Classic stories get around, from Greek legends to Germanic fairy tales. They are told and re-told with new elements, characters, and settings, inspiring spin-offs, backstories, and continuations: fan fiction, if you will. I’ve come across many stories in recent years that are based off of some classic work and I’ve wanted to do a series of posts talking about them. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time now, actually, and have probably been sitting on this post draft for about six months.
And look at me now, cranking out two posts in a 24-hour period. Apparently writing posts gives me motivation to write more posts, it’s just the writing a post in the first place I find hard to do.
First on the agenda: books that draw on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol, for better or for worse. Now, I’m not going to discuss the original Alice books here because I’m assuming most people have read them, or at least know the gist through one Disney movie or the other. However, if you haven’t ever read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to encourage you to do so. Back to the discussion of Alice inspired books, I’ve only read three, but that’s plenty for a bite size comparison post, so here we go! (And I’m using reaction GIFs of Jefferson from Once Upon a Time because why not.)
The first Alice-inspired story that I read was Splintered by A.G. Howard. It drew me in with its creepy, dark turn from the rabbit trail and the imaginative reimagining of all the old familiar elements. Why couldn’t the caterpillar moult into a moth? Makes perfect sense. As much as nonsense ever could. That’s why it grabbed me—it built off of the already established story. It’s lore-friendly, if I can use that term in a non-gaming context without having the book purists come after me. (Books and series have lore too; that’s probably where the gamers got the term, honestly.) I recently re-read it to make sure I wasn’t idealizing it in hindsight, and found it as enjoyable as I remember.
The second one I read was a manga, called Cheshire Cat Waltz 1 from Alice in the Land of Clover, which I understand is the start of the second series of books in a larger series. I don’t even know the correct term for that—the second series in a series. Anyway, the art was great and the concept intriguing. The whole place is a magical theme park that transforms itself periodically into a new land, why not? The Hatter is a crime boss, and Tweedledee and Tweedledum are eternal children who can alter their bodies age at will. Sure. Also, the Cheshire Cat is a feline humanoid with a bondage kink. More on that later.
The third one I read was The Looking-Glass Wars by Frank Beddor. The land is on the cusp of a new era, Princess Alyss (because spelling it different makes it a different name) about to take her rightful place as heir and “imagineer” (see what I did there?) of her kingdom. The villainous, outcast Redd arrives, as ever, to assume the throne and bloodily takes over the castle with her nine-lived assassin… the Cheshire Cat, basically. I think I liked the bondage kink better. Moving on: the Mad Hatter is not mad, nor is he a hatter. He just… uses hats. As weapons. Because they’re clearly the best engineered article of wearing apparel for high level combat. Okay, we’ll let that slide. He escapes with Alyss through a portal into our world and then promptly loses her for seventeen years or so—time enough for her to grow up before returning to take back her kingdom.
First off, what makes a good adaptation or spinoff? I think I started to answer this with my assessment that Splintered is lore-friendly—A.G. Howard takes the already established curiousness of Wonderland and converts it into curiousness 2.0, reminding us older readers just how trippy and disturbing reading Alice in Wonderland for the first time as a kid was. To avoid being too derivative or predictable, she adds new characters, events, and elements that reinterpret Wonderland, weaving layers of schemes and machinations behind the scenes for suspense. She also retrofits the Lewis Carroll canon to contribute to her story, without destroying the integrity of the original work. Something, which, unfortunately, Frank Beddor in The Looking-Glass Wars does not.
In Splintered, Carroll’s book is still presented as an honest, creative rendering of a child’s (Alice Liddell’s) imagination—the differences between that version and the “real” Wonderland of Splintered is explained by the fact that it was described to Carroll by a child of limited understanding trying to express the twisted bizarreness of what she had seen. In The Looking-Glass Wars, the heroine “Alyss” gets trapped in the real world, adopted by the Liddells, becomes “Alice,” and meets, you guessed it, Lewis Carroll. He befriends her and convinces her that he can be trusted to hear her story of before she came to this world, which she does, relating it completely accurately. However, when he writes it down as Alice in Wonderland, he’s changed what she told him into a parody of itself as a child’s dream. She’s crushed and betrayed, and never speaks to him again.
I hate this move on Frank Beddor’s part: you can’t make a story using something else as inspiration and then slam the source material and its author with the same breath. It pits the new story against the old story, and the reader has to decide—if they want to believe your story, that means they must disregard the original inspiration for it. I’m sorry—but I don’t think anyone who likes Alice in Wonderland is going to choose your up-and-comer over the original beloved classic. And people who don’t like the original… well, is it very likely they’re going to pick up a story based on it? A few might, but not many. So the author has basically alienated his audience either way—good job. Beyond that, every character in Wars was pretty bland and dimensionless, the villain Redd being the worst of the bunch for being a complete charicature with absolutely no personality beyond “stereotypical evil queen.” It just didn’t even tempt me to care. Mostly, I was annoyed with everyone the whole time. To conclude my thoughts about this book, I think Beddor could have just written his own portal fantasy without the spurious Alice in Wonderland trappings. There were some elements to the story and writing that had potential, and given his style I think he could have made an original story without dragging Carroll’s masterpiece through the mud.
But what about the manga, Cheshire Cat Waltz—it’s just way out in left field, right? Pretty much. The characters are stylized according to Wonderland types (White Rabbit is a bookish gent with rabbit ears working for crime boss March Hare) and the places shift and change with portals and doors in a forest. And the Cheshire Cat (told you we’d get back to him) is a being that can navigate the doors at whim, choosing where they go to….and, like every other character of the male persuasion (including the Dormouse, I kid you not) is head over heels in love with Alice. I don’t have much to complain about in this particular take on the story—it’s egregiously non-serious and fluffy—except for the fact that it read like a filler chapter of a book. There was zero action, scant traces of a plot, and Alice was seemingly a self-insert character for fantasy fulfillment whom every hot guy in a twenty mile radius is in love with.
Now, for readers of manga, it is probably unfair of me to judge a whole series on one book—mangas do tend to be built like chapters of a book or episode of a TV series because adding illustration to a story takes up a lot more room than just writing out description. So I understand mangas have a larger overarching plot that spans the whole series, and you’re not going to get a lot of it in one installment—but I’d still like to get something, have something happen, an important event or character development just to keep the impetus up. But it kinda doesn’t. Instead it focuses on Alice warding off her borderline rapey “love interests,” internally struggling with who she’s actually interested in, and having a realization about some other characters that isn’t even a surprise because we’re told that particular point of their characters in the opening Cast List. So, nothing interesting happens at all, besides the shifting of the landscape near the beginning.
Out of these three, I’d recommend Splintered most highly. Though not without its faults (it is YA fiction with a love-triangle, after all), I find the characters engaging, the intrigue satisfying, and the fun-house bizarreness darkly atmospheric. I would probably recommend the manga next, at least as an entertaining and not overly disrespectful take on Alice in Wonderland. And I would recommend The Looking-Glass Wars only to those who dislike Alice in Wonderland to begin with.
A couple of Alice inspired books I’ve noticed around the YA section lately (meaning, in the past five years) have caught my interest as possible reads are Queen of Hearts by Colleen Oakes and Heartless by Marissa Meyer, but I haven’t picked them up yet. Have you read any Alice inspired books? Which ones did you like? Which ones are you interested in?