ALICE IN WONDERLAND
To me, this is a great example of taking appealing source material that doesn’t specifically meet the usual story structure guidelines that books like SAVE THE CAT talk about, and adapting it aggressively to create a story that does. (Spoiler Alert if you read beyond this point!)
I saw a quote from Tim Burton, saying about prior versions, “It was always a girl wandering around from one crazy character to another, and I never really felt any real emotional connection.” And then an interview with the screenwriter Linda Woolverton on the WGA site here, which discusses how the story is really conceived as a kind of sequel to the original “Alice” and “Through the Looking Glass” books, where an older Alice goes back to Wonderland and has an adventure that feels much more like a movie story with the requisite structural shape.
In watching the movie, without knowing any of this, and having a vague recollection of the books as episodic and purposefully nonsensical, I was definitely impressed that somehow a clear story problem and goal had been added that gave the narrative drive. Actually, two story problems, both of which were compelling and entertaining to me: (1) Alice’s pending marriage proposal from a man she doesn’t love, and being trapped in a world that stifles her creative spirit and seems to offer no escape, and (2) the goal in Wonderland of slaying the Jabberwock and restoring the white queen to power – something only Alice, apparently, can do.
I tried to work out what some of the “Save the Cat” beat sheet beats were, while watching. Though further study (or your comments) might change my mind, here is what I came up with:
There’s a very engaging SETUP that gets us caring about Alice, whose father has died and who lives in a world she doesn’t connect to, and seems to be trapped in. Although it reveals information about her, notice that it is problem, problem, problem from the very first pages. If there’s one thing that tends to be the main advice I give writers (and myself) about their plotting, it’s “More problems!” I think this script is a good example of constant conflicts and issues to be solved, that don’t fully get solved until the end. Instead of wandering off into flights of fantasy spectacle (as I feared it would) without any real story, it kept the tension tight throughout, and stuck to the problems.
I think the CATALYST is the news that she’s going to be proposed to – which takes her generalized discomfort with the world she lives in to a much bigger and more pressing and specific place, as good catalysts tend to do. It’s followed by all sorts of DEBATE, first about what to do about a variety of related issues (including whether to tell her sister about her husband’s cheating kiss), and then, once she’s entered “Underland,” the debate about whether she’s the right Alice, whether this is all a dream, and where to go and what to do.
Although this “bizarro world” is clearly the stuff of BREAK INTO ACT TWO from the very beginning of her time there, I would say the debate section hasn’t ended, and Act Two hasn’t started, until she’s come to realize this isn’t a dream, and we come to feel that she’s going to stay here and carry out a mission of some sort. I see it as a rather soft break, not marked by one specific event or moment, but a clear change in direction from “figuring out what’s going on here” to “accept the challenge given me in this new world.”
That challenge, to restore the white queen to power, plays out as the main problem of the movie, but I kind of see it as the “B STORY.” This is due to the fact that what I, as a viewer, most cared about (thanks to the Setup and Catalyst) was what she’s going to do when she gets back to her normal life, as I assume she will, by the end. How is this experience going to affect and change her and allow her to face her “home life” successfully? As always with the B Story, it has its own beats, its own beginning, middle and end, that ultimately dovetail with the A Story. In this movie, though, it is more developed and central to the story than they normally are, because in a sense, the A Story is paused. I know one could argue that her goal in Underland is really the A Story, but this is how I experienced it. I don’t know that there’s one right answer.
For me, the second half of the movie was weaker than the first, because although the FUN AND GAMES led to something of a MIDPOINT and BAD GUYS CLOSING IN in the second act, the ALL IS LOST was a little weak, for me. It felt like the hatter’s pending execution was the closest thing to that, but it didn’t take things to a DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL moment, in my mind – it was kind of solved quickly, and without a sense that Alice is out of options and can now never win. As a result, the extended finale, though it fit with the usual requirements, felt a little underwhelming to me, emotionally. I didn’t feel Alice had quite been forced to grow and change in some clear and difficult way in order to rise to this occasion, and I wasn’t too convinced about what that change was that allowed her to go back to her home life, and very quickly state her rebellion against others’ plans for her. This seemed a bit sketchy to me, too quickly, easily, and patly resolved, and not so “earned” by what had happened.
I definitely like the message of the movie, and found it funny and inventive and visually captivating, and I would recommend it. At the same time, it wasn’t hugely emotionally satisfying in the end, to me. I think part of what’s missing is what Dramatica would call an Impact Character – with whom the Main Character forms a passsionate relationship, where the “right approach” is debated until finally, in the end, someone changes. The relationship with the Hatter, for me, didn’t quite rise to that level, dramatically – because there was not that clear conflict about what to do and how to be, on which Alice’s growth and change could be hung.