‘Alice in Wonderland’ and its enduring spell on dreamers

March 09, 2010 | 1:20 p.m.

With “Alice in Wonderland” moving front and center in the public imagination, L.A. Times staff writer Adam Tschorn went down the rabbit hole to discover the secret behind Alice’s enduring popularity. Here’s an excerpt from his Sunday piece in The Times’ Image section.

Alice three

When Lewis Carroll popped Alice down the rabbit hole in 1865, he had no way of knowing that the girl in the pinafore dress — along with the creatures that populate “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its 1872 sequel “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There” — would become a permanent fixture on our pop culture landscape.

The phenomenon encompasses more than the 100-plus versions of the book – the most recent of which, published last month, pairs Carroll’s text with illustrations by Camille Rose Garcia and recently hit the Los Angeles Times and New York Times bestseller lists. It’s something beyond the more than two dozen feature film incarnations, ranging from a star-studded 1933 version — in which Cary Grant played the Mock Turtle, W.C. Fields was Humpty Dumpty and Gary Cooper, the White Knight — to the Tim Burton take that opened Friday. And it’s greater than the nearly dozen TV versions (the most recent a Syfy miniseries that included Kathy Bates as the evil Queen of Hearts who happens to run an emotion-emptying casino and Harry Dean Stanton as a shadowy operative code-named “the Caterpillar“).

When you start adding in the broader popular culture influences that can be found everywhere from music ( Jefferson Airplane’sWhite Rabbit,” the Beatles I Am the Walrus”), to elementary school drug-education (a 1972 program funded by the National Institute of Mental Health portrayed the Hatter as an acid head, the Dormouse on downers and the March Hare as a speed freak), things get curiouser and curiouser indeed.

What is it about Alice and her friends, conjured by mathematician, logician and author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll was his pen name) that has kept them in our hearts and our frontal lobes for nearly a century and a half? And how can it be that 145 years later, this tale continues to spawn not only books and movies but a flurry of merchandise that seems to be raining down on us like an exploding pack of playing cards — tea party trinkets, Wonderland-worthy jewelry and every manner of Carrollian-themed cosmetics, cocktails and clothing?

What compels some of us to amass 4,000-piece collections of Alice-related ephemera, ink Cheshire cat tattoos into our flesh, or translate Carroll’s words into Latin and Klingon? Why do some of us (a very few of us, we hope) insist that the trip down the rabbit hole is a symbolic return to the womb, or claim that Alice is a stand-in for Jesus Christ, the Queen of England, or our inner child — or see the Cheshire Cat as an embodiment of the riddle of the universe, the Navajo trickster archetype?

One reason is surely the 7-year-old at the center of the original books….

THERE’S MORE, READ THE REST

– Adam Tschorn

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