Alice's Academy

Caroline Jones, editor

Purposeful Dreams on Film: Building Alice’s Self-Esteem in Nick Willing’s Alice In Wonderland

Jennifer Geer

Jennifer Geer is an associate professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where she teaches children's literature and Victorian studies. She has published on Alice in Wonderland, Mopsa the Fairy, and film adaptations of The Wind in the Willows and Peter Pan, and is currently working on a book about nostalgia in Victorian children's fantasy literature.

Soon after Alice begins her adventures in the television adaptation of Alice in Wonderland that was directed by Nick Willing and aired on NBC in 1999, she meets the Caterpillar. As in Carroll’s novel, the Caterpillar states that “one side [of the mushroom] will make [her] taller and the other will make [her] shorter.” Willing’s Caterpillar then adds a line that appears nowhere in the novel, saying, “That’s what it’s there for. Everything has a purpose, even here.” His comment points to one of the main differences between this television film and Carroll’s Alice books. As most mainstream Alice films do, Willing’s adaptation retains characters and dialogue from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass but revises the novels’ episodic plots in order to follow Hollywood screenwriting conventions. The “classical Hollywood narrative style” requires “that a film’s plot have a clear forward direction. One event should logically lead to the next and all should fit together” in ways that “resolve their [protagonists’] goals” (Lehman and Luhr 29). The Caterpillar’s remark signals a filmic narrative structure in which all events and motifs relate to the protagonists’ goals and motivations, even in Wonderland.

As a mainstream Hollywood film, Willing’s Alice defines these goals differently than Carroll does. Willing himself notes that “’there isn’t a particular strong classic film story in [the novel]. It’s a series of vignettes’” (Hughes). Joel Chaston has pointed out that Carroll’s novels “frequently delight in subverting precisely [the] conventions” that such films embrace (13). The logical plot progressions, clear character motivations, and tidy endings so central to Hollywood films are the sort of common-sense conventions that literary nonsense such as Carroll’s inverts, parodies, and manipulates. Chaston argues that one way Hollywood filmmakers have dealt with these perceived shortcomings in Carroll’s novel is by grafting a simplified reading of another “strong classic film story”—MGM’s The Wizard of Oz—onto it (13). As part of a broader argument about the influence of MGM’s Oz on children’s fantasy film adaptations more generally, he notes that the Disney Alice and the television adaptation of Alice that aired on CBS in 1985 follow the Oz plot rather than Carroll’s. They focus on a young adolescent girl who is dissatisfied at home, has fantasy adventures with companions who are dream-versions of the people she has left behind, overcomes a threatening antagonist, and finally returns home after “discover[ing] that she had within her the ability to [do so] all along” (14). Willing’s Alice appeared after Chaston’s article was published but frequently follows this pattern. Its lead actress, Tina Majorino, was fourteen when she played Alice, only two years younger than Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz but twice the age of Carroll’s heroine. As in The Wizard of Oz, Willing’s film opens by emphasizing the conflict between its heroine and her antagonist. Here, Alice flees to the riverbank because she feels anxious and angry at having to sing for her parents’ friends at their tea party. She then begins her dream, which offers her a safe psychological space to express and overcome her anxieties; tellingly, the dream ends when the White Rabbit says, “you don’t need us anymore”—when she has become confident enough in her own abilities to return home and sing without fear. Her parents’ friends reappear in Wonderland as the various creatures Alice meets and provide the mixture of support and challenge she needs in order to overcome her anxieties.

The conclusion to Willing’s film also reinforces Chaston’s assertion that Oz-influenced adaptations “encourag[e] young viewers to conform to adult expectations” (13). Willing’s description of Carroll’s Alice as “passive” notwithstanding (Hughes n.p.), his Alice has less overall agency than Carroll’s. Although critics have debated the precise degree of agency Carroll’s Alice has relative to the adult narrator, her desire for it is clear. She enters Wonderland out of curiosity, not out of fear as Willing’s Alice does, and she exhibits little of the anxiety and shyness of Willing’s Alice. She is proud of her own status and wants to maintain it in Wonderland; she wants to understand—and to win—the social and conceptual games she encounters in her dream (Blake 108-09). Willing’s Alice appears to rebel more openly against her parents than Carroll’s Alice does, and her flight to the riverbank is more physically and emotionally dramatic than her counterpart’s bored musings, but she is in fact more circumscribed by her parents. In keeping with Hollywood screenwriting conventions, Willing provides more precise motivation for Alice’s dream than Carroll does, portraying it as inspired by particular feelings and events (her anxiety about parents’ request that she sing) rather than general boredom. Such logic, however, renders her actions effects rather than causes; she is driven by her parents and her fears, not by the independent curiosity of Carroll’s Alice, whose parents barely rate a mention. Because her parents’ friends appear as creatures in her dream and act as her mentors, Willing’s Alice is never entirely free from adult supervision, even in her dream, and her rebellion is temporary in any case. Once freed of her anxieties, she returns home more eager and better equipped to please her parents; she sings happily, although she insists on choosing her own song. 

The specific lessons that Willing’s Alice learns during her adventures, however, differ from those Chaston sees in the Oz-influenced films he examines. Chaston argues that the Disney and CBS Alice films exaggerate their heroines’ sentimental desire for home as well as the threat posed by her fantasy antagonist, ultimately casting Alice “in the role of victim” and “suggesting that all problems may best be solved by retreating to one’s home” (16, 18). Willing’s Alice, on the other hand, rarely expresses a desire to return home and never encounters a powerful external antagonist such as the Wicked Witch or Disney’s Queen of Hearts. Here, the Queen is intimidating but does not seem inclined to carry out her threats to Alice, whose real antagonist is her own fear. Furthermore, the lesson that “there’s no place like home” is not as central for this Alice as it is for MGM’s Dorothy. Her goal is self-confidence and self-esteem, not home; home is merely the setting in which she can best demonstrate that she has attained these qualities. The differences between the lessons Alice learns in this film and the ones Chaston focuses on suggest that other factors are at work here besides the influence of The Wizard of Oz.     

One such factor may be NBC’s desire to appeal to adult audiences by drawing on another well-known cultural narrative that validates adults’ expectations for children: contemporary popular discourse about parenting and children’s self-esteem. Although the VHS and DVD versions of Willing’s film were marketed to families, the primary intended audience for the original network broadcastseems to have been adults. The film aired at a relatively late hour—8:00 to 11:00 p.m.—on February 28, 1999, during the spring sweeps period when viewer ratings are used to determine networks’ future advertising rates. Since primetime television ratings are calculated by examining the viewing patterns of adults aged 18 to 49, this audience would have been crucial to NBC’s future advertising revenue, not to mention recouping the film’s estimated $21 million budget (Gilbert D1). Alice did very well in its late time slot, being watched by approximately 25.3 million people (“NBC” B21) and becoming “the top-rated single-episode film in adults 18-49 on any net[work]” (Bierbaum 11). To appeal to these viewers and the advertisers that target them, NBC implicitly followed the lead of the Walt Disney corporation. According to Nicholas Sammond, Disney’s success as a distributor of children’s media largely stems from its ability to situate its products within mainstream American conceptions of safe, beneficial children’s entertainment (2). Sammond locates mid-twentieth-century Disney films and products alongside contemporary sociological studies, parenting manuals, and popular media representations of childhood to show how Disney gained the loyalty of adult consumers by reflecting and reinforcing “popular conceptions of what was good for the child” (10). Sammond’s analysis ends in 1960, but as he notes in his introduction, “the notion that if bad media create bad kids, then surely good media will create good ones” still dominated American discussions of children’s media through the end of the century (2). Television executives in 1999 certainly would have been aware of this notion. The 1990s saw considerable popular and legislative interest in children’s television, including a 1996 law that new televisions include parental blocking technology and an FCC ruling that broadcast stations must provide at least three hours of educational children’s programming per week (Jordan and Woodard 154). Willing’s PG-rated fantasy film would not have been directly affected by these rulings, but it does portray an Alice whose adventures reinforce contemporary research and advice about helping children control their anxieties, gain self-esteem, and rise to challenges.

In 1996, the sociologist Steven Ward noted that “self-esteem has become one of the more prolific concepts in psychological research, psychotherapy, and popular discussions of the self and self-help” (2). The idea that good parents and teachers should promote children’s self-esteem was first established in parenting manuals and educational research during the early 1970s (Ward 13). By the 1990s, the link between building self-esteem proper child development had become a commonplace. Even studies that are not centered around self-esteem per se, such as the American Association of University Women’s influential 1991 report Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America, mention it prominently. Although the full report focuses primarily on girls’ academic performance in the fourth through tenth grades, the Executive Summary for the second edition of 1994 mentions self-esteem over thirty times in eighteen pages, effectively using the concept to frame its conclusion that “For America to have a first-class work force tomorrow, we must provide a first-class education for girls today” (14) and reinforcing contemporary views on “the important relationship between self-esteem and social problems” (Ward 2).   

Other educational studies and parenting manuals from the 1990s, whether they specifically focus on girls or not, often echo this assumption that building self-esteem is crucial to fostering children’s development. Furthermore, they make explicit the AAUW report’s implicit assumption that parents and educators should build children’s self-esteem not only by offering praise, but also by helping children rise to challenges, gain confidence in themselves, and exercise the power to make developmentally-appropriate decisions. Articles in the decade’s parenting manuals and educational journals frequently argue that children should be encouraged to do tasks that they are capable of, but find difficult. Terry Brazelton, for instance, author of Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development, discusses self-esteem in a chapter entitled “Challenges to Development” and advises parents to offer safe, developmentally-appropriate challenges that “let a child experiment, get frustrated, and then make it on his own” (362). Similarly, Linda Bunker, writing about motor skill development in The Elementary School Journal, reminds teachers that “success alone does not build self-esteem….Succeeding at a task that is too easy gives little pleasure. In contrast, causing children to work just a bit beyond their current skill set can produce optimum growth” (470). Bunker argues that “challenges help…develop…self-esteem and…personal identity” because they “require children to decide when and how to use the skills they already possess. In this process, children gain control over their environment and can see evidence of their own abilities” (468, 471). Thus, appropriate challenges build self-esteem by increasing children’s sense of confidence and competence. Jane Brooks discusses this connection at some length in her manual Parenting, discussing self-esteem in a section devoted to children’s “emotional competence” (39) and including an interview with psychology professor Susan Harter, who argues that a “’major part of self-esteem, beginning at about age eight, is feeling competent and adequate across the various domains of life’” (42). To give children this sense of competence, writers advise parents and educators to offer love and “social support” (Brooks 42) and to allow children and adolescents to make their own decisions and follow their own interests, as long as they do so in ways adults deem appropriate or healthy (Rimm 5; Owens, Mortimer, and Finch 1377-91).

Although these studies and manuals frequently stress the importance of confidence and competence for children, they reserve full agency for adults. As would be expected for their target audience, the parenting manuals in particular make the location of agency clear, even in their titles: How to Parent so Children Will Learn, Nurturing Good Children Now: 10 Basic Skills to Protect and Strengthen Your Child’s Core Self. The adult is the acting subject, while the child remains the nurtured object of concern. Children are presumed to need, desire, and be capable of agency, of course, but the agency generally recommended in these texts is carefully delineated, usually according to age. The section of Rimm’s How to Parent so Children Will Learn entitled “Empower Your Child with the Power to Be a Child” thus opens by advising parents how much power to grant their children, and when to do it: The “Power to Be a Child” is a power defined and granted by adults (5). Adults recognize the child’s actual or potential problem (low self-esteem) and act upon it; the child’s sphere of action, confidence, and competence occurs within boundaries delimited, patrolled, and made safe by watchful parents.

As a logical, carefully guided process toward a single emotional goal that both parents and children are presumed to share, the journey toward self-esteem that is described in these parenting manuals and reinforced by educational and sociological studies is a contemporary cultural narrative that is ideally suited for application to a Hollywood family film of the late 1990s. Alice’s dream in Willing’s Alice in Wonderland works to build her sense of confidence, competence, and self-esteem according to this general paradigm. As portrayed in the film, Alice appears to be about ten or eleven years old, the age at which the AAUW report argues that girls’ self-esteem begins to erode (Shortchanging 7). In the opening scenes she notably lacks what Brooks identifies as the two key qualities of “[h]igh self-esteem children[:]…confidence in approaching situations and resilience when frustrated or upset” (41). The film opens with a close-up of an enormous metronome that towers over Alice and ticks so loudly it nearly drowns out her nervous rendition of “Cherry Ripe”. This emphasis on Alice’s feelings of apprehension and powerlessness continues in the following scene, when the camera pulls back to show her being dressed for her parents’ party. She is being dressed, not dressing herself, and her mother and governess dismiss her concerns about singing even as she cries that she “can’t do it” and asks them to “please don’t make me sing”. Upon seeing the dreaded metronome and “all those strangers” on the lawn, Alice flees to the riverbank, vowing to “go back later when it’s all over.”

At this point, Alice wishes to escape into fantasy. However, the film frames her dream so that it functions in a therapeutic rather than an escapist way; it neutralizes her anxieties and “becomes a tool for confronting rather than evading reality” (Gilead 279). When Alice explains to the Cheshire Cat that she wants to get into the Queen of Hearts’ garden because “It looks safe,” the Cat responds, “Sometimes things that look safe turn out nasty—and things that look nasty turn out safe. That’s a moral.” The Cat’s statement encapsulates the adult-sanctioned moral of Alice’s dream: flight is unsatisfying, while public performance is not as frightening as Alice believes. The creatures she meets, dream-versions of her parents’ guests, often appear intimidating to Alice, but her encounters with them are structured as challenges that eventually bolster her confidence and lead her to enjoy singing.

Her conversation with the Caterpillar is one of the first of these challenges. Carroll’s Alice seems comfortable with recitation. When the Caterpillar tells her to “’Repeat ‘You Are Old, Father William,’” she is merely puzzled that the words “’all c[o]me different’” (36). When the Caterpillar makes his request to Willing’s Alice, on the other hand, she reacts much as she does to her mother and governess. As in the opening scenes, the adult figure seems frightening while Alice is nervous and resistant; the Caterpillar barks military-style orders at Alice, who protests that she “do[esn’t] want to” recite. As the Cat’s later comment suggests, however, the Caterpillar is not as “nasty” as he appears. He may deem Alice’s recitation “wrong from beginning to end,” but when she looks dejected and sighs, “that always happens when I have to perform,” he responds in a surprisingly gentle tone, murmuring, “You mustn’t be afraid. That’s worse than not remembering.” He then guides her toward the mushroom that will enable her to alter her size and thus gain the sense of control over her environment that authors such as Bunker view as essential to self-esteem (47). Like most of the creatures Alice meets, the Caterpillar gives her the mixture of challenge and support that contemporary researchers suggest best enhances children’s opinion of themselves and their abilities. 

Creatures such as the Mad Hatter, March Hare, Gryphon, and Mock Turtle assuage Alice’s fears in a slightly different way by performing songs themselves, displaying their own love of singing and dancing and encouraging her to join in the fun. They thus act as comic forms of good educators; Bunker states that teachers “should…demonstrate their own love for” the skills they are building (468), while Brooks reminds parents that “the child is an active learner” who gains skills through play and through imitating adults (37). The Hatter and Hare’s gleefully cacophonous rendition of “Auntie’s Wooden Leg” helps reassure Alice that singers do not have to be skilled to relish performing—however much they might annoy their audiences. When she later encounters the Gryphon and Mock Turtle, Alice appears shyly delighted by “Turtle Soup” and “Will You Walk a Little Faster” and even accepts their invitation to sing along. The supportive, non-confrontational relationships that these characters develop with Alice may be particularly beneficial in bolstering her confidence, because they enact the “network of relationships” many girls seem to prefer to competition or to the sort of rigid rules symbolized by the metronome (Gilligan 33). After this encounter, Alice begins to sing by herself for the first time, humming “Turtle Soup” without being asked. Soon she finds her way blocked by an enormous open book whose frontispiece displays the sheet music to “Cherry Ripe” and a picture of the metronome that so alarmed her in the film’s opening scenes. Alice hesitates, but finds the courage to turn the book’s page and go on with her adventures. This scene marks a literal turning point in her adventures: she faces her fears and moves beyond them. Alice has begun to demonstrate the resilience and confidence that contemporary researchers typically associate with high self-esteem.

The film’s trial scene tests and vindicates these qualities. It is structured so as to give Alice an ethical imperative to speak her mind, even in an intimidating public place: she must testify to save the Knave of Hearts. The scriptwriters portray the trial as more blatantly unjust than Carroll does. Carroll’s Alice is less troubled by the Knave’s fate than by the court’s general absurdity. She exclaims, “’nonsense!’” to the Queen’s cry of “’Sentence first—verdict afterwards,’” but objects finally and most strongly to the idea that playing cards can try cases at all, shouting, “’Who cares for you?....You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’” (96-97). As in the novel, the film’s King is ignorant of procedure and the Queen frequently interrupts the trial by shouting, “Off with his head!” Willing’s film, however, adds lines that further emphasize the trial’s injustice; the Knave’s lawyer incriminates his client before being reminded that he is working for the defense, and the King comments that the conviction of innocent prisoners “happens all the time.” Alice, the star witness, then speaks out in front of this apparently hostile court to save what she calls “an innocent man.” 

Because of these script changes, Alice’s final challenge to the King and Queen of Hearts becomes an ethical and psychological triumph rather than the frustrated outburst that it is in the novel. Before taking the witness stand, she deliberately eats the mushroom that will make her grow larger. Unlike Carroll’s Alice, who begins growing through no conscious will of her own, Willing’s Alice purposefully alters her size during the trial to bolster her nerve. She then responds to the Queen’s rule of “Sentence first, verdict after” by appealing to notions of justice: “That’s stupid….I can’t let you condemn an innocent man. All the tarts are here, so how could the prisoner have stolen them? There was no crime.” The King and White Rabbit challenge her, voicing her own previous insecurities as they cry, “You’ve too much to say for yourself,” “Alice, don’t you care what people think?” and “Are you so confident, young lady?” Alice, having learned her lessons well, folds her arms, stares at them, and declares, “Not when I’m right….Yes, I am confident.” With this declaration, Alice implicitly demonstrates her self-esteem, which the AAUW report associates with girls who feel “confident, assertive, and…authoritative about themselves” (Shortchanging 7). Her answer is the one that the creatures (and by extension the adults in her waking life) have been looking for. Upon hearing her words, the Rabbit drops his forbidding persona and happily explains that the dream has served its purpose. The courtroom disintegrates as Alice’s dream ends; she has mastered her anxieties and is ready to apply these lessons while awake.

Recognizing the party guests as human versions of the creatures in her dream, Alice is no longer afraid to sing for them after she returns home. Her relationship with her parents has also improved; her mother, who had coolly declared herself “disappointed” by Alice’s pleas at the beginning of the film, now openly displays affection and concern for her. The film’s ending thus suggests that Alice’s parents are not as unreasonable as they had seemed in the opening scenes. In fact, they embody contemporary ideals that combine “clear…standards of behavior” with “attenti[ion] to the needs and preferences of the child” (Brooks 45; cf. Rimm 5). They do not withdraw their request that Alice sing, but they and their friends applaud her for putting her own stamp on the performance. Feeling secure in her family’s support and her own abilities, Alice then displays the final sign of her growth: her ability to fulfill adult expectations while retaining her individuality and autonomy. She accepts and even enjoys singing at the party, but she turns off the metronome and sings “Will You Walk a Little Faster” instead of “Cherry Ripe.” Alice thus pleases her parents while following her own aesthetic preference and rejecting the external, mechanical forms of control symbolized by the metronome. Her behavior reinforces contemporary arguments that high self-esteem requires “self-initiated action and intrinsic motivation” that are best fostered when “the parent shares decision-making with the adolescent” or older child (Owens, Mortimer, and Finch 1391, 1379; cf. Brazelton 274). Because self-confidence is precisely the trait Alice’s adult role models want her to learn, they are happy to praise her choice of song and tempo; the film ends with Alice, her parents, and their friends all dancing and singing together.

Willing’s Alice works to attract adult viewers by dramatizing an idealized cultural narrative in which raising children’s self-esteem and helping them develop their skills reduces intergenerational conflict and promotes family harmony. The film replicates the progression from conflict to unity depicted by popular parenting manuals such as Rimm’s How To Parent So Children Will Learn. Rimm’s book, aimed at parents of “bright children who aren’t performing to their abilities” (x), portrays a happy, productive family on its cover. They overwhelm the small red circle and slash in the lower right corner, which contains a scowling child and angry parents holding a poor report card. Willing’s Alice, too, is a bright girl who moves from being frightened and resistant to being confident and accommodating as she develops her skills and her self-esteem. The Alice of the film’s final scenes embodies Brooks’s description of the child contemporary parents should aspire to raise, who has internalized adults’ moral and behavioral standards but is “self-reliant and self-confident and explore[s] [her] worlds with pleasure” (45). In this respect, Willing’s Alice In Wonderland transforms Carroll’s heroine into a model child for the 1990s.     


Works Cited

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Bierbaum, Tom. “CBS Takes Week; NBC Sweeping.” Daily Variety 3 March 1999: 11. Lexis-Nexis Academic. Web. 16 October 2008.

Brazelton, T. Berry. Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1992. Print.

Brooks, Jane B. Parenting. 2nd ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1998. Print.

Bunker, Linda K. “The Role of Play and Motor Skill Development in Building Children’s Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem.” The Elementary School Journal 91.5 (1991): 467-71. JSTOR. Web. 15 July 2010.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland. 1865. Ed. Donald J. Gray. Norton Critical Edition.New York: Norton, 1992. Print.

Chaston, Joel D. “The ‘Ozification’ of American Children’s Fantasy Films: The Blue Bird, Alice in Wonderland, and Jumanji.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 22.1 (1997): 13-20. Print.

Gilbert, Matthew. “’Alice’ a Wonderland of Technical Wizardry.” Boston Globe 26 February 1999: D1. Lexis-Nexis Academic. Web. 16 October 2008.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982. Print.

Gilead, Sarah. “Magic Abjured: Closure in Children’s Fantasy Fiction.” PMLA 106.2 (1991): 277-93. Print.

Hughes, Jason J. “Alice’s Caterina Scorsone and Nick Willing Interview.” Television Blend 25 November 2009. Web. 30 April 2011.

Jordan, Amy B. and Emory H. Woodard IV. “Growing Pains: Children’s Television in the New Regulatory Environment.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 557 (1998): 83-95. JSTOR. Web. 26 July 2010.

Lehman, Peter and William Luhr. Thinking About Movies: Watching, Questioning, Enjoying. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. Print.

“NBC Says ‘Alice’ Gets Wonderful Ratings, Possible ‘Sweeps” Win.” Wall Street Journal 2 March 1999: B21. Lexis-Nexis Academic. Web. 16 October 2008.

Owens, Timothy J., Jeylan T. Mortimer, and Michael D. Finch. “Self-Determination as a Source of Self-Esteem in Adolescence.” Social Forces 74.4 (1996): 1377-1404. JSTOR. Web. 15 July 2010.

Rimm, Sylvia B. How to Parent So Children Will Learn. Watertown, WI: Apple, 1990. Print.

Sammond, Nicholas. Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2005. Print.

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Taffel, Dr. Ron. Nurturing Good Children Now: 10 Basic Skills to Protect and Strengthen Your Child’s Core Self. With Melinda Blau. New York: Golden, 1999. Print.

Ward, Steven. “Filling the World With Self-Esteem: A Social History of Truth-Making.”Canadian Journal of Sociology 21.1 (1996): 1-23. JSTOR. Web. 15 July 2010.


Jennifer Geer

Volume 15, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, May/June 2011

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