INSTEAD of Wonderland, it’s Underland. Instead of Alice as a bored but clever child, we get Alice as a 19-year-old rebel and warrior, dispatching the monstrous Jabberwocky with a magic sword. Disney’s second rendering of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy, in other words, is a world apart from both its 1951 cartoon version and the original Victorian-era text.
Directed by Tim Burton, “Alice in Wonderland,” a 3-D blend of live action and animation that opens Friday, is meant as a contemporary, subversive take on a cherished story. With the 20-year-old Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, who had a breakout role in the first season of HBO’s “In Treatment,” as Alice, it begins with an unwanted marriage proposal before veering off into Underland, where Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen await.
Since “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass,” were first published nearly 150 years ago, Alice’s tale has been retold in many versions and many media, including as a musical, anime, video game and more than a score of film and television adaptations. But for Mr. Burton the very abundance and familiarity of the material “in the subconscious and in the culture” was an incentive not a deterrent to take it on.
“I’ve seen mostly everything, but there’s never been a version for me that particularly works, that I especially like or that blows me away,” he said this month in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “It always ends up seeming like a clueless little girl wandering around with a bunch of weirdos. And the fact that there was no one definitive version was helpful. It’s not like the Disney cartoon was the greatest. So I didn’t feel that pressure to match or surpass.”
Linda Woolverton, the film’s screenwriter, had a similar attitude. She said that when she began her script, she “did a lot of research on Victorian mores, on how young girls were supposed to behave, and then did exactly the opposite.” As she put it, “I was thinking more in terms of an action-adventure film with a female protagonist” than a Victorian maiden.
“I do feel it’s really important to depict strong-willed, empowered women,” she added, “because women and girls need role models, which is what art and characters are. Girls who are empowered have an opportunity to make their own choices, difficult choices, and set out on their own road.”
That emphasis on self-esteem and moral uplift has long been characteristic of Ms. Woolverton’s work and of Disney itself. Originally a writer for children’s television programs like “Ewoks” and “Teen Wolf” and also the author of a pair of novels for young adults, she wrote the screenplays of “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” and also contributed to “Mulan,” all for Disney.
Thus the river of tears that a confused Alice cries in Carroll’s original text upon arrival in Wonderland has been written out of the story. “I couldn’t have her break down like that,” Ms. Woolverton said. Similarly, a drawing by John Tenniel, the illustrator who worked with Carroll, showing a boy fighting the dragonlike Jabberwock, as it was first called, was transformed into an image depicting Alice in action.
This “sisters are doin’ it for themselves” reading of Alice also comes with a coda, one that seems inspired more by Joseph Conrad than by Carroll. Refusing to marry, Alice instead decides to prove her mettle by shipping out to a trading post her father’s company plans to open in a China that, under force of British arms, has just been compelled to legalize the opium trade, cede Hong Kong and allow its citizens to be sent abroad as indentured servants.
“We’re not that concerned about being historically accurate in a film like this,” said Richard D. Zanuck, one of the movie’s producers. “It’s a piece of entertainment where you have a heroine off to another adventure at the end, and unless I’m wrong, people of all nationalities will just enjoy it as an entertainment and not try to interpret it.”
Disney’s “Alice” follows closely on the heels of a Pynchonesque Syfy channel version in which Alice is a martial arts instructor who comes to the rescue of her boyfriend, who has been abducted by the White Rabbit conspiracy and taken to a Wonderland that has been turned into a casino.
Carroll scholars say that new readings like that and Mr. Burton’s film are to be expected, given that Alice and her story are so malleable. “The books are a kind of Rorschach test, a screen onto which people project their own ideas,” said Jenny Woolf, author of “The Mystery of Lewis Carroll,” a biography published this month. “They are like a verbal cartoon, full of characters who are vivid but little more than sketches.”
In the 1960s that led to psychedelic readings of Alice, exemplified by Jefferson Airplane’s hit song “White Rabbit” and by a much-praised 1966 BBC production, directed by Jonathan Miller and with music by Ravi Shankar, that has just been released as a DVD. In the 1970s a pornographic “Alice” was also filmed, and more recently there was “American Magee’s Alice,” a video game set that features a revenge-minded Alice confined to an insane asylum, with a second installment possibly due in 2011.
“What is really interesting about the recent versions is that they are all a little violent,” said Jan Susina, author of “The Place of Lewis Carroll in Children’s Literature” and a specialist in Victorian culture who teaches at Illinois State University, noting that the goth-and-gore singer Marilyn Manson also has a film project in the works in which he plans to play Carroll. “Since each generation and culture puts its own gloss on the story, that suggests something about our culture.”