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‘Alice in Wonderland’ screenwriter is ready for haters: ‘It’s audacious, what we’ve done’

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‘ALICE IN WONDERLAND’ COUNTDOWN: 25 DAYS

Are you ready for a trip down the rabbit hole? Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Disney are adding a strange new chapter to the Lewis Carroll classic with ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ a film that presents a young woman who finds herself in the world of the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen. She is welcomed as a returning visitor -- but is she, in fact, the same Alice who roamed the trippy realm as a child? Time will tell. Here at the Hero Complex, we’re counting down to the film’s March 5 release with daily coverage. Today, it’s a conversation with Linda Woolverton, the screenwriter whose previous credits include the Disney hits ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘The Lion King.’

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SPOILER ALERT: THIS POST REVEALS PLOT POINTS FROM THE ‘ALICE IN WONDERLAND’ FILM

Geoff Boucher: One of the challenges of adapting Lewis Carroll is the meandering nature of Alice’s adventures, which don’t lend themselves to the imperatives of a feature film. Your story for this ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ though, is very different from the familiar tale. It’s almost a sequel to the classic story, isn’t it?

Linda Woolverton: I wasn’t really thinking of it that way at all, but actually that is exactly what it is. It’s a sequel. First of all, I wasn’t going to try to redo Lewis Carroll and that particular version. And to my mind, it was interesting to ask, ‘What if Alice was older and she went back?’ That was sort of why I engaged this project at all. That idea and the challenge of it.

GB: You must have immersed yourself in the classic and its imagery just to prepare....

LW: I did. I read both ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There’ and I found that the biggest challenge for me would be tone. I wanted to honor the work, and I felt that to do that, it would be necessary to get the tone just right. It was an enormous challenge for me.

GB: How did you come to the project?

LW: I had that idea, the concept of her being older and going back, and I had mulled it over for quite a while. Then [producers] Suzanne and Jennifer Todd and Joe Roth asked if I had any ideas. And I told them I did, and I pitched it to them. Then Joe took the idea of it to Disney. After I wrote the first draft, Tim Burton read it and signed on. I’ve seen all of his films, and I’ve been so in awe of him, like everybody else, a fan, just like everybody else. You see his signature everywhere in his work. So when I got a chance to work with him, I was nervous, honestly. I’ve been lucky in my career to work with amazing and talented people, but Tim pretty much tops the list. I didn’t know what it would be like working with him, but I found it to be the best experience I’ve ever had in the business. He asks you the question and makes you go figure out the answer as opposed to telling you the answer. What that does for you, as a writer, is that the work comes from you as opposed to coming from the outside. He did a great job too giving the characters more color, particularly the Mad Hatter. He worked with me a lot on the Hatter to make him a richer, deeper character so you empathize with him more.

GB: After Burton was on board, did you find yourself tilting your work and writing toward Burton’s well-known sensibilities? In other words, did you go from writing an ‘Alice’ project to writing a Tim Burton movie?

LW: Hmm. That’s funny. Um, no, not really, and the reason is it was already in that weird, wild Lewis Carroll place anyway, which is kind of perfect for Tim Burton. So I continued in the tone I was in. I think.

GB: It must be very exciting for you to see the dramatic visuals that have sprung from the pages you wrote. I know that’s the nature of being a screenwriter, but in this case it seems like it would be pretty exciting.

LW: It’s thrilling. And it’s everywhere, on every bus that goes by. It’s very exciting for me. I’m not an artist, I don’t have a great visual sense. I’m a writer, so I see it in my mind, but I’m not talented in any great visual way. So it’s an honor, actually, to see something I kind of had in my head come to a full-blown, 3D fruition and from the mind of Tim Burton. For a writer, it doesn’t get any better.

GB: Tell us about some of the major departures from the Carroll world as we know it. Have you created major characters from whole cloth?

LW: Two things are major departures, I’d say. There’s the concept of the Oraculum, which is a never-ending calendar that is sort of an oracle. Every day in Wonderland is never the same as the day before. The days don’t repeat, like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. They just go on. Every day has a new name. Like Frabjous Day. The idea of the Oraculum, which tells everyone what is going to happen on that particular day, that isn’t anywhere in the original works. That was created out of whole cloth and it gives us a ticking clock on the story. The other thing is, I created a dog character and his family that helps Alice throughout the story. He’s a hound dog and he kind of betrays the Hatter originally, and then he feels really badly about it, and then he assists Alice in the rest of the story. His family is being held hostage, and then in the end ... well, let’s not spoil it.

GB: Did you use chunks of Carroll’s writing in certain signature sequences -- weaving it in with your new narrative?

LW: The characters are from the books, but -- except for when she falls down the rabbit hole -- there is no section that is like the books in any way, in terms of the story that I created. So the only part is the ‘getting there’ part. More than anything else, I was influenced by the Jabberwocky poem. The poem, if you know it, it’s not written in any kind of language you really understand. That’s where the [dragon-like] Jabberwocky character comes from, which Alice has to slay. That’s where the Bandersnatch comes from. That’s where we got the influence for the tone of Outlandish, the language that we created. The Vorpal sword came from there too. That poem was a launching pad for me, really. The Jabberwocky actually influenced me more than the two books.

GB: That’s very interesting and somewhat surprising. It brings to mind, too, the fact that not everyone will embrace the changes and choices you’ve made. This isn’t the original story, but it is called by the now-familiar name ‘Alice in Wonderland’ -- do you expect a portion of your audience to be displeased with the disconnect?

LW: I’m sure they will be. It’s audacious, what we’ve done. I don’t know know where I got off. What was I thinking? [Laughs] I’m not joking, I was thinking when I was writing this, ‘Who do you think you are?’ Seriously! At one point, I was in London, it was over Christmas, and I was writing, and I had been out walking in Hyde Park, and I ran up against a statue of Lewis Carroll. And I thought, ‘Linda, really, what have you got yourself into?’ I can only say at this point that I wasn’t trying to re-create his work. If anything, I hope that the movie inspires children who haven’t read the books to go back and read the books.

-- Geoff Boucher

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Images: First, Tim Burton’s vision in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (Walt Disney Studios); second and fourth image, illustrations by John Tenniel for the writings of Lewis Carroll. Third image, a photograph of screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Credit: David Burke)


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