To capture the real genius of Through The Looking Glass you must read the book

The recent disappointing Through The Looking Glass movie revealed how difficult it is to transfer the brilliance of Carroll’s words to the screen. David Stuart Davies looks at the story behind it.

While Lewis Carroll’s seminal works of fantasy literature, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were originally marketed as books for children, they have always appealed to adults also.

Virginia Woolf claimed that they were the only books which allowed us re-entry into our past infancy. Indeed, the unfettered nature of Carroll’s narratives releases the imagination in grown-ups allowing them to return to the innocent, unregimented, kaleidoscopic dreamlike world of childhood, thus, as Woolf stated, allowing us to ‘become children again’.

Lewis Carroll was the pen name of the Reverend Charles Lutwige Dodgson (1832 -1898). For someone who produced such wonderfully imaginative fiction, he was in his public life a man of academic practicality. He was appointed lecturer in mathematics at Oxford University in 1855 and spent the rest of his life in this role. He wrote several serious works on logic and politics, topics which he was able to lampoon and satirise in his Alice books. Though Dodgson never married, children were his main interest in life. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) were originally written for Alice Liddell, the daughter of the dean of his college. The books brought him great fame and notoriety.

Through the Looking Glass is the sequel to Wonderland and is set some six months later than the earlier book. By climbing through a mirror Alice again enters a fantastical world beyond. The themes and settings of Through the Looking Glass make it a kind of mirror image of Wonderland: the first book begins outdoors, in the warm month of May, uses frequent changes in size as a plot device, and draws on the imagery of playing cards; the second book opens indoors on a snowy, wintry night exactly six months later in November, and uses frequent changes in time and spatial directions as a plot device while drawing on the imagery of chess.

The Red Queen (a returning character from Wonderland) reveals to Alice that the entire countryside is laid out in squares, like a gigantic chessboard, and offers to make Alice a queen if she can move all the way to the eighth rank/row in a game of chess. The looking-glass world is divided into sections by brooks or streams, with the crossing of each brook usually signifying a notable change in the scene and action of the story: the brooks represent the divisions between squares on the chessboard, and Alice's crossing of them signifies advancing of her piece one square. The concept is challenging for a grown up to tackle, let alone a seven year old child like Alice.

The other major motif in the book concerns mirror images involving reversals, opposites, and time running backwards. Carroll’s interest in mathematics, puzzles and semantics also find great expression in the book. In Chapter One Alice finds a book with a looking-glass verse, ‘Jabberwocky’. She realises that the words on the pages are written backwards and so holds it up to a mirror and is able to read the reflected poem. Many of the words in the poem are Carroll's own invention, without intended explicit meaning:

"Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe."

When Alice has finished reading the poem she gives her impressions:

‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it's rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn't like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn't make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don't exactly know what they are!’ 
In essence, this reflects Carroll's intention: he wanted to fill the reader with remarkable images and ideas without explaining their meaning.

The enjoyment comes with the wonder and puzzlement. Many learned books have been written in an attempt to solve the riddles and strange scenarios which Alice encounters and while many of these academic analyses  may be worthy, they tend to ignore the fact that the book is an explosion of childish nonsense which not only engaged and inspired young readers but also a whole range of other creative artists including Edward Lear, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and Spike Milligan, whose Goon Show scripts exhibit the same kind of twisted logicality and comic word play as Carroll’s. 

While the plot rambles somewhat, despite its idiosyncratic adherence to the rules of chess, there are some wonderful set pieces, several involving established nursery rhyme characters. There is Humpty Dumpty who, as well as celebrating his unbirthday, boastfully states that not only can he explain the meaning of the ‘Jabberwocky’ poem – but all poems, even those that haven’t been written yet. There is the tale of the Walrus and the Carpenter, which is recited by those strange interchangeable twins, Tweedledum and Tweedledee; and the Lion and the Unicorn who make an appearance when Humpty has had his great fall. Also the March Hare and Hatter of the first book make a brief return in the guise of ‘Anglo-Saxon messengers’ called ‘Haigha’ and ‘Hatta’ (i.e. ‘Hare’ and ‘Hatter’).  It is all such stuff as magical dreams are made of – to misquote Shakespeare.

Through the Looking Glass has proved to be a more difficult book to adapt in dramatized form for the stage or screen than Wonderland. There was a silent movie in 1928, several radio adaptations over the years, a musical version for television in 1966 and a chamber opera in 2008 by the Australian composer Alan John to a libretto by Andrew Upton, based on the book and on the life of Alice Liddell.

The recent disappointing movie version, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp and Anne Hathaway, revealed how difficult it is to transfer the brilliance of Carroll’s words to the screen. It received a definite thumbs down from the critics. Variety called it ‘lacklustre’ and The New York Times referred to the film’s ‘mad digital excess.’

It’s the old story: to capture the real genius of the work – read the book.

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