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Anna Kérchy, Alice in Transmedia Wonderland: Curiouser and Curiouser New Forms of a Children’s Classic (McFarland, 2016, 257pp, £41.50)


Reviewed by James Hamby (Middle Tennessee State University)

Lewis Carroll’s Alice has been an icon of mutability for over a century and a half now. In the original Alice books, the character was marked by her ever-changing body, her constantly defamiliarized surroundings, and her meandering wanderings. Immediately after the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), a number of unofficial sequels and imitations appeared. This trend has continued into the twenty-first century as artists in several different mediums have adopted the character of Alice for their own stories. Alice is not just a character, but an archetype (‘the emblem of the perpetual wonder/wander’, as Kérchy puts it), an innocent child trying to make sense out of nonsense. In her book, Kérchy explores the ways that various media have retold the story of Alice in a postmodern context. Kérchy notes that there are several similarities between the Victorian Alice of Carroll’s vision and the transmedial, postmodern Alice. The character of Alice is also highly adaptable to a number of different media, and Kérchy’s book examines how novels, films, video games, television series, graphic novels, pop-up books, iPad apps, photographs, ballet, and others media have interpreted this character. In each medium, Alice proves to be a malleable archetype able to fulfil the necessary aesthetic and rhetorical demands of the genre. Kérchy divides her study into an introduction, four chapters and an epilogue. The introduction and each of the chapters focus on a handful of Alices in different idioms, and the epilogue reflects on the various sesquicentennial celebrations and commemorative volumes that testify to Alice’s enduring legacy.

Kérchy begins by explaining how the focus of her study is to disclose the process of ‘(re)imagining as a non-linear movement across and between different times, spaces, and media to analyze how books read, films watched and games played by/for/about children can renew the ways we think of our past, present, and future.’ The first chapter focuses on Alice as an ‘imagetextual monstrosity, a hybrid embodiment of verbal and visual nonsense’ and explores how different visual representations ‘aim to “update” a classic canonized artwork by adjusting it to the cultural conditions, social meanings, and horizon of aesthetic expectations’ of particular historical eras. The chapter focuses on a number of different media representations of Alice, including pop-up book adaptations, the Alice for the iPad app, and different film adaptations (including the 1951 Disney animated version and the 2010 Tim Burton production).

The next chapter provides ‘an analysis of what adult readers are ready or resistant to imagine about children’s imagination proves to be telling of who we are, who we (make)believe ourselves to be.’ One enduring aspect of the Alice archetype, going back to Carroll’s original, is that she challenges her audience to see things from very different points of view, and to imagine what she is imagining. Subsequent iterations of the Alice character challenge their audiences to imagine things that are uncomfortably unfamiliar or disturbing. This chapter contains an excellent discussion of Terry Gilliam’s Tideland (2007) as well as analyses on Coraline (including the 2002 novel by Neil Gaiman, the 2008 graphic novel by Russell Craig and the 2009 animated film by Henry Selick), American McGee’s Alice computer games, and the ABC television series Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.

Chapter 3 explores how Alice is often eroticized, and how the popular notion (which Kérchy argues is a myth) of Carroll having a pedophilic interest in Alice Liddell contributes to this sexualization. Kérchy uses a number of texts ranging from Dodgson’s photographs of Liddell, to Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s pornographic graphic novel Lost Girls, to Katie Roiphe’s novel Still She Haunts Me, amongst others. The final chapter looks at nonsense language, synaesthesia and the role of memory in creating narrative, all of which harkens back to Carroll’s original vision of Alice making her way through an illogical world filled with nonsense language. This chapter analyzes Jan Svankmajer and Eva Svankmajerova’s film Something from Alice, Angela Carter’s short story ‘Alice in Prague, or The Curious Room’, and Rikki Ducornet’s novel Jade Cabinet.

Despite the impressive number of texts and media that she covers in the book, Kérchy manages to find similarities running as common threads through them all. Kérchy cleverly notes that, like the Victorian Age, our own postmodern times are experiencing a crisis in epistemology. The Victorians dealt with a rapidly changing world of industrialization, scientific advancement, urbanization, social progress and religious questioning where many of the certainties of previous eras were no longer certain. Likewise, in our own times, phenomena such as the digital revolution, social change, and the aftermath of a century dominated by world war and genocide have all destabilized our society and our views of ourselves in ways similar to what the Victorians experienced. Given the polysemies, uncertainties and ambiguities that pervade the philosophy and aesthetics of our time, the figure of Alice serves as an enduringly apt symbol.

Of all the texts that Kérchy discusses, her analysis of Gilliam’s Tideland is perhaps the most astute as well as the most representative of how the figure of Alice can be adapted for a postmodern context. Kérchy notes that the protagonist of this film, Jeliza-Rose, acts as ‘an Alice figure whose natural and innocent, imaginative worldview is presumed to be radically separate from the corruption of adult life’ and that this version of Alice ‘directs our attention to the meta-imaginative essence of Carroll’s tales, where the dreamchild is always tackled in connection with the adult dreamer who calls her into being as a dreamer herself’. Thus, Gilliam’s Jeliza-Rose recreates the experiences of Carroll’s Alice for a modern audience by inviting them to consider how children view the world of adults, which to them is utter nonsense. Kérchy notes how unsettling it is for many adults to undergo this thoroughly defamiliarizing process which introduces them to ‘the uncanny space of a child’s mind that is paradoxically unable to make sense of uncanniness.’ Unlike many other versions of the Alice archetype that try to impose some sort of narrative meaning on the protagonist’s adventures (as in the Burton film where Alice must lead a rebellion against the tyrannical Red Queen), Tideland focuses on the mysteriousness of a child’s imagination. Jeliza-Rose’s make-believe world helps her through the trauma she experiences while surrounded by adults who are incompetent and abusive.

Kérchy connects this version of Alice to Carroll’s original by noting that the well-known slogan ‘we are all mad here’ implies a very modern ‘nihilistic existential crisis, a collective fury of disordered, delusionary minds prevented from living a sane and safe, “normal” life’. It is the protean nature of the Alice archetype that has allowed her to remain so popular in so many media throughout the years, and that makes her all the more relevant in a postmodern context where epistemological certainty is always in doubt, and the familiar is constantly defamiliarized.

Kérchy’s work is a valuable study on modern-day interpretations of Alice in various media. Indeed, it seems that Alice is deeply ingrained in our collective cultural consciousness, considering the way she keeps proliferating in different iterations. Carroll scholars and Alice fans will no doubt find this a fascinating study, but mass media scholars and students of postmodern thought will also find this a very valuable book. Kérchy’s work is a fascinating, well-researched look at how Alice continues to speak to us in our postmodern times: a familiar figure who is somehow never quite knowable, taking on curiouser and curiouser versions of herself with each new iteration.