I own more editions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books than of any other book — not counting adaptations or excerpts, just the original texts of 1865’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and 1872’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.
Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice, which recently got referenced (again) on an episode of Lost to a hoot from me, could well be my favorite book ever. It’s not the sole or necessarily even the best way to experience Alice, but if you only know the Disney film by all means read Carroll and if you’ve enjoyed Carroll by all means plunge into Gardner’s exegesis and celebration of his work.
Off the top of my head (with dates from the ’Net), since most of it is boxed up right
now, my Alice collection includes...
• a plain old omnibus reading copy of the stories;
• an illustrated picture-book adaptation of the 1951 Disney animated film Alice in Wonderland;
• Kyle Baker’s 1990 Classics Illustrated comics adaptation of Through the Looking-Glass;
• a trade-paperback edition of The Annotated Alice, with John Tenniel’s original illustrations;
• a long-sought-after 1960 hardcover of same;
• the 1990 hardcover of Gardner’s More Annotated Alice, with new commentary and Peter Newell’s illustrations replacing Tenniel’s;
• the 2000 Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, combining both;
• a facsimile of the original manuscript hand-written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson,
the Oxford mathematics instructor and deacon who was Lewis Carroll, for Alice Liddell, called Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, before its expansion and publication as Wonderland;
• Robert Sabuda’s 2003 abridged pop-up adaptation of Adventures in Wonderland;
• another abridged pop-up done in 2000 by Nick Denchfield and Alex Vining;
• and various picture-book abridgments of the original stories, including stand-alone editions of the famed “Jabberwocky” poem from Looking-Glass illustrated by Graeme Base, Nick Bantock, and others.
I was in third grade when I read the real Alice books for the first time. We’d moved
and my new school’s curriculum incorporated this amazing thing known as Sustained Silent Reading periods. Of course students could bring their own books, but the classroom had a small bookshelf with a series of like-binded editions of classics from Alice to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I made my way through many of them. The differences between L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the familiar MGM movie musical surprised me; if possible, Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio freaked me out more than the Pleasure Island sequence in the Disney film. Carroll’s Alice books just plumb fascinated me in their intricacy and inventiveness.
The books’ greatest aspect may be their multifaceted nature, only in part because it leads to their malleability of interpretation. You can read them as celebrations of fantasy, nonsense, and wordplay. You can dig deeply into their puzzles and allegories, intentional and otherwise — setting aside the debate over Dodgson’s potentially inappropriate relationships with and fetishism of young girls, if you can, a struggle for me as an avowed lover of the books. You can explore the translation of both their most superficial elements and their underlying motifs into new entertainments. Like the Oz books, Wonderland and Looking-Glass are seemingly infinitely adaptable, often with surprisingly satisfying results on their own terms — which is rare for discrete works of fiction, as opposed to broad canons like Batman or Star Trek or Greek mythology.
There have been a considerable number of movies, stage plays, comics, and prose novels based on Alice, both straight-up adaptations and explorations taking the form of further adventures or the story behind the stories or dystopic steampunk mecha sci-fi gangster spins on the original. A new live-action Alice in Wonderland film directed for Disney by Tim Burton opens this weekend, and I decided to express my attachment to the source material now to to avoid an excessive preamble my review.
When I discovered The Annotated Alice in high school through a friend it rekindled
my affection for the Carroll books themselves, sparking or amplifying my interests in logic, narrative structure, and textual analysis in the bargain. Most importantly, perhaps, because Gardner’s work could have come across as unbearably self-important or irritatingly clever but did not, I also had the concept of appreciating the story on the page (and whatever added dimensions unfold in your head) fortified, analysis be damned. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a thrill ride is just a thrill ride, a wonderland is just a wonderland. The fact that its insights are so thought-provoking as to feel utterly indispensable and simultaneously reinforce the fact that the Alice books themselves are so self-evidently rich as to render any explications entirely dispensable makes The Annotated Alice that much more remarkable.
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