Written by Dylan Callaghan
Linda Woolverton, the screenwriter behind the new Alice in Wonderland film, is the low-key kind – agreeable, modest and not the type to prattle on or self-aggrandize. But be clear, despite her unassuming nature, there is an audacity to this new script. It is not simply an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s singular children’s masterpieces Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, but a freestyle reimagination and expansion of them.
The basic idea for the film, which stars Burton’s long-time man-muse Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and winsome newcomer Mia Wasikowska as Alice, sprang from the Beauty and the Beast writer’s random pondering. “The script was based around a question,” she explains. “I just wondered one day, what if Alice was older and went back?”
It was nothing more than Woolverton musing in her spare time, but when she was asked if she had any fantasy script ideas, it quickly became successful pitch to Disney with Tim Burton attaching as director.
The resulting script rejoins Alice at 18, at the cusp of adulthood. Woolverton cleverly derives much of the new story from Carroll’s seminal nonsense poem The Jabberwocky, which originally appeared in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. At its heart, it is about Alice returning down the rabbit hole to slay the Jabberwocky and restore the White Queen to power. And though the characters are essentially Carroll’s, they are expanded and tweaked, as with a newly fleshed out Mad Hatter.
Thanks both to Woolverton’s skill as storyteller and the fundamental richness of Carroll’s source material, rather than feeling clunky and Frankensteinian, this new formulation feels like it was almost meant to be – like Carroll himself meant for his tale to have this new chapter.
Woolverton spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about how the film came to be, her collaboration with Johnny Depp to deepen the Mad Hatter character, and how, during her time working with Burton, much to her eternal chagrin and amusement, she was the only one to ever draw anything.
Where did that initial question – what if Alice was older and went back? – come from to spawn this script?
Photo: © 2010 Disney Enterprises
Mia Wasikowska in Alice in Wonderland.
My own head, musings and so forth. It had kinda been in my head [so when] the producers [Jennifer and Suzanne Todd and Joe Roth] asked me if I had any ideas for a large fantasy movie, I said, “Yeah, I kinda do.”
It happens in a time in this girl’s life when she’s facing imminent choices about life and who she’s going to be. The adventure down the rabbit hole is a chance to find that inner strength she lost when she lost her father and to realize that this dream she’d always thought she had was actually a memory.
She slays the jabberwocky and her own personal demons.
Her revisiting Wonderland validates it as real just as she’s also moving into adulthood and leaving it behind. Did you mean to play that sort of dual journey?
Yes I did. The leaving it behind was really important – leaving the childhood behind but also facing the unknown, facing the world, going out into the world, which is represented by her further adventures with the trading company, which is a metaphor for life. All of that is true.
Just on a logistic level, when you pitched this story, what did you pitch to Disney?
I just pitched it to the Todds and Joe went straight to Disney and told them the story and then I started writing it. I didn’t go through the normal channels on this one.
At what stage did Burton become involved?
After the first draft.
Tell me a little bit about his involvement and his effect on the script.
He influences everything he looks at. I met with him a few times, and he had very specific things he wanted me to consider. He was great about challenging me to answer questions. He forced me to go deeper into the characters – certainly Alice, the Hatter, the relationship with Alice and her father, the wraparound, the back story of the Hatter and exploring more the sister relationship between the two queens.
So all those things got further fleshed out with Burton?
Yes, deepened and made more emotional. He was really great about that. Also he was great about [saying] “Just try this.” He wasn’t dictatorial at all.
Burton’s visuals are so emotive, and he is such a visual storyteller. As a writer, did his creative mind dovetail naturally with the literal world of scriptwriting?
No. We didn’t talk about images. He really sat down and talked to me like a writer. We looked at the words on the paper. He didn’t draw anything in my presence, although I did draw for him, which is crazy.
That is pretty ridiculous.
Isn’t it ridiculous? I was trying to do a size comparison because of the various sizes Alice goes through, so I had to draw her in comparison with, I think it was the rabbit, and it was ridiculous. I’m worse than bad. I remember sitting in the hotel room before I was going to go see him, and I wanted to do this so we’d be on the same page, at least in my head. I must have drawn about 20 attempts on the hotel letterhead.
How did he respond?
He was very polite.
Tell me a little bit about the Hatter – what he’s been through and what the goodbye at the end means for him.
Well, what happened to him was that he and his family were hatters for the White Queen and when the Red Queen took over Underland by sending the Jabberwocky against the White Queen’s champion… the champion was destroyed along with the Hatters family. It drove him a little off the bend.
Again, I’m talking as a writer. Johnny [Depp] will know better because he embraced the character and made it his own. I’m only talking about what I wrote. I met with Johnny who was great at helping me see what he saw. The horror drives [the Hatter] a little mad and then there’s also the concept of the mercury poisoning, with hatters. Johnny did a lot of research on that. He also sent me down the path of exploring words that begin with certain letter, you know?
Like “m,” predominantly.
Right. That was in the book, but I hadn’t gone there and he said, “See what you can do with that.” So I kind of played with that, and then he took it and ran with it.
So he’s struggling with his own sanity, and he goes off on these mercurial mood swings, and he can barely drag himself back. Alice tells him, “It’s okay.” She tells him what her dad told her, “You’re different, but it’s okay.”
“You’re crazy but all the good people are.”
Right. So it calms him down.
Alice becomes his champion, and when she leaves, there’s obviously a lot of poignancy. What was your feeling about what metaphorically is happening to him when she leaves?
You take what you want from the farewell if you want to think of it as more than deep abiding friendship. That’s sort what I saw.
Just two friends saying goodbye?
Yeah, two friends saying goodbye that don’t know when they’ll see each other again. And she has to walk away from this dream that’s plagued her her whole life that she finally realizes is a memory. She has to say goodbye to the childhood years. She’s moving to adulthood, making her choices and stepping into her life.
How did you deal with the source material?
I used it tonally, and I definitely took the characters from both the books. I was really influenced by the Jabberwocky.
Which is great.
It’s got that dark feel. It’s a boy in the poem. I just made it Alice. It sparked everything for me. I launched from that. How can this Victorian girl get to a place where she can put on that armor and face that monster?
Alice sort of becomes Joan of Arc.
Yeah, her own personal Joan of Arc.