Friday, March 5, 2010


The Matrix. Salvador Dali. Batman villains. Nuclear science experiment. Computer programming. The Jefferson Airplane. Mental Health. Lost.

Fall down through the rabbit hole of pop culture and you’ll be amazed at how many references to Alice in Wonderland have reappeared over time like a Cheshire cat’s grin. The real world impact of "Alice" suggests how some classic stories not only endure the test of time but become forever embedded in our social consciousness. Tim Burton, who directs the current version of this wild tale, confirms this notion. “I’m from Burbank, so we never heard about Alice in Wonderland, except for the Disney cartoon, the Tom Petty video, and Jefferson Airplane, “ he says. “It was interesting because that’s what made me realize the power of it. I got my introduction to it much more from other illustrators, music, culture and writers. Then, when you start to delve into it, you realize just how powerful that is.”

The truth behind the inspiration for the story rests with Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll was the author’s pen name), who in 1862 met Alice Liddell, daughter of the dean of Christ’s Church in Oxford, Great Britain. On a boat trip, Charles told her a tale about a white rabbit and a girl, which was first put to paper as Alice’s Adventures Underground, then later evolved into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Although the real Alice had short black hair (not blond, as we think of her), she was the inspiration for the book’s heroine. Liddell’s siblings also are represented in the stories (the Dormouse tells a story about three little sisters). And the author satirized himself in the story as the Dodo (Charles--who had a real stuttering disorder-- would have trouble pronouncing his last name. It would come out as ‘Do-Do Dodgson’).

Since its first publishing, the books’ eccentric characters and settings have inspired over 150 artists. Illustrator Sir John Tenniel is famous for capturing such iconic images as the Mad Hatter, the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, plus the plump Tweedledee and Tweedledum for the 1865 edition.

Other artists put their own unique stamp on the tale, including Ralph Steadman (best known for illustrating Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and famed surrealist Salvadore Dali (a good fit for the painter of melting watches and odd, dreamy landscapes).

When a musical version opened in 1888—not long after the book was in print—it was clear Alice’s influence would have a lasting effect. Since then, there have been several stage and musical adaptations, including a New York Shakespeare Festival production featuring Meryl Streep as Alice. As far back as 1903, dozens of motion picture versions of Alice have been made, from a Japanese anime program to a Czech cult film to a 1933 live action version featuring Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, Gary Cooper as The White Knight and W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty. Many references to the stories can be found in hit movies,like The Matrix (when Morpheus tells Neo “you’re feeling a bit like Alice, hmm? Tumbling down the rabbit hole” and later “you take the red pill- you stay in Wonderland.”).

Alice in Wonderland's impact on modern culture can be found just about
anywhere: the rock group Alice in Chains; comic characters like The Mad Hatter in Batman; the television series Lost; current fashions and jewelry tied-in to Burton's film; the science project A.L.I.C.E.; a statue in New York’s Central Park; the word ‘chortle’ (coined by Carroll).

Of all the Alice references, perhaps the most intriguing occurs in medicine. The Alice in Wonderland Syndrome often affects people with severe migraines. The symptoms include confusion over the size and shape of a sufferer’s own body parts. Other patients see enlarged heads and hands (an allusion to Alice’s growing in the story); perceive objects with incorrect dimensions (i.e. long corridors; undersized houses); or experience distortions in touch, sound, and time (clocks running too fast or slow).

It’s clear that Alice in Wonderland will continue to influence the real world for some time to come.In fact, some people celebrate Lewis Carroll's book and its eccentricities every October 6th, designated as “Mad Hatter Day”. The “10/6” date refers to the numbers written on the slip of paper in The Mad Hatter’s chapeau (which in point of fact, have nothing to do with dates—they are hat-size measurements).

Photos of the Real Alice in LIFE.

Other notable films based on "Alice" or containing references:


Mrs. Miniver

Alice In Wonderland (1951, Disney)