“If you’re going to reimagine something, it has to be something somebody already knows,” says writer/director Nick Willing. “It has to be iconic, and very, very famous.”
Willing’s assessment makes perfect sense, and he followed that advice to a very successful conclusion with his hugely popular reinterpretation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as SCI FI Channel’s Tin Man back in 2007.
Since that time, “SCI FI” has done its own reimagining of itself as “Syfy,” and the newly branded network is ready to once more bring us a December miniseries after taking last year off. Again, they’ve brought Willing onboard to work his “reimagining” magic, and the story chosen certainly fits the “iconic” criteria. It’s Alice, based on Lewis Carroll’s classic tale Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass.
Willing had already directed a more straightforward version of these tales that aired on NBC in 1999. But this two-part, four-hour event takes an even “curiouser and curiouser” approach to things. For starters, this Alice, played by Caterina Scorsone, is not a little girl, but a grown woman who happens to be a martial arts instructor with commitment issues.
“Alice starts out as a young woman who is somewhat tied in a knot emotionally and romantically,” says Scorsone. “She ends up going through the looking-glass and looking for this man that she loves, and in her journey to find him she finds herself.”
“She’s also a woman who finds it difficult to trust and fall in love with men,” adds Willing, “because she was abandoned as a child by her father. … Part of her journey is learning what it is to fall in love.”
This journey of Alice’s takes her to a Wonderland that we’ve never seen before — a crazy, parallel-universe city of twisted towers and casinos built out of playing cards, ruled by the wicked Queen of Hearts (Kathy Bates) and her husband (Colm Meaney). Throughout the adventure we encounter versions of most of the characters from the stories — Allan Gray as White Rabbit, Tim Curry as Dodo, Andrew Lee Potts as Hatter, Harry Dean Stanton as the Caterpillar, Timothy Webber as Carpenter, Eugene Lipinski as Doctors Dee and Dum, and Matt Frewer as the White Knight.
Alice’s journey is both emotional and physical, as Scorsone recalls. “It’s a very physical role, kind of an all-around workout as an actor. There’s a huge range emotionally in terms of what Alice is going through, but also there are fight sequences, and there’s running through the forest, and there’s a Jabberwock chasing us. It’s been a real physical workout; I have the bruises and scars to prove it! But it’s been really fun.”
“It’s great,” Frewer says of this project, “because you read Nick’s version, and all the feeling and elements are there of the original stories, but it’s — to coin the phrase du jour — the reimagining of it, and done in a very clever and contemporary way that says a lot about what’s going on in today’s society. So it has the resonance of classic literature, but done with such a hip, contemporary take. It’s really cool.”
“Part of the delight of a reimagined version,” adds Scorsone, “is knowing that it’s a different story and waiting for the familiar elements, and going, ‘Ooh, how are they going to do it this time?’ Like the flamingos — we know there are flamingos in Alice in Wonderland, but here … they are a flying Vespa. That gives us delight, to see it turned on its head. Which is what was so delightful about Lewis Carroll. He would talk about things that everyone knew about, like teapots, but then he’d twist it.”
“Yes,” Willing adds in agreement. “[Carroll] did a lot of reimagining himself.”
Perhaps sci-fi and fantasy tales like this lend themselves more readily to reinterpretation. Scorsone admits she love the genre.
“It’s my favorite. When I was growing up my very favorite movies were The NeverEnding Story, and Labyrinth, and The Dark Crystal, and The Princess Bride. And my favorite books were The Chronicles of Narnia, things like that. So doing this is really like a dream come true. I feel like [Labyrinth star David] Bowie is going to come around the corner at any second!”
Frewer is no stranger to sci-fi and fantasy acting roles. He was recently in the superhero film Watchmen, and some will remember him from his quirky Max Headroom series from the ’80s.
“I don’t actively seek [these roles] out,” he says, “but [they] seem to seek me out, and I’m quite happy about that. I prefer this sort of thing, where it lends itself to fantastical aspects, as opposed to the hardcore science fiction. I’m not as attracted to that. [Alice] emphasizes the character more, and it’s a much richer sandbox to play in as an actor, a lot more fun.”
Frewer believes today’s audiences in particular can really relate to stories such as Alice, and perhaps use them as a journey of self-discovery much like the story’s heroine.
“It’s curiosity, and in a kind of cynical time, returning to those values and that kind of childlike wonder is a pretty invigorating thing to do. It’s refreshing and gets people back in touch with their souls. That’s kind of what’s missing with the Internet and TV. People get distanced from themselves.”
Alice airs Dec. 6-7 on Syfy (HD).