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Paris Lucke

To what extent can Tim Burtons Alice In Wonderland

be discussed as surrealism?
Surrealism is a 20th century avant-garde movement in art and literature which
challenged the mainstream of rational culture. Surrealism releases the creative potential
of the unconscious mind by juxtaposing irrational images, through psychoanalysis.
Surrealism is all about exploring the unconscious and the irrational, the strongest thing
people can relate themselves to surrealism are their dreams and the most well known
tale of exploring their own unconsciousness is that of the femme enfant, Alices
Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865), however this essay explores to
what extent Tim Burtons adaptation of Alices Adventures in Wonderland can be
discussed as Surrealism. I feel anytime you enter a dream world its like youre working
out things they go through this weird journey thats not real, and theyre going
through this journey psychologically. (Burton, 2009:3).

Other than surrealism being about exploring and

releasing your unconsciousness in a creative way it
is also about how you see and interpret it, "The way
we see things is affected by what we know or what
we believe." (Berger, 2008:8) and everyone forms
their beliefs based on their childhood and their
upbringing. Burton created his adaptation based on
the original story 'Alice's Adventures In
Wonderland', "Throughout her journey, Alice
encounters many characters who seem oddly
familiar. They are the adults from her above-ground,
waking life transmogrified into absurd
figures." (Stoffel, 1999:41).
Tim Burton is a gothic-pop surrealist and this is
reflected in his character/creature design and the
settings he has put them in (see fig 2: Cheshire Cat).
Burton has captured Carrolls world like no other
adaptation had through the production designs mise-en-scne which enables us to
envision ourselves there in addition to the hallucinatory special effects. The environment
connects to our unconscious, (see fig 3: Underland) we look at that image and think of a
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forest and then subconsciously think of a time we were in the woods or a forest. Burton
has modernised his adaptation by
juxtaposing caligarism/gothicism with
dream-like connotations (see figs 3 Tea
Party and 4 White Knights), which has
not been done before in previous
adaptations and the first adaptation to
be in 3D.

In this adaptation Burton has taken on a realistic approach to surrealism, for example
when Alice falls down the rabbit hole, she is terrified at the random objects that pass her
and almost hit her on the way down in contrast to Disney's animation Alice who is
curious and calm (see fig 5: Contrasting Alices). The story tries to make out that
Wonderland (or as this
adaptation calls it 'Underland') is
a real place where as the
previous adaptations, Alice
thinks that Wonderland is real
when really it was just a dream
her unconscious conjured.
However Burton wanted to
change this clich and the
pattern of every previous
adaptation before where a little
girl wanders around her dream
encountering weird characters and enduring random events, instead uses the story to
help an older Alice who is going through a crucial part in her life to figure her own mind
out and work out her problems - to use this psychological journey in Wonderland to
grow as a person, which is why some of the characters in Underland resemble those in
the real world. Burton has recontextualised the original and done this whilst maintaining
the same anarchic spirit of surrealism and tone of the original.
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Burton's Alice realistically thinks she is imagining Wonderland and
that its just a dream but when she cant wake up and leave thats
when the surreal becomes real and in present, post modern
society we accept these absurd ideas so when Alice begins to
believe Underland is real, so do the audience and with the vivid
imagery presented to us it is easy to do so.
In addition to those reasons for this adaptation being discussed as
surrealism, the original story "continues to intrigue and haunt and
fascinate" (Burton 2009:1) people, artists and surrealists other
than Tim Burton such as Dali (see figs 6 and 7 Dali Paintings).
Alice has, I understand, become a patron saint of the Surrealists,
(Empson, 1935). As well as it being said that the famous phrase
spoken by Alice 'Curiouser and curiouser' functions as a motto for

Surrealism stemmed from Dadaism, a movement that started in

1916 and ended just before surrealism started in 1924, the idea of
Dadaism was to go against traditional art and all for which it stood,
from that surrealism became the next follow up movement which
explored why did these ideas go against tradition? Because they
were irrational and couldn't be explained which tradition found no
love for. However Alice in Wonderland came decades before the
Dada and Surrealist movements even began, Charles Dodgson
(pseudonym Lewis Carroll) and his most famous work is
considered to be an ancestor of Surrealism rather
than a surrealist and surrealism itself. At the time
there was nothing like it The closest thing or the
strangest prior to that was probably J.J. Granvilles
Un Autre Monde, which is 1844. (Depp, 2009:12),
(see fig 8: Un Autre Monde). Un Autre Monde is
French for Another World and is a book with lots of
illustrations about a surreal world. Surrealism is
supposed to challenge the mainstream, 'Alices
Adventures in Wonderland' fails to do this as it was
just a childrens story to entertain, nothing more - it
wasnt a statement to rebel against the mainstream
or tradition.
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In the book 'Surrealism and Cinema', Michael Richardson writes: Surrealists are not
concerned with conjuring up some magic world that can be defined as surreal. Their
interest is almost exclusively in exploring the conjunctions, the points of contact,
between different realms of existence. Surrealism is always about departures rather
than arrivals. (Richardson, 2006:3).
This description of surrealism goes
against everything Alice in Wonderland
is, Burtons main concern was
conjuring up this magical world called
Underland and wanted to capture the
surreality of it if not more so than
Carroll original had (see fig 9: Queen
of Heart's Heads). The plots most
interesting part and the part that has
most emphasis, is on Alices arrival to
Wonderland which has little build up to
her departure but an even bigger build
up to her arrival or in this case her return to Wonderland as an adult.
Going back to this adaptations realistic take on the original story, it can be argued that
this version of Alice is very realistic and rational which is nothing like surrealism, she
doesnt have the perspective of the femme enfant everyone knows, in this adaptation the making, everything is thoroughly thought through and carefully considered and
consulted with the original story; there is a lack of automatism and we don't see Burton's
unconsciousness like we do other surreal artists/directors we just see his famous style
of caligarism and expressionism.

Alice in Wonderland to a great extent can be discussed as surrealism, alone as a story

fits the criteria of surrealism, Carrolls 1865 tale that Burton based his adaptation off of
was just one of the first surrealist products - one of the most original pieces out there, it
is still surrealism just it predated the movement. Nothing connects stronger to
surrealism than the psychoanalysis of a young girl exploring a dream world that her
unconsciousness has conjured. Burton does an excellent job at adapting this story to
suit modern viewers.

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