Few in the English-speaking world (and even the non-English-speaking world) are unfamiliar with Alice and her encounters with nonsense and play in Wonderland, whether through the original texts or their many adaptations. Alice has walked across pages, stages, and screens; she is playable and played.
This timeless text speaks to all—adult, child, reader, and player. The adaptability of Lewis Carroll’s language, the openness of its storyworld, and the malleable nature of Alice’s character all beckon us to return to Wonderland in its many different guises.
The fun of Alice’s adventures is mostly found in the language itself, which emphasizes the nonsensical nature of Wonderland and its mad characters. Carroll invents portmanteaus like “slithy” (a combination of “slimy” and “lithe”), creates absurd associations using rhyme and alliteration (as in “The Walrus and the Carpenter”), and jumbles up literal and figurative meanings (like the “caucus race” and the “clotheshorse”).
The nonsense and play were a revelation to Victorian England; a society defined by rules, decorum, and moral tales. The books flew off the shelves and were quickly followed by stage adaptations. As each new technology emerged—film, radio, television, and digital media—Alice and Wonderland leaped into new life, from silent films to tablet apps, with varying degrees of success.
Walt Disney’s 1951 animated version—although a flop at the time—is now often regarded as a classic and is perhaps the adaptation that modern audiences are most familiar with.
Yet in his attempt to recreate the success of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, Disney changed a fundamental aspect of the source work: He shoehorned Alice’s sequence of non sequitur adventures into a formulaic film narrative. Perhaps this explains its initial lack of success, as well as that of later adaptations such as ABC’s recent TV series Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.
Where Alice has proven rather successful as source material, however, is in realms where wordplay, riddles, and nonsense are free to gallop at will: role-playing, games, and cosplay. Sandbox, or open world games (such as The Sims, Second Life, and Minecraft), invite the player to explore, engage in adventures, encounter new players and characters, and interact with them according to the rules of the game world (or lack thereof).
Wonderland itself is a sandbox of wordplay, nonsense, and fanciful characters, a world that cycles through literary, literal, and metaphorical games. It’s no surprise, then, that gamers have followed Alice down the rabbit hole for decades. From Japan and Korea to the United Kingdom and the United States, Alice has played through text adventures, visual novels, horror games, and plain old video games.
Alice the Avatar
What also helps Alice appeal to children and adults, players and learners, is her innate lack of a singular identity. Her one-size-fits-all character—never changing, never growing—can fit almost anyone. She is innocent and completely naive to the rules of Wonderland; yet she is knowledgeable, frustrated at the subversion of the court. She is weak, failing to comprehend the oddities of the mad tea party; yet she is powerful and capable of working through the assorted language puzzles.
The caterpillar repeatedly asks Alice, “Who are you?” but Alice is generally unable to achieve a sense of her own self. While “Where am I?” is the central question of other fantasy stories such as “The Wizard of Oz,” and “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Alice in Wonderland” cycles around the question of identity.
Alice is a figure in transition, between child and adult, learner and learned, apprentice and master. Her struggle in a world where language twists the rules and games cannot be won make her universal. We all relate to her experiences of being lost, misunderstanding and being misunderstood, and chasing shifting goalposts. In reality, these experiences are frustrating and stressful; in Wonderland, they leave us, our parents, and our children delighted.