Sunday, May 16, 2010

Hatter Wonderings

I don’t get the Mad Hatter.

I mean, I love Alice. I related to the Disney movie as a kid, I’ve read the original book a dozen times and the annotated edition once or twice. If a new reimagining of the story comes out, I’m liable to have at least a passing interest – from Tim Burton’s sequel movie and the SyFi channel’s recent mini-series to Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars and American McGee’s Alice, a horror video game. I enjoy them all, except maybe the video game, since I’m a yellow-bellied coward with an overactive imagination and bad eyesight.

But there’s a tendency among Alice’s re-imaginers – whom I assume are also Alice fans by nature of their work – to turn the Mad Hatter into something of a major characters, and why this is by no means a bad thing, the trend baffles me.

The original Mad Hatter appeared in, if I recall correctly, two chapters of Alice in Wonderland. In his first, he led a chaotic tea party with its own bizarre rules, cheered Alice’s un-birthday and did a lot of screaming. In the second, he turned up to testify at a trial and was scared off by a screaming Queen of Hearts. And…that’s it.

And yet, constantly, he is re-imagined as Alice’s friend, her companion, her guardian and sometimes, even as her love interest. Heck, even in character-specific parodies of the story, such as the “Haruhi in Wonderland” chapters of Ouran High School Host Club, the Hatter is usually portrayed by the male lead – in this case, Tamaki Suoh, the Host Club’s princely leader.

This strikes me as odd.

It’s not that I think this is bad. It’s natural for characters in a re-imagining to take on aspects that they didn’t have before. I don’t have issue with the Hatter taking on a bigger role in any one of these stories, but the trend is strange. What is it about the Hatter, of all characters, that gets him so much extra screen time in the minds of fans?

A friend told me that it’s because he’s the first character besides Alice herself that you associate with the story. Well, that may be true for her, but certainly wasn’t for me – I always thought of the Cheshire Cat first, then the Queen of Hearts, then the White Rabbit, Tweedledee and Tweedledumb, the caterpillar, Alice’s cat Dinah and then the Mad Hatter, in connection with the March Hare.

The best theory I can come up with is that most people are more familiar with Wonderland than Through the Looking Glass; and the Mad Hatter is really the only one in Wonderland who can be considered ‘human’ and who could therefore concievably be a non-creepy love interest for an Alice old enough to consider such things. At the same time, I wonder if people aren’t just playing off the popularity of the character as a sex symbol in other re-imaginings and are using him without thinking about the other possibilities – and that’s kind of sad.

For example, turning the aforementioned Through the Looking Glass – which already gets blended with most Wonderland re-imaginings with the inclusion of the Tweedle twins – gives us the White Knight, who actually was Alice’s companion and bodyguard. Or, if you’re doing a version of the story that humanizes all of the characters anyway, why not turn the White Rabbit, the focus of Alice’s fixation, into a human character and turn the story into something of a pursuit of love? Or, if you’re going to reinvent the story from scratch anyway, why not create a new character – a low-ranking playing card, or a village of Wonderland – as a young boy to give Alice someone to travel with?

With all these possibilities, it’s a shame to limit yourself to what has worked before. Personally, I like the idea of giving the Cheshire Cat an anthropomorphic form who turns up just as mysteriously as the Cat himself, guiding Alice through whatever adventure she’s bound on this time because of his honest affection for her.

But then again, I may be partial – the Cat was always my favorite character.

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