This isn’t your grandmother’s Alice – though one can still see a vague family resemblance to Lewis Carroll’s original creation. Our next generation heroine manages to kung fu her boyfriend, scoff at the impulsive nature of his marriage proposal, and then set off to rescue him after witnessing his beating and abduction – all within the first fifteen minutes or so of the story. It soon becomes clear who wears the pants (and engagement ring with mystical powers) in this relationship.
No relationship is without its woes, however, which soon becomes clear. Alice’s Prince Charming has been hiding a few secrets…..in an alternate universe, no less. Then again, Alice is the one who refuses his hand in marriage. When dear old dad simply disappears one day during Alice’s childhood, never to be heard from again (or so she thinks), the girl can’t really be blamed for developing some serious commitment and trust issues, can she?
The upside in all of this is that pursuing your boyfriend and his abductors through a permeable mirror, freefalling through space, and landing in an alternate dimension will invariably provide a gal with bigger fish to fry.
Syfy’s ‘Alice’ is written and directed by Nick Willing, who is no stranger to either epic re-imaginings of classic tales, or Alice remakes in particular. He directed the star-studded 1999 Alice in Wonderland remake for NBC, and eventually went on to direct Tin Man, the successful 2007 Syfy re-working of The Wizard of Oz.
In a similar vein as Tin Man, the Wonderland that our new Alice finds herself is very much a modern creation. “The first thing that tickled my fancy was the idea of imagining Wonderland as it is today – a hundred and fifty years on from the original,” says Willing. “I thought, wouldn’t it be delicious to imagine that world, in the way that we have evolved, also changed – and how would it be today?” He adds, “It was bringing it into the modern focus that attracted me.”
And no, it wasn’t Willing’s idea to go creatively cavorting through Wonderland twice within the span of his career.
“I wasn’t suggesting [the remake], because I had quite a rough time trying to translate that book into a movie,” he admits. “The thing about Alice in Wonderland is that there isn’t a particularly strong, classic film story in there. It’s a series of vignettes of poetry and so on. And the character is also quite passive. But it was Robert Halmi Sr. of RHI who phoned me and said, “Listen, I’d love you to try and do it again, ‘cause I know you had such a hard time of it. What if you did your own groovy version of it? It’s ten years since we did the last one. Why don’t we do it again?””
Given how rare it is to find a producer willing to back such a project once, Willing is quick to sing Halmi’s praises, whose RHI backed both Alice ventures. “He is a complete one of a kind,” Willing insists. “That man is extraordinary and special, and I hope that people really understand how special he is. He is fascinated by all aspects of fantasy, because I think he genuinely believes we are ruled by the world of imagination.”
Speaking of imagination: our new Alice (Caterina Scorsone) is a brawling broad who is far more inclined to drop-kick her opponents than make frightened exclamations from the sidelines as things grow curiouser and curiouser. Scorsone admits this variation of the character was a delight to play. “Alice in this story has a real emotional journey of her own, whereas in the book she’s kind of this wide eyed young girl walking through this fascinating land, but she herself isn’t terribly fascinating,” points out Scorsone. “Once you read the script, I think every actor that was involved was pretty thrilled about being asked to be involved.”
So goes Alice 2.0. As for the new Wonderland in which she finds herself, it’s populated by quick-fix obsessed citizens who are used to getting what they want, when they want it. This includes emotions, which are bottled and made available to the highest bidder. While this context is merely the backdrop against which the larger story takes place, Willing does an outstanding job here of portraying the empty victory attained by instant gratification. “Instant gratification can be very dangerous, if we’re simply led by our nose wherever impulse takes us,” he says. “It’s very important for all of us to find and get what we want for our lives, but it’s important to also do it in a way which is informed and which [leads to] more lasting things.”
Behind every bottle of bliss is a human from Alice’s world (dubbed an “Oyster”) who has been kidnapped and farmed for that very emotion. It’s OK, though – they don’t notice a thing! That’s what Wonderland’s round-the-clock casinos are for, and they have a heck of a player’s club – which guarantees that everyone is a winner, all the time! That is, until they’re drained of all emotion and no longer of much use. Such is the devious scheme of the Queen of Hearts (Kathy Bates), who has a pretty solid idea of how to placate and thereby rule her people. And by the way – she wants her ring back.
Not surprisingly, Bates shines as the manipulative monarch. “Kathy Bates was literally my first choice for the role of the Queen of Hearts,” Willing admitted. “She is, to me, one of the most spectacular actresses in the world. I don’t know anyone better to play a vicious character with a huge heart. When I sent her the script, she said yes almost immediately.”
(And, contrary to the character’s formidable reputation, this Queen does realize beheading isn’t the answer to all of life’s problems. Sometimes a good drowning does the trick! )
The human/oyster trafficking angle is handled by a posse of hoodlums who belong to The White Rabbit, an organization which carries out the Queen’s bidding. Mind you, the White Rabbit is not to be confused with the March Hare – a bloodthirsty assassin who finds himself back in rotation with a rabbit-shaped cookie jar for a head thanks to the Queen’s knee-jerk beheading impulse. Did we mention that Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are employed as court torturers? The Queen is spoiled for choice when it comes to selecting which beastly bootlicker will carry out her latest whim.
Alice is guided through her treacherous new environment by Hatter (Andrew Lee Potts), the fast-talking go-to guy whose own true motives for helping the lass are unclear (perhaps even to himself) for the better part of the journey. Potts brings charisma and depth to a character that, at first glance, could easily have been rendered as little more than the Artful Dodger, all grown up and with an array of dodgy money-making schemes to part fools from their money in quick fashion.
Meanwhile, Alice’s arrival gives hope to the Resistance, who, following the passing of the original Alice (old age, not guillotine related), have been waiting for a second savior for quite some time. The Resistance can’t really lose (can they?) with a crack team of rebels like Dodo (Tim Curry), Caterpillar (Harry Dean Stanton), and the White Knight (Matt Frewer) fighting the good fight. Fans of the first two actors should be warned that these fellows are only glimpsed in relatively fleeting fashion. Frewer, however, goes a long way toward compensating us for those scarcities by channeling John Cleese during his Holy Grail days. Scorsone admits that keeping a straight face in Frewer’s presence was a challenge “always, all the time – camera rolling, camera not rolling – we were in danger!” She adds, “He’s a very, very funny man. And also has a golden heart. He’s a phenomenal person, and so generous.”
In the midst of this cluster of rebels and rapscallions, Alice surprisingly finds a dark horse in the running for her affections. (That’s ‘dark horse’ in the figurative sense, which is important to clarify in a context in which jabberwockies and cookie-jar-headed assassins have free reign.)
For those who insist that the Syfy undertaking is but a half-hearted jump to beat Tim Burton to the punch, it bears repeating that Willing already undertook an Alice adaptation over a decade ago. Of the inevitable comparisons to Tim Burton’s upcoming Depp-centric opus, Willing remains unfazed. “The thing about that film, it seems to me that that’s a more faithful adaptation of Alice in Wonderland,” he points out. “We’re so different that I don’t think there’s really any confusion. We’re doing such different things and conquering such different territories. I will also go eagerly to see his film when it comes out. Having done [it] ten years ago, I’m really fascinated to see what he’s done.”
Alice stands as an accomplishment in its own right, an imaginative mix of futuristic fantasy, romance, and thriller. The two-part miniseries premieres Sunday, December 6 at 9 pm ET/PT on Syfy. Don’t miss it!