Alice in Wonderland is no stranger to spinoffs, sequels, and reimagnings. In the last half-century we’ve seen the Tim Burton live-action movies, American McGee’s horror video game, a Jefferson Airplane song, two operas, and John Craton’s ballet. The classic Disney movie itself is, of course, a reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel.
So when author Liz Braswell reimagined the fantasy for Disney’s Twisted Tales series — which posit dark, story-warping “what if”s on beloved animated movies — she felt some extra pressure. Braswell has penned other entries in the Disney series, including the ones for The Little Mermaid, in which Ursula takes over the underwater kingdom, and Aladdin, in which Aladdin never finds the lamp, but when it came to Alice, she felt like she had to honor not only the Disney movie but the literary legacy.
“Alice in Wonderland [...] has a super fan base of over 100 years at this point,” she tells Polygon. “It’s like I’m stepping into a beloved Disney universe, but I’m also stepping into a beloved literary universe.”
Braswell says Alice in Wonderland has stood the test of time, not just because of the fantastical worlds spun up by Carroll, but because of Alice herself.
“The character of Alice is written — despite the unreality of the world she’s in, the character really comes across as a real nine year-old girl. She is honest,” she explains. “Sometimes she says things which might sound a little cruel, but they’re not. Like when she’s telling the mouse Oh, we’ve got a pet cat back home and she loves catching little mice. It’s the sort of thing a little girl would say without realizing she was being rude to a mouse. I think that’s part of [why people love the book]: that she’s a very realistically drawn character that anchors all of the nonsense stuff that happens around her.”
Braswell’s macabre Unbirthday: A Twisted Tale asks: What if Wonderland was in peril and Alice was very, very late? The book follows Alice at age 18, a spirited young lady living in Victorian, England. While developing some photographs, she discovers the faces of the old friends from Wonderland popping up — and a mysterious dark-haired girl asking for her help. It turns out that when Alice left Wonderland all those years ago, she didn’t...actually do anything about the Queen of Hearts, so the tyrant went on a murderous rampage throughout the land. Alice now returns to Wonderland, bent on stopping the queen and figuring out where she belongs in both worlds.
Unbirthday: A Twisted Tale hits shelves on Sept. 1. Check out a first excerpt of the book below:
The bell rang; Mrs. Anderbee went to answer it.
“So many visitors,” Alice’s mother said. “Perhaps I should be around to receive them more often.
“Or . . . perhaps move further away from town,” she added reflectively.
But Mrs. Anderbee came back without any additional guests; instead she carried Alice’s satchel and a small packet tied with ribbons.
“My photographs!” Alice cried, leaping up joyfully and taking them.
“Children today,” Headstrewth sighed. “Always checking the mail, too anxious to hear from friends who aren’t actually present, or what the news is—so busy with such intangible communication. . . .”
“I beg your pardon,” Alice said, dipping a curtsy like the child she was accused of being. “I have been waiting for these. A pleasure meeting you, Mr. Coney.”
“Alice, you’re not leaving?” Mathilda said incredulously.
“I am afraid so. This absolutely cannot wait. Good luck with—whatever.” Alice nodded at the men and rushed up to her room. Would there be Hades to pay later? From her sister, and, reluctantly, her mother?
Who cares? Alice thought resolutely.
She sprawled on her bed and ripped apart the neatly tied velvet knot.
There were three photographs: one supposedly of Mr. Willard, another of a little boy named Ilya, and a third of a pretty wind-shaped pine from the park, by the river.
Mr. Willard, standing behind his desk, a pile of hats on either side, was most assuredly not himself. Instead he was ...
“The Mad Hatter!” Alice practically screamed in delight as the memory came rushing back. The tea party, the songs! The riddles! And there he was, just as she remembered him: short, with a nose that took over his entire face and a head that was the size of his tiny body. He wore a giant top hat with an equally giant tag that said in this style 10/6.
He must have been standing on a chair, because he loomed over a desk, his hands firmly placed on it as he leaned forward.
But . . . he was turned, as if something off camera had caught his eye. He didn’t look so much Mad as suddenly worried about whatever it was he saw, as if he was just about to entreat the viewer, beg her for something, when he was interrupted.
And while that was strange—even for a strange land—Alice quickly flipped to the next plate, eager to see what else there was. Ilya had become a spectacle-faced bird in his photo, one of those that had taken pity on Alice when she felt her most lost and alone in Wonderland. The boy had a sensitive face in real life; the bird in the picture looked equally empathetic despite the lenses for eyes and very sharp shaft for a beak. He was running, his feathers blurred.
“This is truly astounding!” Alice said in awe. “The camera somehow sees through the real world and channels Wonderland through its lens instead!”
There were of course crackpots who used new photographic technology to claim they could capture ghosts or fairies or the auras of people, “scientifically”: with chemicals and light and mirrors. This was obviously not that. Alice had complete control over her equipment, the process, and the plates. And there was nothing hazy, indistinct, or unbelievable about these images.
The tree in the last photo turned out to be a flower.
A swaying flower the size of a house (or perhaps the camera and artist were shrunk small) with lips at the end of her petals. Alice wasn’t even sure what kind of flower it was; certainly nothing as easily identifiable as a rose or a jonquil. Even a rose or jonquil with eyes.
“Oh, I bet she can sing!” Alice cried. “This is fantastic! My dreams were all real! Here they are right before my eyes!”
But why had they chosen to make themselves known now? Why couldn’t anyone else see them? And if it was all real, where had Wonderland been for the past eleven years? Alice hadn’t found a single hint or peep of it—and she had been looking ever so hard! She had dozens of photos of cherubic children and many interesting personalities from around town, several years’ worth at least. Also walls and flowers and designs in the cobbles and a few even at the beach—and up until today all the pictures resembled their subjects.
“Best not to question the magic,” Alice decided.
Whenever she had questioned anything in Wonderland from her last . . . visit . . . she had never received a straight answer; sometimes people became even ruder to her as a result of her asking.
So: the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, a spectaclebird, and a singing flower. Every single one of her plates was a glimpse into Wonderland.
“Is it a world that mirrors ours? Hidden somehow? I wonder if everyone—if everything has a double, like a reflection,” Alice said thoughtfully. “Curiouser and curiouser!”
Well, there was really only one way to find out.
She repacked her camera bag and checked her film—there were four dry plates left. Only four! Time to order or make more.
Dinah, who had quite profitably spent the morning on the end of Alice’s bed and hadn’t moved an inch since, watched her mistress with one lazy half-open eye.
“Dinah! Of course you! I’ll bet you’re the Cheshire!” Alice cried, nuzzling her nose into that of the grande dame. Then she carefully set up the camera to take a long, slow shot of the cat because the room was dusky. She needn’t
have worried, however; the old kitty fell asleep, or pretended to, and didn’t move a muscle until she was done.
Or after, either.
Alice then carefully changed film and ran downstairs and was on her way out the door again—before she remembered her hat.
“Oh, my ears and whiskers,” she swore cheerfully, going into the parlor where she had left it. Once there she saw that Headstrewth and Coney were taking their goodbyes formally at the front door. Mathilda had her own hat on, and a shawl; perhaps she was going to escort Mr. Headstrewth into town.
“Saved by a hat,” Alice said with a deep breath of gratitude, touching it to her head reverently. Such a thing seemed like perfect Wonderland nonsense, too. She tiptoed back the way she came and left out the kitchen door instead.
With only three plates remaining, Alice had to choose her subjects very carefully. She tried to find Mr. Katz—just for laughs, just to take his portrait, mind you—but none of the boys and girls at the Square had seen him since that morning. So she took one of Adina instead. Then she made Aunt Vivian pose, despite her aunt’s weak protests of lethargy—and that she had done one already. Vivian seemed, however, to find the energy to fetch a turban with a long feather and a cape of gold and donned both. She draped herself across a cushy couch, and held an incense burner in each hand like some sort of unknown tarot card.
And then . . . Who for the last plate?
Alice knew even before she picked up the camera. In the back of her mind she had known all along.
She carefully set it on a table, aiming it at the opposite wall. Then she took one of her aunt’s ivory-handled walking sticks, stood very still in front of the wall, and set the camera off by stretching her arm and lightly tapping the shutter button with the tip of the cane.
Her first—her only—self-portrait.
Developing the film was agony.
Her hands shook. She wanted to get it done quickly but had to be extra careful. It took too long. She wanted it to be perfect. She wanted . . .
She made herself leave the darkroom and take a walk while the plates dried. She would not look at them when they were imperfect and wet, encouraging wild speculations and guesses. She nibbled on a couple of cucumber sandwiches and a slice of cold Welsh rarebit (the cheese had solidified and was a little chewy, just the way she liked it). She wondered what a picture of it would result in: a plate of iced biscuits with the power to cause sudden growth? Or did some real-world things remain just that—things in the real world?
Finally, unable to delay any longer and driven mad by her own thoughts, Alice ran back and looked at the plates against the sitting room window.
Dinah was . . . Dinah. Just a cat.
Alice bit her lip in disappointment. She’d felt certain Dinah would turn out to be her beloved Cheshire, the strange smiling beast who sometimes helped, sometimes hindered her travels in Wonderland. The kitty before her looked just as normal and sleepy and grumpy as she always did; no hint of a smile at all.
Well, that answered that question: some objects or people (or cats) were this world things alone, without doubles in Wonderland.
Unless . . .
What if the magical moment was over? What if Alice was back to taking pictures of real, normal things now—things that remained real, normal things?
She flipped quickly to the next plate.
All her worries were immediately dispelled when she saw what was there: Adina was a bird with a delicate neck and a mirror for a face. Without eyes it was hard to tell what she was thinking or feeling, but there was no trace of happiness around the beak. Her head was tilted, regarding the viewer a trifle too intently considering that there was nothing where its face should have been but a ghostly reflection of the camera itself.
Alice hurriedly put that one aside.
She looked at the next and couldn’t at first remember who or what it was originally; all elements of the real world were pushed to the edges or erased entirely. The creature who starred in the portrait was large and segmented—and not a little terrifying—until she suddenly remembered who it was.
The Caterpillar reclined languidly on his giant mushroom top, clouds of vapor twirling around his uppermost appendages in thick, almost recognizable shapes. Alice was torn between delight and annoyance. He had the same unhelpful, obnoxious smile on his face as when she had first met him. Very disagreeable.
On the other hand, he was really there, resplendent in detail down to his nose and little golden slippers.
“Oh my goodness! He’s Aunt Vivian!” she suddenly realized. His short arms were spread the way Vivian’s long ones had been, to either side, and the mushroom top was almost like a couch. Alice giggled, putting a hand to her mouth despite being the only one there. “I had no idea you were so polypedal in your soul, Auntie Viv.”
Then, knowing who was left, she slowly pulled out the last plate.
And immediately grew cold.
She had no preconceptions, no idea what to expect; visions of bright-colored creatures and toddling oysters of course flickered through her mind as possibilities, but all she really thought she would see was . . . Alice. She was the only Alice in all of Wonderland, as far as she could tell. Alice in the real world and Alice over there.
But . . . this . . .
This other Alice, this Wonderland Alice, on the other side of the glass, was someone very different.
She had dark hair, for one; stringy, long, unkempt. The rest of her features were hard to distinguish because a thick, ratty white blindfold was tied around her head. Streaked and streaming down her cheeks from beneath it was thick black blood. Her lips were cracked and also bleeding, her bare neck and shoulders smudged with dirt.
Alice swallowed. She had never seen anything like it. Even at the theater the blood was bright red and flowed easily and didn’t cake up so. This was not a tableau; this was not fake blood. It was all too real—like something out of a scene of war, of a horror story, of a nightmare worse than any Alice ever had.
And then the picture moved.
Suddenly the other Alice was either screaming or grinning—impossible to tell which with her teeth outlined in more blood, her lips pulled away from them. She was holding up a banner that was delicately penned despite the poverty of her apparent surroundings.
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