Friday, March 5, 2010

"A nice knock-down argument"

Inspired perhaps by the occasion of the new Alice in Wonderland film — which apparently borrows from both Alice and Through the Looking Glass — Lewis Carroll's books are receiving well-deserved attention. Theodore Dalrymple gives us an appreciation of Carroll in the current National Review [March 22] noting, among other things, his lasting relevance:
Having proved that un-birthday presents are superior to birthday presents because they can be given on 364 days of the year instead of only one, Humpty Dumpty says:
“There’s glory for you!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
...[J]ournalists, will recognize Humpty Dumpty’s statement that the question of language boils down to who is to be master only too well in the activities of politically correct sub-editors, who change Mankind for Humankind, and chairman for chair or chairperson (though never hangman for hang or hangperson). By changing what can be said, you eventually change what is and can be thought; by changing what is and can be thought, you change the composition of the elite, that is to say the elite that must form in a society above the hunter-gatherer stage of development, any ideological commitment to egalitarianism notwithstanding. An amusing passage in Through the Looking-Glass, then, is pregnant with meaning and significance; it anticipates the development of Orwell’s Newspeak, but lightheartedly, without foreboding.
Sonny Bunch, reviewing the film, characterizes it as an "interesting failure":
.... For a while, events track relatively closely to the original’s narrative – food and drink grow and shrink Alice, there’s a tea party and a talking caterpillar, and a smiling, evaporating cat makes an appearance – until, all of a sudden, Burton seizes the reins and sends the story in a different direction. Instead of the whimsical wordplay and nonsense imagery that dotted Carroll’s book (and the original cartoon adaptation from Disney), we veer into a puffed-up world of martial combat. ....

This isn’t to say that there’s nothing to admire in this movie; as with most Burton features, it looks fantastic. He has a real eye for set design and a visual panache that is almost unmatched by other fantasy filmmakers. The creature design – from the Jabberwocky to the Bandersnatch to the Red Queen's playing card soldiers – is all quite impressive – menacing and lifelike yet still clearly rooted in fantasy. ....

Still, the movie never quite gels into a convincing narrative. By trying to tame the underlying anarchy in Carroll’s original work and stuff it into a more conventional narrative, much of the joy is lost. It is an interesting failure. .... [more]
Sounds interesting enough to see.

The illustrations are the classic ones by John Tenniel which obviously have influenced all of the portrayals since.

National Review, March 22, pp. 47-49, Alice in Wonderland | The Weekly Standard