This post is a sequel to yesterday’s post about beauty standards, whiteness, and “the uncanny.” If you haven’t read it yet, you gotta. Otherwise this post will make no sense at all.
I’m going to use this post to talk about the concept of “unheimlich” or “uncanny” specifically as it relates to the restructuring of fairy tales in contemporary adaptations. Sound complex? It’s not. I just mean this:
Now you get it. So what’s that all about?
Before talking about the uncanny in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” I want to back up a bit, and talk first about uncanny beauty in some more “traditional” fairy tales.
Let’s take The Maiden With The Rose On Her Forehead for example. If you haven’t read this story – which originally came from Portugal – you really should; it’s quite a treat. In it, normal things – a rose, and skin – are made uncanny. A young girl is born with a rose on her forehead, a marker which relates to the unusual circumstances of her birth, and to where her mother was sleeping when the child was conceived. The mother later kills her daughter, fearing that she has made herself known to the world. (This is all a gross oversimplification. Read the story). She then locks away her child in an iron chest and dies herself; but her child lives again, and the rose on her forehead is transformed into a star. Later, when the child is discovered by her aunt, her skin is again “disfigured” by being burnt all over with an iron. Her evil aunt then lies about the girl’s origin, saying that she is a “mulatta.” But the girl’s true identity – a prince’s neice – is revealed, and the antagonists have their skins burnt with irons and are sealed up in a wall. The tale then implies that the girl becomes her prince-uncle’s consort.
The fairy tale takes something normal – skin – and turns it into something uncanny; the strange rose on the girl’s forehead, it’s transformation into a star, the beauty of her skin despite it’s “otherness,” and the change of identity through mutilating the skin. All of that: very unheimlich.
Fairy tales such as this one present beauty as something familiar, yet strange and frightening. Not all fairy tales do this, but uncanny beauty is definitely a hallmark found in many classic fairy tales. But modern takes on classic tales also introduce an element of the uncanny, but one which is decidedly different from the classic “Unheimlichkeit” you find in something like “The Maiden with the Rose on her Forehead.”
Back to Tim Burton. Usually, I wouldn’t describe Tim Burton’s fractured fairy tales – or any modern fairy-tale remake, for that matter – as uncanny. They’re not uncanny. They’re quirky, weird, imaginative. They don’t take the familiar and make it strange while still retaining its familiarity. Nope: Burton prefers to opt for all-out strange. And that can be very entertaining…though I won’t pretend that I was super wild about his version of “Alice in Wonderland.” Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, isn’t really uncanny. He’s just completely far-out and wonky.
But there actually is something strange about Burton’s over-blown, far too action-packed “Alice in Wonderland.” The very fact that Burton has so thoroughly re-imagined a classic fairy tale is, in fact, a sort of uncanny. It’s what I’m going to call “meta uncanny.”
I’ll explain. We know the story of “Alice in Wonderland.” We know the poem “the Jabberwocky.” We have a picture in our heads of how the story is supposed to go. Girl falls down rabbit hole, enters into very curious world, meets crazy people for tea. We know the story. The story itself is not so much uncanny as it is imaginative and strange. But it – our knowledge of the story, not necessarily the story itself – is familiar. It’s as familiar as our knowledge of eyes, or skin.
Tim Burton’s remake of “Alice in Wonderland” is uncanny because it takes this known pattern and makes it strange. In the original story, Alice falls down the rabbit hole into a crazy world. In Burton’s story, Alice falls down the rabbit hole into the same crazy world…with all its parts rearranged. It’s still Wonderland. But all of a sudden, Alice has to fight the Jabberwock. The Mad Hatter is the Mad Hatter, but not; he’s a rebel, fights the Red Queen, etc. He’s recognizable as himself, but he’s also strange in that the context he moves in is completely different. This is what I mean by meta-uncanny; the story itself isn’t uncanny, it’s context is. The uncanny-ness depends on our prior knowledge of a classic fairy tale. If you’d never know the plot of Alice in Wonderland before seeing Tim Burton’s movie, it would seem like just another imaginative action movie. As it is, it feels off: familiar and strange.
This kind of faux-uncanny-feeling is attractive. And it’s great for marketing: in the wake of Tim Burton’s bad-but-bankable film, a whole lot of other fairy-tale makeovers are poised to take over the silver screen. Did you know that Angelina Jolie is poised to star in a film about the villain from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent? There’s some great meta-uncanny for you. Sleeping Beauty isn’t exactly an uncanny story, but seeing it redone as an action flick with Angelia Jolie might well be a super-unheimlich experience. And who is poised to direct the film? Tim Burton. Oy vey. How many levels of meta can there be?
I have a feeling that those will be my famous last words. Ten years from now someone will make a film about Tim Burton making fairy tale films and I will blog about it, and right after I hit the “publish” button I will keel over dead.