For many people, Alice in Wonderland is the wholesome story of a young girl who discovers a strange land with even stranger beings. It is bright, colourful and has shaped many people’s childhoods. The game Alice: Madness Returns uses this story, but flips the narrative on its head, perhaps ruining a childhood or two in the process. In this analysis, I compare a scene from both the game and original book to see what changing the medium does to the overall experience of a story.
As Seymour Chatman says, “narrative itself is a deep structure quite independent of its medium” (1980, p. 121). In other words, a story exists independent of its medium. However, the medium does affect it in certain ways. For instance, a medium can have certain affordances that other mediums do not. An affordance is a benefit that one medium has compared to another, such as how books have ample space to describe a setting whereas a television series has the benefit of using visuals and music to enhance storytelling (Chatman, 1980, p. 123). In the case of the book vs the game, an important affordance is that you get to experience Wonderland first-hand. You can change perspectives, meaning you can decide whether you want to be Alice or watch Alice go through the game. In the book, you often read what Alice is thinking, but by changing the perspective to her own you experience not only what she sees, but also what she feels. For example, it can be quite intimidating to be attacked in an otherwise bright and colourful world.
As Seymour Chatman says “narrative itself is a deep structure quite independent of its medium.”
The book, to a certain extent, lets you picture your own Wonderland. Because Madness Returns is a game, the visuals have obviously been predetermined - there’s no room for your own interpretation. This may take away some of Wonderland’s magic. It causes you to see Wonderland as a creepy place. If you look at the original story, that was probably not what Carroll intended.
Down the rabbit hole
For this analysis, I will focus on the scene where Alice follows the white rabbit into the rabbit hole and finds herself falling for quite some time before discovering a bottle that says “Drink me!” (Caroll, 1990, pp. 43 - 44). It is after this point in the book that Alice enters Wonderland.
In Alice: Madness Returns, rather than following a white rabbit you follow a little cat. This seems to be a nod to the original, as it is reminiscent of the Cheshire Cat. You find yourself in an old English town. As you progress through the city, with its brick buildings and quite hostile inhabitants, you spot the furry creature. It briefly meows at you and then heads off, encouraging you to see where it’s going. After a few twists and turns, you find yourself in an alleyway, and the cat seems to have vanished. This feels similar to how the Cheshire Cat vanishes just as his conversation with Alice reaches a pivotal moment.
The sky is cloudy, and there’s something eerie going on.
However, in the game you are not alone. The cat seems to have guided you into a trap. You are soon surrounded by creatures that can only be described as green mutant rabbits, who walk on two legs and wear hideous suits. Their buggy eyes stare directly at you, and they bare their sharp fangs and hiss. Suddenly they disappear and are replaced by an old woman named nurse Witless. As you regain control of the level and walk towards the nurse, the surroundings become darker and even less friendly looking. You’re on a rooftop above the town, with a few bird cages nearby. As you approach the old lady, her voice morphs and she changes into one of the strange mutant rabbits. She hisses, and you fall straight into the ‘rabbit’ hole.
Similar to the book, you fall for quite some time and are surrounded by playing cards and random objects. Rather than reading that it takes a while before Alice lands, the game lets you experience this yourself. In the book, it depends on how fast a reader you are. The game has the affordance to determine the exact amount of time you’re actually falling. When you land, you don’t drop into a room, but straight into Wonderland. Your surroundings are colourful and at first glance seem unthreatening. You’re greeted by the Cheshire Cat and from that point on you’re aware something is completely wrong. The sky is cloudy, and there’s something eerie going on. Amongst other things, the Cheshire Cat’s smile is bloody and he doesn’t seem quite as friendly.
He guides you to a purple pool with a waterfall, above which you see the familiar “Drink me!” label. He invites you to take a dive and as you do, you start shrinking. From that point on, the game allows you to shrink whenever you want, helping you to progress through the levels. In the book, growing and shrinking are more problematic for Alice, causing a lot of trouble for her and her friends.
Wonderland and unfaithful storytelling
An important difference between the game and the original book is the overall feel. In my opinion, Carroll’s story is about growing up and the innocence of being a child. It criticises the rules Victorian children were expected to abide by, such as doing as they're told and being pleasant and obedient to adults. In the book, we find that Alice speaks in a very formal and somewhat forced manner that parodies this behaviour: "But it’s no use now,” thought poor Alice, “to pretend to be two people! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!” (Carroll, 1999, p. 13) These societal norms are hinted at with a sense of humour even thought some scenes leave readers feeling uneasy. Wonderland feels whimsical; the characters are strange and even unsettling but are never a real threat. If anything, they’re funny and teach Alice important life lessons.
In Madness Returns, it seems everyone is an enemy. In the ‘real’ world of the game, Alice is suspected of killing her family by setting her childhood home on fire, and in Wonderland an evil force has taken over, and all inhabitants attack you on sight. The Cheshire Cat seems to be a guide of sorts, but due to the game’s overall dark and scary setting, there’s always a level of distrust towards him and his intentions.
According to Robert Stam, when we say an adaption has been unfaithful to the original, it means we’re disappointed because it fails to capture what we see as the fundamental narrative of its literary source (2000, p. 54). Madness Returns definitely doesn’t capture the same happy Wonderland as Carroll perhaps intended in the book. In that sense, you could argue the game is unfaithful to the original. It no longer is about Alice not wanting to grow up but rather about Alice coping with the trauma of her family dying.
Wonderland is treated as her escape from reality, although neither the real world or Wonderland seem very inviting. However if we’re being literal, this shift in narrative isn’t disappointing, so it’s debatable whether it’s unfaithful. Through its setting, the way the characters are portrayed, and the overall story, it’s clear it was never meant to be the same Alice. Can you be unfaithful to something if you never intended to be faithful in the first place?
Changing the Narrative
Medium affects how a story is experienced, and Madness Returns is a good example of that. In comparing the game to the book, one could argue that by changing the medium the narrative has changed entirely. This is in part due to the way the creators decided to portray Alice. If you’re expecting the same cheery story as is told in the original book, then Alice: Madness Returns may disappoint. The visuals are vastly different and all together create a much scarier portrayal of Carroll’s Wonderland. It ís interesting to experience this obscure land for yourself, regardless of its portrayal. Moreover the narrative becomes more personal because you’re able to change perspectives in-game. Overall, the creepy undercurrents present in the book have been amplified and centered in Madness Returns.
American McGee. (2011). Alice: Madness Returns. Spicy Horse.
Carroll, L. (1999). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (Original work published 1865)
Chatman, S. (1980). What novels can do that films can’t (and vice versa). Critical Inquiry, 7(1), 121–140.
Stam, R. (2000). Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaption. In Film Adaptation (pp. 54–76). Rutgers University Press.