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Issue #131 - July 2006

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Alice in Movieland

By Lucy Kemnitzer

In The Looking Glass Wars Frank Beddor takes an Ozian approach to Wonderland, only bloodier and less delicate. Where Lewis Carroll has an underpinning of mathematics and philosophy to his whimsy, Beddor has nothing down there but an urge for spectacle. There’s a heavy but inconsistent dose of solipsism, but it’s not the troubled, examined solipsism of Philip K. Dick (thankfully: that would have been so out of place here), but something else — I’m afraid even the solipsism is just a piece of machinery to help justify the spectacle.

In this Wonderland, Alice is Alyss, the daughter of the White Queen. She has inherited, as apparently all the royal women of a particular line have, a miraculous power of imagination. She is the Princess of Solipsy. No, that’s not what the Beddor calls her, that’s just what she is. (Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland is full of what-is-it-called, what-is-its-name, what-is-it conversations, but The Looking Glass Wars is devoid of them.) As her mother tells her with her post-mortem breath, it’s all in her head. Which leads me, but apparently nobody in the book, to wonder why any of the ensuing grue has to happen at all.

Just about all the signature oddities of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland are in this book, only turned inside out and given grim stories of their own. One of the more successful is Hatter Madigan, who is the head of the Queen’s security and is equipped with lethal haberdashery and stern loyalty. Less successful is the Cat, who is apparently something like a golem or a robot assassin, created by the White Queen’s rival, sister, and murderer, the evil Redd.

Much of this would work well as anime. There’s a lot of visual flair and swooping movement. It makes about as much sense as the goofier animes, though, and that doesn’t work so well for a novel. No, let me be blunt: I only finished this book because I promised to write a review of it. There was too much to balk at.

Wonderland did not work for me as a magical world. It was more like a magical Christmas department store display: glittery, fanciful, active, but not moving in the emotional sense. The good guys apparently don’t have to do any kindnesses or uphold any particular values to earn their status as good guys, because they are opposed by an enemy who is evil by auctorial decree, and whose actions are only justified by the desire to do evil. Redd doesn’t seize the throne because she wants to run the empire, or because she wants wealth: she seizes it so that she can be more evil. This is one place the Ozian sensibility kicks in — recall the green Wicked Witch as she dies, lamenting the loss of her lovely wickedness? The physical descriptions of Redd are evocative of old Westie, in an effective way, except that — something’s missing. Humor? For myself, I liked Carroll’s characterization of the Red Queen better: a harridan, who thinks she has answers for everybody, not evil incarnate.

The book is chock-a-block with ideas, all right: some of them attractive. Some of the business with the Looking Glass Continuum counts as Cool Bits. Since the binder in the soufflé is "imagination," I suppose that is appropriate. But they’re just ideas, and too many of them are frankly kind of dumb, like the myriad of things with names like gwormmies. (As far as I can figure these are ordinary earthworms, or maybe special Technicolor Wonderland ones.) Or they are irritating, like the spirit-danes, a kind of riding animal which a person who has been living in the mundane world would attempt to ride backwards (remember the White Knight?). General Doppelganger, who splits into two (General Doppel and General Ganger) whenever there’s the slightest call to do so — you wonder why he bothers ever being one person — is irritating, but less so than the spirit-danes. I imagine some people will find him charming, again in an Ozian way, like the Tick-Tock Man or the Nome King.

A couple of the ideas, but not many, are vaguely offensive: Jack of Diamonds, who ought to be a lean, saturnine, conniving sort of fellow, is only a fat, conniving buffoon, maybe good for a slapstick giggle when he gets his butt stuck in a chair. But as with Redd and the Cat, I’m rubbed the wrong way when I come up against unconvincing evil. When an author informs me that a character is evil and doesn’t win me over to that opinion I tend to want to argue with the author. Piling unconvincing and unmoving atrocities up doesn’t do the convincing either, especially when the good guys are basically doing the same thing. You have to win me over.

And — well, I’ve been giving this lecture a lot lately — there’s frankly too much inconsequential violence in the book for my taste. The vast armies which are cut down in moments are only playing cards and chess pieces, of course, so we aren’t to feel badly for them, and honestly I resent that. If the ground is going to be littered with corpses, I want to care about it. I don’t want decapitations of major second-tier characters to come and go in a flash. I keep having the feeling with respect to this book that my attention is being misdirected.

When I think of the book as a treatment for a movie, which it clearly is to a degree, it works much better than it does as a novel. The front matter says Frank Beddor is currently working on Seeing Redd (you guessed it, the second book in the trilogy), and a "screenplay for a full-length feature film". Frank Beddor is also the producer of There’s Something About Mary so you know he’s comfortable with sight gags, and of Wicked, so you know he likes mixing up ideas from old stories. I’m wondering if it may not have been a mistake to release the book ahead of the movie, actually, since the people who enjoy this book the most will be the ones who have seen and enjoyed the movie: people who like their entertainment very loud and fast and glittery, and are not bothered by small things like plot logic and characterization. I’m surprised, really. The back cover of my reviewer's copy explains the marketing support that this book is going to get, which is the full works, not stopping short of a "bookseller tea party tour" and "viral marketing" (I assume this will include Flash games involving crashing through looking glasses and YouTube videos of Hatter Madigan and the Cat fighting it out in ruined landscapes). I’d have thought they’d have made all this coincide with the movie’s release. Or maybe the movie will come out at the time of the second or third book.

The Looking Glass Wars is marketed as a YA (young adults) book. When the movie comes to be, if it is good enough, it will be a good hook for the kind of kid who likes to read what they just saw on the screen. Even better would be a console or PC game based on the adventures of Hatter Madigan, or the young warriors Dodge Anders (Alyss’ childhood sweetheart) and Homburg Molly (who reads like a very cool special effect herself, though her character is suddenly burdened with a peculiar social prejudice which arises out of nowhere and recedes to nowhere for no reason).

Do I understand myself correctly here? Am I saying that this book is unattractive as a novel, but it would be pretty dandy as an adjunct in a marketing campaign for a video game and/or a movie (preferably executed by someone like Hayao Miyazaki, the fellow who did Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, and not live action or CG)? I think I am.

The Looking Glass Wars - Frank Beddor - Dial Books - hardcover

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