Why we just can’t get enough of ‘Alice’

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’s “White 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. “Lewis Carroll made this figure — a gutsy kid who’s curious and wants to move ahead to the next adventure, and [explore] all kinds of possibilities,” says James Kincaid, the Aerol Arnold professor of English at USC and the school’s resident Alice expert. (The author of extensive essays on all things Alice, Kincaid also provided the preface and notes for the 1983 Pennyroyal Press edition illustrated by Barry Moser.)

“At the time, she seemed to represent something new in children’s literature, a sense of self-sufficiency,” Kincaid says. “She makes mistakes — she’s even attacked — but she never once refers to her parents. I think there’s a powerhouse appeal to the idea that children both need to be protected but have a sense that they live in a world of their own and have their own authority within that world.”

Sensible nonsense

But it’s clearly more than just a plucky child heroine going solo with a supporting cast of misfits (sorry, Pippi Longstocking). Carrollian scholars and armchair Alice aficionados alike point to the trippy text itself, which, when you actually read it (the original, not a watered-down nursery school version) is at turns sad, frightening, melancholy and just plain absurd, veering from political treatise to logic primer and crammed right full of pig babies, bewigged frog footmen, playing-card painters and size-changing tea cakes.

Freelance artist Daniel Singer, 50, of Altadena, a member of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America (and a former Disney Imagineer who worked on the Alice attraction for Disneyland Resort Paris), says the “inherent weirdness” of the tale is definitely part of the appeal.

“It’s so startlingly weird, you just don’t expect a little girl to have this bizarre adventure,” he said. “Being 3 inches tall and standing up on your tiptoes and to see over a mushroom to see this blue caterpillar smoking a hookah is the weirdest thing — especially in a children’s book.”

Scholars agree “ ‘Alice’ is a text that doesn’t hesitate to do wildly playful things with language, with the inversion of social mores and with wild and wacky characters,” says Elizabeth Tucker, a folklorist and professor at Binghamton University in New York who teaches the texts as part of a folklore and fantasy literature class. “And we love that. No matter what our era or our age, that’s something that appeals to everyone from the very young to the very old.”

Joel Birenbaum, a semi-retired math tutor and former engineer who lives in Lisle, Ill., once served as the president of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America and over the last 32 years has amassed an Alice-related collection of more than 1,000 books and nearly 3,000 other pieces of memorabilia and ephemera. He explains the enduring popularity a tad more bluntly: “I hate to say it, but it’s like the Bible,” he says. “People interpret the books in infinitely different ways — which is a testament to how they were written.”

“The ‘Alice’ books are just malleable enough to be read any way you want — and to be used to your benefit.”

So, it’s such well-crafted nonsense that, in the words of Humpty Dumpty in his wall-top dialogue with Alice in “Through the Looking Glass”: It “means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”?

USC’s Kincaid says yes. “It has that enticement, and you get the sense that the barriers [to applying various meanings] are pretty weak. You just need to be persuasive enough — get two people to agree with you — and it’s off to the races. There have been people who interpret it as the key to the cabala or [say] it’s really about Queen Victoria.”

And Kincaid points out that the Wonderland world taps into something that makes us want to accumulate all things Alice, whether it’s temporary (or permanent) tattoos, black knit caps or zip-front hoodies with Cheshire Cat appliqués from the local Hot Topic, Urban Decay eye shadow or OPI nail polish (shades include “Off with her Red!” and “Mad as a Hatter”).

“In addition to the usual merchandising phenomena, ‘Alice’ is tied into a kind of nostalgia,” Kincaid said. “Even in Carroll’s time there were little shops set up in Oxford that would sell ‘Alice’ teacups and things like that.”

“A lot of people associate ‘Alice in Wonderland’ with childhood, so I wouldn’t be surprised if owning a bit of it operates psychologically the way old photographs do. This [merchandise] is a strong connection to the past.”

And in true through-the-looking-glass fashion, that connection with the past looks like it’s only going to get stronger in the future.

“You know when a lot more ‘Alice’ stuff is going to be coming out?” Birenbaum said. “In 2015 — the 150th anniversary of [the first book]. … “I’ve been working on the 2015 celebration for the last two years, and we’ve got a Facebook page too: Alice 150: Celebrating Wonderland.”