The Ten Best Alice in Wonderland Films

Roos - Alice.PNG

This year marks the 110th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s death, and though it might sound a bit macabre, this may nevertheless be a good celebratory occasion to review the best Alice in Wonderland film adaptations.

Perhaps more fascinating than Alice in Wonderland itself is the mind from which the story sprang. Contrastive to his work, Carroll, or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), was said to be a rather dry and stiff man. As a mathematician and logician at Christ Church Oxford, he was orderly and meticulous, maybe what would now be characterized as bordering on OCD. But more than adhering to rules and order, he loved to break them, twist them, and turn them around completely until he arrived at the insane world that is Wonderland. Yet, saying that Wonderland is only a trippy celebration of chaos and disorder would be wrong. Alice in Wonderland very cleverly challenges the taken-for-granted logic of the adult world by using a child as a heroine who questions and doubts everything. In this, Carroll brilliantly captures a child responding to a world that has rules and logic that she, other than adults, does not yet fully understand and accept as ‘normal’.

Carroll loved the world of children and had a lot of friendships with them. But one child seemed to incite something in him that no other children had before. Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, was the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. Like Alice, she was pushy, imperious, and liked to boss everyone around, often shaking the fringe out of her face with a self-important expression. On the very warm and sunny afternoon of July 4th 1862, Carroll and his friend Robinson Duckworth took Alice and her sisters Lorena and Edith up the river Thames to Godstow. Over and over, Alice had pleaded Carroll to tell him a story and now, backed up by her sisters, she asked him again. And so, somewhat unwillingly, Carroll began the story that would make him one of the most-read children’s authors of all time.

Alice in Wonderland is an incredibly rich and versatile literary work so the options in making a filmic adaptation are endless. In this review, I have tried to avoid addressing the elephant in the room in the shape of classics and blockbusters such as Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Alice’s adult revisits to Wonderland in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Into the Looking Glass (2016), with the desire to shine some light on more obscure and forgotten but nevertheless marvelous Alice adaptations. There is nothing snobbish behind this: I have enjoyed the Disney classic and both of Burton’s films tremendously but sometimes it is more interesting to move away from the Queen of Hearts and study the soldiers silently painting the roses instead.

As for the list itself, because I found that the films are, in their own terms, each so unique and different, it felt wrong to bring any hierarchical order to the list. So I decided to take the King of Hearts advice, and to “begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” As such, the films are listed in chronological order by the year of their release and are provided with a Queen-of-Hearts-ranking.

 

Alice in Wonderland (1903) – Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow (♥♥♥♥)

This 9-minute silent film is the first Alice adaptation ever made, and was successfully restored by the British Film Institute in 2010. When it was released in 1903, it was the longest film yet produced in Britain, running about 12 minutes. Because of its length, the film was not suitable for theatres who preferred a variety of short clips on different subjects, so the scenes were sold individually. There were no professional actors involved in this production. Alice is portrayed by Mabel Clark who normally acted as the studio’s secretary and errand girl. Hepworth himself played the frog footman while his wife filled in the role of the White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts. The only one who launched a successful acting career after this production was the family dog, Blair, who became famous as the star of Rescued by Rover (1905)[1].

Notable about this production are the special effects which are for that time quite impressive. Alice’s shrinking scene is seamlessly montaged, and the Cheshire cat is portrayed by a real-life cat artfully projected into the bushes. Though with the right music the film is enjoyable, it is Carroll’s wit and puns that are really conspicuous by their absence. With the characters being muted, some scenes are just comically monotonous. For a solid minute – remember that the film is 9 minutes long – we see poor Alice nearly developing carpal tunnel syndrome from waving her handkerchief to draw the attention of a clearly disinterested Cheshire Cat. Still, in all its simplicity the film is quite enchanting.

Watch Alice in Wonderland (1903)

 

Alice in Wonderland (1931) – Bud Pollard (♥♥♥)

This 45 minute film was the first Alice adaptation with sound, and for that reason alone deserves a place in the list. Pollard’s adaptation was a low-budget production which becomes clear from the uninspiring camera work and the clumsy performance of the amateur actors, which elicited sympathy among Mordaunt Hall, a reviewer of the New York Times who wrote at that time: “poor little Alice had to go through the ordeal of coming to shadow life in an old studio in Fort Lee, N. J., instead of enjoying the manifold advantages of her rich cousins who hop from printed pages to the screen amid the comforts of a well-equipped Hollywood studio.”[2] Luckily, the production doesn’t cast a shadow on the star of the film, Ruth Gilbert, a 1930s version of Jennifer Aniston, who, with permanently wide eyes and an inexhaustible array of facial expressions, is an utterly captivating Alice. Even outnumbered by the most bizarre creatures, she manages to catch the audience’s eyes throughout the entire film. Yet, no matter how Gilbert steals the show with her sincere impressions and the mesmerizing cadence of her voice, the film was inevitably dominated by the 1933 big-budget Hollywood adaptation from Paramount Pictures.

Watch Alice in Wonderland (1931)

 

Alice in Wonderland (1933) – Norman Z. McLeod (♥♥♥)

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In the 1930s, the centenary of Lewis Carroll’s birth caused a wave of “Alice fever” on both sides of the Atlantic where the number of Alice films, plays, songs, and puppet shows skyrocketed, so Hollywood couldn’t stay behind. With a generous budget and an all-star cast, including W.C. Fields, Cary Grant, and Gary Cooper, viewers can revel in the Golden Age Hollywood nostalgia of McLeod’s adaptation. Combining elements from both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the film is with its lavish décor and boisterous music quite phenomenal. Though the production seemed to be bound for success, the film was a notable flop at the box office. Perhaps you can say that this was because the stars who were supposed to draw in the audiences were as Wonderland’s creatures appallingly unrecognizable: Cary Grant’s handsome and youthful features were muzzled by the greasy cow’s head of the Mock Turtle (see above), and, as the White Knight the usually suave Gary Cooper resembled a medieval version of Sega’s Dr. Eggman – though W.C. Fields, known for his heavy-drinking and misanthropic comic persona, is the perfect Humpty Dumpty if there ever was one. The film made critics doubt whether a live-action fantasy with strange-looking characters could make for a successful film – criticism which was proved wrong by The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Nevertheless, Hollywood did not dare to go for another live-action Alice adaptation and left it untouched until Tim Burton picked it up again 80 years later.

Watch Alice in Wonderland (1933)

 

Alice in Wonderland (1949) – Dallas Bower and Lou Bunin (♥♥♥)

This French (!) adaptation met some disputes upon its release. The film was kept out of Britain because the Queen of Hearts was said to look too much like Queen Victoria. Across the Atlantic, producer Lou Bunin was fighting with Disney Studios who were at that time working on their full-length animated version of Alice. Disney feared that Bunin’s “inferior” Alice would deceive the public into going to see the wrong picture, and “spoil” their take on Alice. Clearly enjoying this battle over Wonderland, Time Magazine wrote at that time a three-part article series in which they likened Disney and Bounin to Tweedledee and Tweedledum: “Tweedledum and Tweedledee agreed to have a battle; for Tweedledum said Tweedledee had spoiled his nice new rattle.”[3] Eventually, Disney lost the case and was sentenced with bad reviews and a disappointing box office.

The film can be seen as the first Alice adaptation to experiment with live-action and animation. Clearly avoiding the danger of scaring its viewers, Wonderland’s creatures are portrayed by slow-stop animated puppets that aren’t disturbingly creepy for a change, which makes for a welcoming retreat from the puppet horror of other adaptations. Another uplifting element in this film are the musical songs, and especially Carol Marsh’s (Alice) beautiful singing voice is the real dealmaker of this film.

Watch Alice in Wonderland (1949)

 

Alice in Wonderland (1966) – Jonathan Miller (♥♥♥♥♥)

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Miller’s Alice was broadcasted in the centenary year of the publication of Carroll’s novel and was not aimed at children – its screening was scheduled at 9 pm, when most children would have been in their beds. The film was probably too artsy for them anyway: with its black-and-white cinematography, the film departs from the colourful extravagance usually associated with Alice in Wonderland. Likewise, Miller strictly avoided using special effects, grand set designs, and imposing costumes to capture the surreal dream-like quality of Carroll’s novel. “I like great simplicity in all my work,” Miller explains. “I don’t like lots of florid detail.” Indeed, the people who Alice meets are simple Victorians who don’t need Tenniel-inspired funny masks and animal costumes to show off their insanity. For Miller, stripping down the characters to make them resemble Alice’s contemporaries allows for a new interpretation of Alice in Wonderland: “Once you take the animal heads off, you begin to see what it’s all about. A small child, surrounded by hurrying, worried people, thinking ‘Is that what being grown up is like?’” In her lucid trip into the world of adulthood, Alice, played by a frizzy-haired Anne-Marie Mallik, is the only voice of reason and beholds Wonderland’s doings with a haughtiness in her voice that is not entirely misplaced: the characters are – like some adults Miller seems to suggest – self-important but substantially silly. With the trance-like sound of Ravi Skankar’s sitar guiding us through Wonderland, Miller’s Alice is a very trippy yet sophisticated take on Carroll’s novel.

Watch Alice in Wonderland (1966)

 

Alice ou la Dernière Fugue (1977) – Claude Chabrol (♥♥♥♥)

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Though there are no Cheshire Cats, White rabbits, and Mad Hatters in this film, Chabrol’s Alice is on her own otherworldly adventure where she meets the strangest figures. This film has a Hitchcockian setting: Alice Carol leaves her husband whom, for unspecified reasons, “she can’t stand anymore.” On her way to freedom, her car breaks down leaving her stranded in the rain at an old mansion. The master of the house invites her to stay the night to have her car fixed. Alice is plagued by suspicion, yet she accepts. The next day, Alice finds the mansion completely abandoned. Driving off in her repaired car, she notices that a tree trunk is blocking her way out so reluctantly she heads back to the mansion. There she meets a young man who tells her that there is simply no way out and that she has to save her strength because “the nightmare has only just begun.” And so, Alice falls into a rabbit hole where all sorts of nightmarish and hallucinatory events take place. Repeatedly she tries to escape but she always ends up back at the mansion.

The 70s are considered to be the low point of Chabrol’s career, though it is clear that here he was at his experimental highpoint. Alice ou la Dernière Fugue is a haunting philosophical exploration of the grounds between reality and dream, life and death. The criticism that the film received upon its release was mainly pointed at the casting of Sylvia Kristel as Alice. Kristel had recently become a worldwide star through her role in the Emmanuelle films and Chabrol was said to ride the wave of the film’s erotica, having her appear completely naked in one scene. However, this does grieve injustice to Kristel performance: as Alice she faces the reality of her new world with admirable soberness and nonchalance, sometimes even visibly bored by the tediousness and futility of her escape attempts. Alice ou la Dernière Fugue is a captivating and ungraspable film that leaves the viewer puzzled long after the end credits.

Watch Alice ou la Dernière Fugue (1977)

 

Alisa v Strane Chudes (1981) – Efrem Pruzhansky (♥♥♥♥♥)

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On July 4th 1867, the day on which Carroll had told the tale of Alice in Wonderland to Alice Liddell exactly five years earlier, Carroll’s close friend and colleague Henry Liddon said, “we should go together to Russia.” Carroll accepted Liddon’s invitation and the two gentlemen embarked on a journey that would later become the first and last time Carroll departed England. His travels are recorded in Russian Journal which was first commercially published in 1935. Though he was, as a reverend, officially sent to Russia as a supporter of the reunification of Eastern and Western Churches, during his trip Carroll couldn’t resist to occasionally revel in the curiosities and oddities that Russia brought him. This included jotting down Russian words that were, for the English tongue, monstrously impossible to pronounce, one of his favourites being “Zashtsheeshtschayjushtsheekhsya” which loosely translates to “defenders”. Carroll’s fascination for Russia is entirely mutual: Alice in Wonderland has been a greatly influential work in Russian literature. The novel was first published in 1879 as Sonya in a Kingdom of Wonder, and the identity of the translator and the illustrator, who were not mentioned in this edition, remains to this day an object of speculation. Other translations followed, often made by famous Russian authors such as Anton Chekov, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuil Marshak.

It seems that Alice crosses geographical borders as well as political ones. This 30-minute animated adaptation was created by Soviet Ukrainian film studio Kievnauchfilm “on commission of the USSR State Committee of TV and Radio Broadcasting.” At first sight, the animation may look Japanese but it soon becomes clear that the creatures from Alisa v Strane Chudes are all drawn in their own artistic style: the Cheshire cat resembles Andy Warhol’s sketches of his own cat, Sam: the Mad Tea Party crew looks remarkably simplistic with basic colours and little detail, in stark contrast with their wacky personalities; and the Queen of Hearts is made up of a beautiful assemblage of metallic textures and patterns. Alice herself seems to be modelled after a Victorian porcelain doll, bathing in all kinds of warm colours and hues. Equally stunning is Alisa v Zazerkale (1982), Pruzhansky’s adaptation of Alice Through the Looking Glass. Watching Alice in Wonderland in Russian is a strange yet stimulating experience, and perhaps the perfect way to revive Carroll’s epic journey.

Watch Alisa v Strane Chudes (1981) (Alice in Wonderland)

Watch Alisa v Zazerkale (1982) (Through the Looking Glass)

 

 

Alice at the Palace (1982) – Elizabeth Swados (♥♥♥♥)

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Before Meryl Streep was rocking blue overalls on a Greek island in Mama Mia! (2008), she was rocking pink ones on Broadway. This vaudeville revue-style interpretation of Carroll’s story is probably one of the most creative ones. Alice at the Palace is a true music extravaganza. From Gospel to 60s folk music, there is no genre that didn’t make it to the shortlist of this American musical odyssey: Bill the Lizard is a member of a barbershop sextet; the Duchess’s baby scats its way through a jazz routine, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong-style; and the Mad Tea party is a good ol’ country music fest. Curiouser and curiouser is that the lyrics consist nearly entirely of Carroll’s original text and dialogue. Meanwhile, Streep’s Alice enjoys her musical trip through Wonderland with high kicks, twirls, and quirky dance moves. Another star in this production is Debbie Allen. In her pre-Fame era, she gives us a Queen of Hearts with the appeal of a soul diva: arrogant, temperamental (“OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!”) but nevertheless irresistibly ravishing.

Despite the charming cast and its clever use of music, Alice at the Palace has largely fallen into oblivion – especially on Streep’s portfolio it seems to have been scribbled away in some forgotten corner. Completely unjustified, I would say: even though it, admittedly, may require a taste for musicals, the production is visibly made with passion and joy, making it an unmissable Alice adaptation.

Watch Alice at the Palace (1982)

 

Dreamchild (1985) – Gavin Millar (♥♥♥)

Carroll’s friendship with seven-year-old Alice Liddell, for whom he wrote Alice in Wonderland, has always been a great topic for a heated dinner table debate: was his admiration for Alice just innocent affection, or was there something more sinister luring beneath the surface? Carroll photographed Alice obsessively, with different outfits and different poses as if she was his real-life doll, and each picture seems so intimate that it feels as though you’re intruding on something. Carroll was not secretive about his fascination with photographing little girls, ideally nude. To Gertrude Thompson, an artist who made sketches of (naked) girl faeries and nymphs, he wrote: “I confess I do not admire naked boys in pictures. They always seem… to need clothes, whereas one hardly sees why the lovely forms of girls should ever be covered up.” Though it should be said that Victorians were obsessed with children who symbolized innocence, frankness, goodness, and purity, this attraction to all that was innocent, as Katie Roiphe claims, might have had some sexual undertones: “Children were safe, and in their safety, certain thoughts – dirty, sensual thoughts – were allowed to flourish.”[4]

Whether sexual or purely sentimental, for Dreamchild’s Alice her friendship with Carroll caused lifelong issues. We see an elderly and widowed Alice, brilliantly portrayed by Coral Browne who won a BAFTA award for this role, visiting New York to receive an honorary degree on the centenary of Carroll’s birth. Alice’s memory of Carroll (played by a quiet and reserved Ian Holm) continues to haunt her in the form of flashbacks and dreams. Though never expressed sexually, Carroll’s love for Alice reached far beyond the usual expressions of kindness. In retrospect, for Alice this left behind a frightening aftertaste on Wonderland. The creatures – by the curtesy of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop – appear in Alice’s dreams as agonizing creations. Though his admiration for Alice was rather extreme, Carroll is no monster – rather a tragic, stuttering figure who leaves Alice (and the viewer) torn between confusion, contempt, pity, and sympathy.

 

Neco z Alenky (1988) – Jan Švankmajer (♥♥♥♥♥)

A taxidermist’s nightmare – or dream? After the short film Jabberwocky (1971), which with a butt-slapping hand repeatedly interrupting the opening credits probably has one of the most notable opening scenes in film history, Czech surrealist film director Jan Švankmajer had enough courage to take on a 1.5 hour adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Criticizing previous adaptations which generally read Carroll’s novel as a fairytale, Švankmajer realized his Alice as a dream: “between a dream and a fairy tale there is a fundamental difference. While a fairy tale has got an educational aspect – it works with the moral of the lifted forefinger (good overcomes evil), dream, as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realisation of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure.”

Indeed, Neco z Alenky (1988) is far removed from the Tim Burton/ Disney pleasantries. There’s nothing cutesy and quirky going on here: the roles of Wonderland’s normally charming characters, the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, and the Caterpillar, are filled by a collection of grotesque stuffed animals, puppets, and clay dolls that scare the living daylight out of you. It might be hard to stomach the occasional creepiness, but it’s worth it. The film is absolutely stunning, making use of very basic visuals and slow-stop motion to capture the insane world of Wonderland, which makes it stand out from the rest of the crowd.

Watch Neco z Alenky (1988)

 

Endnotes

[1] http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/974410/

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9B02E5DB1430E03ABC4051DFB467838A629EDE

[3] Battle of Wonderland. Time, 7/16/1951, Vol. 58, Issue 3

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/oct/29/gender.uk

 

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Rupi Kaur’s poetry in the age of social media

 

You might already have heard of her through Instagram or Tumblr, or maybe you’ve seen her book lying beside all of the other ‘cool’ books in the book section of the Urban Outfitter’s store. Rupi Kaur is a Canadian author, feminist activist and illustrator in her twenties who has published two books of poetry accompanied by her own illustrations. She first caught my attention when I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a photo of a woman lying on a mattress with period-stained pants. The caption underneath the photo explained that this photo had previously been taken down by Instagram. Underneath the caption there were a lot of outraged people addressing how wrong it was of the social media platform to take down this photo but allow other (dubious) photos to stay. It’s safe to say that my curiosity was piqued—not often does one encounter something like this on Instagram. I was even more interested in who this person was when I discovered that she was a poet. Her ‘period’ photo[1] (this is how I’ll refer to it) gave her some sort of internet-fame—she currently has 1,8 million followers![2] What’s more is that this fame is very specifically tied to a certain demographic as her pictures were spread through Instagram, which is a platform mostly millennials spend their time on.

I can spend an entire article writing about her internet presence alone, but I want to get to her poetry as well. I should admit that when I first got familiar with her work I felt a slight cringe. This cringe perhaps lies in the fact that I am an old soul and don’t entirely trust people who gain their recognition through Instagram. Nevertheless, I pushed through that cringe and tried to look at her work with unbiased eyes. Her first piece of work, milk and honey, explores themes such as love, healing, abuse, heart-break and what it is like to grow up as a daughter of immigrant parents (she is of Indian descent). Her style of writing is very minimalistic: the only punctuation she uses is the period (if you have a strange sense of humour you can relate this back to her period photo, but I digress) and she doesn’t use a capital after this period. Again, I had to ignore my conventional view of what poetry is ‘supposed’ to be and respect her artistic choices. Still, I kept at it and, after doing some research, I found out that she was actually inspired by an Indian Sikh script that uses very few punctuation marks. She incorporated this style into her poetry to honour her culture. Whatever you think of this choice, I think that most people can agree on the idea that her poetry, written in free verse, reads like a diary that is quite easy for anyone to pick up and read. Looking back, I think that these grammatical choices make for a very relatable reading of her work; readers don’t feel like they’re reading a challenging body of poetry. You could say that her work is anything but pretentious. My first reaction was that it actually is pretentious! As I was reading I could only think about the fact that these stylistic choices were her way of coming across as ‘profound’ just for the sake of it.

Now that I’ve talked about the interesting grammatical choices that Rupi made in her work, let’s have a look at the content of milk and honey. Despite her simple and direct ways of writing, the themes that she writes about are often emotional, delicate, and some even assumed taboo subjects to talk about. Page 41, for example, only has two lines that left me feeling quite shocked and sad: “i flinch when you touch me/i fear it is him”. Although many will have critique towards her “Instagram” way of writing (which can often feel hurried and as if it were written on a smartphone), I also think that this direct approach to issues such as abuse is important—there is no hiding behind figurative language or room for alternative interpretation. The narrator is unapologetic about what she feels and wants the reader to know exactly that. As I mentioned before, I often felt like I was reading her diary; her deepest emotions are laid out on paper. This is perhaps another reason for why I initially felt so uncomfortable reading her work: a stranger tells you everything, the good and the bad things of their life. Even so, there is also a feeling of calmness. Some of her poetry resembles a Japanese haiku or like they were inspired by the 20th century Imagism movement where words were used sparingly and directness was a priority. Putting aside these short poems for a second, Rupi’s collection of poetry also has poems that are a bit longer. One of them almost resembles a sort of social media ‘rant’: “my issue with what they consider beautiful/ is their concept of beauty […]”.  The similarity between the language used on social media and the language use in her poetry made me realize that Rupi Kaur has perhaps reached an audience that uses social media on a daily basis to become interested in poetry, a form of literature often looked at as old-fashioned by many younger generations, and that in itself is quite an accomplishment.

Rupi Kaur’s work is poetry written in a time where social media accounts are checked on a daily basis. Her verses appeal to a large amount of readers as they are uncomplicated and straightforward. They are relatable because they read like someone’s thoughts on paper that tackle subjects that many of us deal with but don’t often talk about with others. The essence of her poetry is about the struggle and, eventually, the peace that humans face in our lives.

[1] https://rupikaur.com/period/

[2] https://www.instagram.com/rupikaur_/

Source of photos: Rupi Kaur

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A Visualization of the Mind: Review of the “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime”-play

 

Have you ever heard someone say to you, “Read the book before you see the movie”? This is a philosophy I wholeheartedly believe in and try to live by. I generally like to read the original version of a story first and then venture into the world of its various forms of offspring, if and when it has any. So, the moment I found out I was going to go see a play titled The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, I decided it was time to tackle the novel it is based on. I read the book in less than two days and saw the play a couple of weeks after. Never had I experienced so many different and original ways of painting a picture of the human mind. In this case, the mind of a fifteen-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome.

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Mark Haddon is both the author and illustrator of this particular novel. I say illustrator, because there are many eye-catching illustrations scattered throughout the narrative. The ones that stood out to me in particular appeared on the first few pages and accompanied a passage in which the narrator, Christopher Boone, tries to explain the relationship between emotions and facial expressions. The images are probably the most basic drawings of various smileys and it is their simplicity which makes them so powerful, because it conditions the way our minds perceive human emotion. They create a universal mould for the aesthetics of feeling. Christopher, despite his autism, is able to use these “moulds” to bring what is inside our heads to the outside. Haddon’s visual trick allows the reader to gain a greater insight into the process of comprehension within an autistic mind.

This trick did not go unnoticed by Simon Stephens, who adapted the novel for the play. When I saw the show, it was performed by the original West End cast in The Royal Theatre Carré. The stage had the shape of a square and was from all sides (except for the side facing the audience) surrounded by huge floor-to-ceiling screens. About twenty minutes into the play, the same scene which I just described happened on stage. But instead of the smiley faces just being instantly projected onto the screens, the main actor who played the protagonist drew them on the stage while they simultaneously appeared on the screens behind him. This gave us as audience the feeling that we were drawing with him, that we were literally inside his mind. The visualization of Christopher’s thought process in the book was captivating. The play, however, took it to whole other level by taking the audience on a physical and visual journey through the land of Christopher’s mind.

Christopher has many intriguing goals and aspirations in life. One of them is his dream of becoming an astronaut. In the novel he describes how he would be a great one, because he is intelligent, he likes machines and he enjoys being confined in tiny spaces. When you are reading this passage, it seems as though the more Christopher thinks about it the more his lifelong dream because an actual daydream. He drifts off deeper into his thoughts and as a reader you cannot help but drift along with him. Unfortunately, Haddon did not take this opportunity to insert some illustration of the solar system into these few pages. The play, however, did do that. And much more.

The scene in which this passage came to play started off with Christopher lying down on the floor in a fetal position. Then he continued to describe why he would be a great astronaut, while the rest of the cast carried him around the stage, making it look like he is actually floating in space. This astronomical feel was even further enhanced by the projection of a huge number of twinkling stars on the screens behind them. While Christopher “floated” around on stage he went deeper into the daydream by talking about the universe and the pros of living a life in space. Again, the play managed to make the inner workings of Christopher’s mind into a visually captivating spectacle. For a moment, his daydream became our reality.

Throughout the novel, Haddon makes it clear that having Asperger’s Syndrome is definitely not all fun and games. Because of his autism, Christopher struggles with things which in day-to-day life we would not even give a second glance. For example, he says, “I see everything.” By this he does not mean that he is some weird “Big Brother” figure who watches your every move, but he literally means that notices everything. According to him, most people never actually look at something. All they really ever do is glance which means the impulses they receive from the outside world are only a fraction of what Christopher has to put up with daily.

Because his brain is so easily stimulated, Christopher often gets overwhelmed by new experiences. At some point in the story, however, circumstances in his life force him to do just the thing he hates. He has to use the London Underground, which is something he has never done before. Haddon visualizes this experience with different fonts of text that are haphazardly depicted as bold or cursive. The words that he has used for this are taken from the signs, advertisements and announcements that one encounters in the Underground. To further highlight the intensity and density of these stimuli, Haddon does not use any spaces in between the words.

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The same scene was portrayed in the play as well, but in a very different way. The cast performed a skillfully choreographed routine, which symbolized the rhythm of the trains coming and going and passengers getting on and off. The serenity of this routine was juxtaposed with heavy metal music, which was meant to reflect Christopher’s chaotic mind. On the screens words were depicted in a similar manner as in the book, only now they appeared independently rather than as one whole. The entire scene moved in a sort of crescendo manner as the choreography got more intense and the music louder. As an audience member, I could not help but go a little crazy myself and that was one of the things that made me realize the play was so unique. It managed to show, even if it was only for a couple of minutes, what extreme pressure an autistic mind is constantly under. This gives you perspective on the workings of your own brain and makes you very grateful for its laziness.

In this article I do not mean to determine that either the book or the play is better as a whole. I do believe, however, that when it comes to the aspect of visualizing the mind, the play managed to achieve this in a more impactful manner. This is because the mind is not a 2D entity like a book is. Even though that is something that Christopher probably would have much preferred.

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The grimm side of fairytales

rachel-fairytales

When hearing the phrase “once upon a time…” most of us already know that we are about to be told a fairytale. I don’t have any statistical facts on this, but I can say with a fair amount of confidence that most children love fairytales. Maybe it’s because of the desire that humans have towards storytelling. The magic of being enveloped in a story that is factually impossible but on the other hand intriguing could also be a part of this. Or, maybe it’s the idea that we are not encouraged to lie in our daily lives, but when it comes to fairytales there are no rules to making up the best of stories. Fairytales provide an endless world of possibilities, and all of this happens while the listener knows that the ending will be a safe, satisfying conclusion of “…and they lived happily ever after.”

But at a certain age we grow out of fairytales. This age usually coincides with the time in our lives where we realize that life also has bad parts to it, and when we come to the sobering realization that our mothers aren’t always going to be there for us when we need something. Long after I had this so-called epiphany in my own life, I came across the Brothers Grimm, and I learned all about their original fairytales. The Grimm Brothers were two German brothers who published a collection of folklore and fairy tales in the early 1800’s for the first time ever.  These documented fairytales are considered to be the original ones. This doesn’t mean that fairytales did not exist before them, because they did, but they were never written down before, as fairytales were an oral tradition. But what is so special about the Grimm Brothers? To start off, the fairytales that they published are very different from the fairytales that children read about nowadays. While the titles and characters still remain somewhat the same, their plots differ. Secondly, and most importantly, their fairytales are very dark and sinister. For example, in Grimm’s version of Cinderella, the stepsisters cut off their toes to fit into the glass shoe, and at the end of the story Cinderella’s helping birds strike the stepsister’s eyes leaving them blind for the rest of their lives. And, in Snow White, the jealous step-mother dies at the end by choking on her rage and falling down. These endings are far more graphic than Disney’s smoothed over versions of them that make them more palatable for young children. That being said, the Grimm Brother’s version is much more entertaining because of its unpredictability. Their fairytales are, in some ways, also more realistic; the death of a villain (such as Snow White’s stepmother) is explained in detail, while in Disney’s version of the same tale, the villain usually disappears or dies without putting too much emphasis on this fact. Now, we shouldn’t come to the hasty conclusion that Grimms’ versions of these stories are all sober and dark, and that Disney has entirely sugar-coated their stories to appeal to the masses. Although there might be some truth to this, Grimms’ fairytales had a useful function of warning children about the dangers of life, and teaching them about morals. Disney, on the other hand, has still tried to somewhat maintain this essence through the portrayal of villains and the way that they have animated their characters onto a screen. They bring children a simple message of: do well in life, and life will be good to you. This was exactly the purpose of Grimms’ fairytales in the first place.

Over time, different adaptations and interpretations of Grimm’s tales have been created. As talked about earlier, Disney is one of them, and probably also the most popular. But, there have been a few others. The American series Once upon a time is one that incorporates the characters from different fairytales into the “real world”. The movie Maleficent is another one and, although this falls under the Disney category, it is still worth mentioning because it shows the perspective of the villain, and also because it puts the emphasis on a love between a mother and a daughter instead of a romantic love.  So, the next time you’re in the mood for a fairytale, make sure to keep in mind that these stories have a long, interesting history that you can learn from!

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Warriors: Coming of age through cats

elise

I get a variety of reactions when I tell people that the series I read throughout my childhood and early teens was one about cats. What’s so great about cats? How can you read book after book, thousands of pages about cats? What can the writer possibly still write about? I too wondered that after reading about twelve of these books. How could I still be hooked on them? How can they still be releasing books, over a decade after I started reading them?

 The series I’m rambling about is named Warriors, written by several different female authors under the pseudonym Erin Hunter. The series came to be when Victoria Holmes, an editor, was approached by Harper Collins to write a fantasy series about feral cats. Not being a fan of reading fantasy, she went behind the scenes to supervise details and edit the novel, while Kate Cary was brought in to write the novels. Over time, five other authors joined the Erin Hunter team, all of them female, however not all of them work on the Warriors series.

Currently, there are six sub-series, each containing six books. Besides that there is a multitude of super editions, field guides, manga series, and novellas, totalling about 74 bodies of work in total. As a kid that read about a book a day, this was a dream. The first book (and consequentially the first sub-series) follows a domesticated house-cat named Rusty who decides to join a clan of feral cats who live in the forest right outside his backyard. He leaves his plushy home, where the food is abundant, and the crook of his owner’s knee is always warm, to live a life of hardships: he must learn to fight in battle, to hunt for his own food, and care for others in his clan, such as kits and elders. He must also learn to overcome the judgements of others: kittypets have always been scorned and never before has one been accepted into a clan. He must prove himself over and over — not only to the cats in rival clans but to those he calls comrades.

 I think what is so compelling and nearly addicting about these novels is that it is such a wide universe, such a complex world that Erin Hunter has created, containing an extensive amount of characters. There is still so much to discover, which means rereads are almost a must. Admittedly, I haven’t reread any of these novels in quite a few years, but I can still remember the vastness of different themes. It dealt with things such as religion, death, friendship, politics, and racial intolerance, all through cats as characters, which makes everything seemingly less heavy. This is done in such an accessible way that children can understand and learn about topics that usually aren’t “suitable” for children.

 Accordingly, the world-building of these novels is not gentle. The reader is thrown into the midst of it, following a kittypet (a domesticated cat) named Rusty who decides to join ThunderClan, one of the four clans of feral cats. The series has created its own society of feral cats, including different religions and its own set of laws named the warrior code. It also has its own vocabulary, referring to natural occurrences as Newleaf (spring), Sunup (dawn), Crowfood (dead animals that have begun to rot), and Twolegs (humans). The universe is continually expanding, the cats eventually being run out of their territories due to deforestation, forcing the clans to band together and find a new place to live. The clans encounter a tribe of cats with a different faith and different customs, which tests the clans’ tolerance and pushes their traditions.

 Not only does the setting change, but there is a constant flow of new characters coming in, and old characters passing away or disappearing. Hunter has no mercy for the reader, slaughtering precious characters without care. I vividly remember crying over the deaths of several favourite characters. However, because of the immense amount of characters in the series, there’s always another cat to love.

 The Warriors universe truly does mirror the real world, which in hindsight may have prepared me for some of the more serious things in life, perhaps not in a bigger sense, but in a nuanced manner. Warriors has without a doubt taught me about friendship, about love — not just romantically, but for friends and family as well, and loyalty. It has taught me about kindness to strangers and to different races and faiths. I think most of all, it has taught me that despite the darkness, there will always be another Sunup.

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Summer Reading Tips – Tying the Knot

The summer holidays are upon us. For a few weeks, you actually have time to read! Deciding which books to dedicate your precious spare time to is a big commitment. We get that. WB presents four suggestions to help you tie the knot.roselindeartikeljuli1) Something old – Orlando (1928)

Published in 1928, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando cannot be called recent, but its ever-topical subject matter renders it a timeless piece of modernist fiction. The novel is dedicated to Woolf’s ex-lover and lifelong friend Vita Sackville-West. Both women were members of the Bloomsbury Group, a group of writers, philosophers and artists that incorporated modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism and sexuality in their works.

Orlando is a ‘biography’ of the immortal aristocrat Orlando, modelled on Sackville-West. The story starts in the sixteenth century and continues until the early twentieth century. To make matters even more interesting, Orlando swaps gender halfway through the novel, complicating his/her right to inherit. A unique and unmissable literary whirlwind.

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2) Something new – Here I Am (2016)

After his bestsellers Everything is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close (2005), Jonathan Safran Foer disappeared from the limelight. Eleven years later, he returns with Here I Am (2016), the story of an American Jewish family, set against a background of traumatic events in the Middle East. Technically, this book does not qualify as a summer read, as it won’t be published until September. However, The New Yorker published a pre-publication! Available here: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/06/maybe-it-was-the-distance-by-jonathan-safran-foer. 

3) Something borrowed – Shylock is my Name (2016)

Six years ago, Howard Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question (2010). For his newest novel, he draws inspiration from the great William Shakespeare. This year marks the 400 year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. As part of the jubilee, the HogarthShakespeare Project will publish 6 modern retellings by acclaimed authors2. Jacobson’s novel, the second in the series, is a retelling of The Merchant of Venice (1605) in which Jacobson attempts to shed light on and give depth to the villainous Shylock. A definite must-read!

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4) Something blue – Blå Stjärnan (2015)

Blå Stjärnan (The Blue Star) is the newest book in the “Great Century” series – a history of the twentieth century. The series tells the story of the Lauritzens, three Norwegian brothers from a poor fishing village who share an incredible talent for art and engineering. They are granted a first-class education by a charitable society that hopes their talents will contribute to a bright future for their county. But that is when the Great War comes in and changes everything.

This fifth novel follows the next generation of the Lauritzen family, in particular daughter Johanne, who works as a spy for the British government in World War II. Her main mission? Saving as many Norwegian Jews as possible. Her codename? The blue star.

Good news: all the books in the series can be read separately! Even better news: English and Dutch translations available.

Happy holidays!

1The Hogarth Press was founded in 1917 by none other than Leonard and Virginia Woolf. #leitmotif
2In order of publication: The Winter’s Tale (2015), The Merchant of Venice (2016), The Taming of the Shrew (2016), The Tempest (2016), Macbeth (2017), Othello (2017), King Lear (2018) and Hamlet (2021).

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Summer Reading Tips – J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year (2007)

davidartikeljuli

Summer has arrived – sorry – you have arrived at summer, and with summer you’ve presumably reached freedom. You leave a year of university behind you; another year of musty academia that simultaneously bore and excite you; another year of consuming dense and authoritative ‘researches’, ‘considerations’, ‘analyses’ – half of which end in a proclamation of what basically amounts to “well we haven’t quite gotten our answer but we’ve had just the greatest time thinking about this”. And now you get to leave all that behind you for a little while.

Except you don’t! Because I’m gonna recommend J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of A Bad Year to you! Which is mostly very academically written! Whoo, double whammy!

I can wholeheartedlystate that this novel is the bees knees, and I will back up that statement with an exciting overview, starting now. Diary of A Bad Year consists of two parts, the whole of which is about an esteemed, aging writer – only referred to as Señor C – who is commissioned by a Very Serious German publisher to make his contribution to a Very Serious Academic essay collection, aptly named Strong Opinions.

The first part of the novel concerns the contents and the writing process surrounding C’s contributions to the Strong Opinions, and the second part contains a completely different set of essays of his own called Soft Opinions2. Determined to make a last fiery mark on the world before his steadily worsening parkinson’s disease renders him unable to write, before fades into obscurity, C. fervently discusses a wide variety of topics in Strong Opinions, ranging from the concept of national responsibility and shame, Machiavelli, vegetarian philosophy to the guidance systems of missiles in the 1960s, avian influenza and ‘Australia’s way of handling refugees’. He spends his days writing in his dingy, dark, musky flat, while his neighbour Ana types up his writing for him. He worsens, worries, desperately tries to hold onto and reaffirm the sense of academic authority he’s lost through the years, and meanwhile coy, no-nonsense Ana and her frosty partner Alan discuss and ponder the old man’s work and offer their own perspectives.

In the meantime, one of the most interesting things about the book is the narrative structure: we are at all times privy to three distinct narrative voices on each page – namely, C’s essays themselves at the top, the private thoughts and experiences of C in the middle and the private thoughts and experiences of others on the bottom. These voices at different times intersect and, contradict or affirm each other, and make for a very fun and very confusing reading experience. At any time a voice may pause, fall back, jump forward, become more or less prominent, or in any other way weave closer to or further from the other two voices. On the one hand this means that there are endless orders in which we can read the novel, and on the other hand this confusion functions as a question mark – how does one narrative correlate with and/or influence the others? This question also figures in a more human context, as we as readers can increasingly see how C’s private flaws, struggles and insecurity express themselves in his seemingly stoic and authoritative work, and how Ana’s and Alan’s criticisms effect his ongoing inner life – both on an academic as well as on a private, personal level.

Through a graceful counterpointing of different perspectives Coetzee weaves a taut reflection on age, academia, and authority in writing that defies isolationist interpretations of any text and is sure to touch a nerve with anyone who has ever wondered about the humanity behind the stone-faced academese.

Recommendations aside, I would like to wish all of you a fulfilling reading experience and a great summer!

1For more literature on the concept of ‘wholeheartedness’, make sure to check out Harry Frankfurt’s The Reasons of Love (2004). Joking aside, this is actually a really cool and accessible and short book as well :P.
2Because I’m a nasty person, and because I don’t want to spoil too much, I’m not going to divulge anything else about C’s Soft Opinions in this recommendation!

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