’s Building a Community of Readers initiative to make the city one of the most literate in America.
Here are some of the “Alice” programs:
▪ What Is It About Alice? Mark Burstein, former president of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, kicks off the celebration. 6:30 p.m. Sept. 16, Central Library, 14 W. 10th St., and 7 p.m. Sept. 17, Woodneath Library Center, 8900 N.E. Flintlock Road.
▪ Hollywood Wonderland: The Cinema and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Talk by UMKC film professor Mitch Brian. 6:30 p.m. Sept. 23, Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.
▪ The Fairy Tale Explosion in Contemporary Media. Talk by children’s literature expert Naphtali Faris. 2 p.m. Sept. 27, Trails West Branch, 11401 E. 23rd St., Independence.
▪ JazzAlice: An Adventure in Musical Wonderland. Performance created by KC jazz singer Angela Hagenbach. 6:30 p.m. Oct. 28, Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St., and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 10, the Pavilion at John Knox Village, 520 N.W. Murray Road, Lee’s Summit.
▪ Reinterpreting Wonderland. Talk by psychotherapist David Donovan. 2 p.m. Oct. 10, Parkville Branch, 8815 Tom Watson Parkway.
▪ “Intimate Riot.” Artist Peregrine Honig curates an original exhibit of “Wonderland”-inspired work from artists and fashion designers. On display Oct. 10 to Jan. 17 at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. She will discuss the show in her talk, “Looking at Alice With an Artist’s Eye,” at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 14 at the Central Library.
RABBIT HOLE READING
The sesquicentennial of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” has spawned a slew of related books:
▪ “After Alice” by Gregory Maguire. Alice’s friend Ada tumbles down the Rabbit Hole moments after Alice does. Her experience is quite different
▪ “The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland” by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. The tangled history of two lives and two books receives a rich detailed unbiased examination from a Harvard scholar.
▪ “Alice I Have Been” by Melanie Benjamin. A historical novel that imagines the life of the real woman whose childhood became a beloved classic.
▪ “The Annotated Alice: 150th Anniversary Edition.” Footnotes and illustrations expand a reader’s enjoyment and understanding of Lewis Carroll’s story and the political, social and cultural issues of its time.
▪ “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll and illustrated by Chris Myers. A fresh take on the classic poem uses an inner-city basketball court for a slam-dunk duel between the massive Jabberwock and the hero.
| Kaite Stover, Kansas City Public Library