Once upon a time, there was a little girl who loved her father very much. One sad day, her father went away never to return, leaving behind a very sad little girl who grew up into a very brave, very smart young woman who never stopped her missing her daddy. One day she stumbles into a strange new world and, in a quest for independence, a quest chasing after her father, she discovers him only to lose him again, and only to discover herself. In the end, she returns home.
This is the story, and it is repeated over and over again. Interestingly, two recent uses of this storyline occur in the Syfy channel’s Alice miniseries and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (AiW) film, both adaptations of Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Although sexuality and Alice’s father barely figure in the original novels (if at all), they become vital components of both modern works, resulting in a female adulthood that revolves around a choice between men.
Syfy’s Alice can be considered a sequel to and modern reimagining of the original story. Once again run by a tyrannical Red Queen, Wonderland has become a futuristic city of people dependent upon tea made of human emotion, extracted from kidnapped victims from our world. This is a world on the brink of collapse. It is a world in need of saving.
And who better to save it than a young woman named Alice?
In Alice, when Alice was a little girl, her father disappeared, and ever since then, she has been searching: with maps, online, and even in relationships. “Just because Daddy left doesn’t mean they all will,” Alice’s mother tells her, and here we have our first major difference between the two Alices: in the novel, she is a child first, an essentially asexual being driven by curiosity and a sense of adventure. But as a young woman, Alice’s gender and sexuality cannot be ignored; she has breasts, she has a past, and she has boyfriends.
All of a sudden, growing up has taken on a whole new romantic and sexualized meaning, one dependent on her relationships with others. As this quote tells us, a dichotomy exists between Alice’s father, the figure who presides over her childhood, and her (male) romantic partners, those who preside over her current life. This Alice is consistently caught between men, with her choices and motivations dependent on these figures. Consequently, this Alice’s trip to Wonderland is not driven by a strange white rabbit but, rather, a man with suspiciously rabbit-ear-like hair kidnapping her boyfriend, Jack.
After Alice arrives, she finds her way to a tea shop, run by the Hatter, only this Hatter is not particularly mad. He is attractive, charismatic, and a member of the resistance against the Queen. Unresolved sexual tension abounds, until such time as Alice is captured and reunited with Jack.
Jack Hart, that is—the Queen’s son, already engaged to another woman. Another member of the resistance, he came to our world with a purpose, you see: to find the daughter of the brainwashed man who makes tea shops possible. Alice’s father, you see, no longer remembers his old life, and he is now the lead scientist responsible for emotion extraction.
At this point, Alice remains in Wonderland not to rescue Jack but to rescue her father—the parent who left, the parent who drives her forward, the parent who does not keep her safe and comfortable as her dinner-cooking mother does. Although Alice is still reeling from these revelations about Jack, her journey now revolves around becoming daddy’s little girl once more.
Eventually, Alice does meet her father, but no amount of stories about his past can seem to make him remember. Only after Alice begins to cry, infantilizing herself back into that little girl, does he get some inkling of his memory back. Alice’s father comforts her with her old childhood nickname.
The moment quickly fades, however, as the Queen’s guards storm the area. Alice is once again taken prisoner, as is the Hatter. Ultimately they escape and soon find themselves in a room full of prisoners from our world, zombie-like figures with their emotions being drained from them. “Wake up!” Alice yells, and on the other side of a video feed, watching the commotion, her father remembers.
In the end, it is not infantilization but an act of adult agency that brings Alice’s father to her, and after a decade of separation, the two share a poignant reunion.
His death should come as no surprise.
By this point, Alice is no longer a little girl. She no longer trusts Jack, a man clearly wrong for her, but does trust the Hatter. Once daddy’s little girl, Alice has become a leader urging others to save themselves. This Alice, all grown up, has no need for daddy anymore. Having matured, it is now time for her to let go of her father, to let go of childhood, to defeat the Red Queen and leave Wonderland, and move on.
Once Alice is home, though, the story is not yet over. It can’t be, because that would leave her alone. Just as she finishes packing away her map of potential father-locations, Hatter arrives, and the two share a passionate kiss. In this way, an exchange of women reminiscent of Elizabethan-era plays is finalized: Alice moves from a strange limbo between two men, an absent father and a very present boyfriend, to the new “right” significant other. Although seemingly a self-driven character, her motives and storyline remain tied to the men in her life, and most actions are motivated by, or symbolically tied to, these characters.
Although a very different reinterpretation, AIW shares many thematic similarities with Alice. Set in the 1800’s, the film follows the original Alice’s return to Wonderland, years later. Notably, AIW begins not with Alice, but with her father. He is discussing a business idea when a young Alice, frail and frightened, emerges. She has had another dream about her first trip to Wonderland and needs her father to comfort her. “Do you think I’ve gone round the bend?” she asks him.
Gravely, he answers, “You’re mad, bonkers, off your head. But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”
Even after his death years later, Alice’s father continues to dominate the narrative of her life. When Alice’s mother reacts badly to one of her daughter’s jokes, Alice’s immediate response is, “Father would have laughed.” When the Mad Hatter asks if he has gone mad, she repeats her father’s words nearly word-for-word: “I’ll tell you a secret,” she says. “All the best people are.” Even during the climax of the film, when Alice must defeat the Jabberwocky, it is her father’s philosophy that leads her to victory; he believed in “six impossible things before breakfast,” and by recounting her own mad adventures, she saves the day.
Alice’s father, in other words, is responsible for the person Alice is and becomes, creating a curious and precocious young woman who cannot conform to the societal standards her mother both stands for and enforces. Similar to Alice, while her mother represents a drab and ensnaring domesticity, Alice’s father represents the adventure and independence of Wonderland. It is this mindset, in combination with a fear of being trapped in domesticity with a truly atrocious suitor, that leads Alice to chase the white rabbit down the rabbit hole one more time.
In the end, having recovered the “muchness” she lost just as she lost her father, Alice returns home, now an adult with a particular life in mind. After turning down her suitor, she decides to follow her father’s business dream and co-founds the East India Trading Company.
As tempting as it is to construe this ending as Alice taking control of her own life, however, her father’s profound influence makes another interpretation necessary: namely, that Alice chooses her father, rather than herself. After all, this business venture was her father’s idea. The movie begins with him proposing it, and it is always discussed in regards to him.
Although the final shot of AIW of Alice sailing into freedom at the head of a new economic empire, she nevertheless does so while chasing her father’s dream.
In both of these modern interpretations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Alice’s life consists of two domains: a domestic sphere of comfort and even stagnation, represented by a mother, and a public sphere of growth and adventure, represented by a father. Unlike in the original novels, however, these Alices are young women on the cusp of adulthood; they are now women first. For both the Alice of Syfy’s Alice and the Alice of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, growing up thus becomes about a choice of men: whether to stay with father or to stay with Hatter, whether to marry or remain daddy’s girl. Other options are never even brought up in the script, much less considered by Alice.
Although supposedly self-driven, these Alices are not their own people, not really. They do not even seem aware that they could perhaps choose, as they once did as children, to follow solely themselves.