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What’s inside the hatter?

The surprising significance of the top hat, in Alice and other wonderlands

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Johnny Depp: mad as a hatter.
Mark Dery

The time has come to talk of many things: of shoes and ships and sealing-wax, of cabbages and kings; and why the Mad Hatter, in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, isn’t the Bertrand Russell lookalike of the Tenniel illustrations, with a weak chin and rabbity overbite, but the fey, sweetly melancholic Johnny Depp, with a loopy, gap-toothed grin on loan from Alfred E. Neuman and a Carnaby Street wardrobe pilfered from Their Satanic Majesties Request. Or why the Hatter—in Lewis Carroll’s book, a querulous weirdo who peppers Alice with the sort of maddeningly unanswerable questions that make children squirm—has been transformed into one of those otherworldly naïfs Depp specializes in playing, an Edward Scissorhands for steampunks.

Or why the White Queen, described by Carroll in “Alice on the Stage” (1887) as “gentle, stupid, fat and pale ... helpless as an infant and “just suggesting imbecility, but never quite passing into it,” is played by the luscious Anne Hathaway, with prosthetic air quotes—Gawker’s idea of the Good Witch Glinda. (In the Disney press packet for the movie, Hathaway says that, in order to “capture the character’s layered personality,” she imagined the White Queen as “a punk-rock, vegan pacifist” and prepped by for the role by listening “to a lot of Blondie, [watching] a lot of Greta Garbo movies, and [looking] at a lot of the artwork of Dan Flavin. Then a little bit of Norma Desmond got thrown in there, too. And she just kind of emerged.” Oh, snap! Dan Flavin meets Norma Desmond: a no-brainer. (Feel a tugging on your slithy tove? You’re not alone.)

We could talk, too, about why the movie’s screenwriter, Linda Woolverton (of Lion King and Mulan fame), insisted on turning Carroll’s surreal, sometimes grotesque drollery into yet another girl-power parable about The Importance of Self-Esteem. (Is there no disease of the American psyche that a booster shot of self-esteem can’t heal? Morbid narcissism, maybe?) This is an especial irony, since what made the Alice books so instantly popular—and so playfully revolutionary—when they were published, in 1865, was Carroll’s sly mockery of the sermonizing and didacticism that afflicted children’s literature at the time or, for that matter, Victorian society at large.

We could talk about why Burton makes his Mad Hatter channel Michael Jackson in a tacked-on dance routine of cringe-tastic lameness. Or why he shatters the movie’s mood, in its last minutes, with the off-key yawp of 25-year-old tweenager Avril Lavigne: “TRIP-pin’ out, spinnin’ around/ I’m underground/ Ah fell dow-wow-owwwn/ Yeah, I fell die-ee-ie-ee-owwwn/ Ah’m FREAKIN’ owwwttt...” (Somewhere, the sad-eyed shade of Lewis Carroll is swearing off underage blondes forever, cured—praise god—by aversion therapy.)

Of course, one might as well ask why the sea is boiling hot, or whether pigs have wings. It’s more interesting to talk of what Burton’s Alice is really about, namely, the Hatter. Woolverton wants us to focus on her coming-of-age empowerment tale, but the geeky, scraggly haired Burton draws our attention to his looking-glass double, the freaky Hatter with the flyaway curls.

The real Hatter—which is to say the unreal Hatter, the fictional character in the novel—amounts to a snappish attitude and some snappy dialogue; Carroll doesn’t give us so much as a line of description. It’s Tenniel’s wonderful illustrations we remember, the diminutive Hatter in his outsized polka-dot bowtie and impossibly large topper, a card tucked in its band advertising “In this style, 10/6.” Legend has it that Tenniel modeled his Hatter on an Oxford cabinetmaker and Rube Goldberg inventor named Theophilus Carter, famous for his “clockwork bed,” which rudely awakened the occupant by hurling him out of the sack at the prescribed hour. Given one local’s description of Carter’s “well-developed nose and ... somewhat receding chin,” and the Mad Hatter’s association with time and sleep—he claims to be on intimate terms with Time, and is constantly pinching the narcoleptic Dormouse awake from his doze—Carter seems a likely inspiration. But the Bishop T.B. Strong, who knew Carroll well, demurs: “People say this, I think, because they cannot imagine that so simply convincing a character as the Hatter can have failed to exist in the world of fact, and because they cannot believe that anyone could have invented it.”

But if Carroll pulled the character out of his hat, why did he make him a Hatter? Because, in Carroll’s day, hatters were proverbially mad (“mad as a hatter,” the saying went)—that is, afflicted with the addled speech, tremors known as “hatter’s shakes,” and, ultimately, hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms brought on by long exposure to mercury, which they used to cure the felt needed to make top hats. Carroll leads his playmates into a Wonderland whose carnivalesque lunacy parodies the starchy etiquette and sentimental pieties of the Victorian world. To excuse his flights of subversive fancy, he puts his lines in the mouths of fools, grotesques, and madmen.

The maddest hatters: Flavor Flav, Screaming Lord Sutch, Seuss' Cat in the Hat

Still, what’s in a hat? I asked Nancy Deihl, a fashion historian and coordinator of the M.A. program in Costume Studies at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, about the social history and cultural significance of the top hat in Carroll’s England. Citing Mary Lisa Gavenas, author of The Fairchild Encyclopedia of Menswear (2008), Deihl told me that the top hat was invented in Italy in the 1760s and, according to Gavenas, was “first worn in England by a Londoner named John Hetherington in 1797, a haberdasher who was promptly arrested for it.” (Deihl doesn’t know why; something to do with sumptuary laws, perhaps. Or maybe just the Shock of the New.)

According to Christopher Breward, a fashion historian and head of research at the Victoria & Albert Museum, top hats were initially associated, in the late 18th century, with “a more raffish-style of dressing—i.e., young, fashionable men about town,” Beau Brummel-type rakes. “‘Rakish’ was the going style in the Regency period when English society was influenced by the openly bad behavior of George the Prince Regent,” Deihl says. “This was the time before the ‘family values’ of Victoria took hold.”

But by Carroll’s and Tenniel’s time, the top hat “had become synonymous with stuffy official culture,” says Breward, after which it remains “a potent part of formal dressing (for diplomats, bankers, undertakers, royalty, bridegrooms, opera-attendees!) well into the later half of the 20th century.” With the passing of the top hat as a Rich-Uncle-Pennybags symbol of status and power, countercultures, from hippies to rockers like Guns ‘n’ Roses guitarist Slash to steampunks, have appropriated it to mock the social order and accepted mores. In Breward’s opinion, top hats “share this with other reincorporations of Victorian wardrobes (think of the 19th-century military tunic taken up by Hendrix and the Beatles). It’s part of the whole retro craze, but also symbolically subversive in a post-colonial/countercultural context. A battered top hat is very subversive and unsettling.” Buttering his watch’s inner works and dunking it in a cup of tea, the top-hatted Hatter is the late 19th-century Englishman gone bonkers, having his revenge on the suffocating punctiliousness of the Victorian age by abusing the timepiece that symbolizes the clockwork society around him.

Woolverton explains away the Hatter’s madness as a post-traumatic reaction to the fire-breathing Jabberwocky’s incineration, in a scene worthy of Guernica, of the White Queen’s storybook kingdom. Pop psych for the age of Prozac. (Likewise, the Red Queen’s grand-mal seizures of fury are chalked up, not to the Freudian evils of Grimm’s fairy tales, but to a neurological problem caused by her bobbleheaded cranium. Score one, neuroscience.)

But Johnny Depp senses, intuitively, that there’s a deeper explanation, further down the rabbit hole, for the Hatter’s sadness. “There’s a tragic element to [the Hatter’s] past, in this particular version, that weighs pretty heavily on the character,” he says, in the movie’s press packet.

He could have been talking about Burton, whose alienation from other kids as well as his parents—who inexplicably bricked up his bedroom windows, at one point —made for a lonely, ingrown childhood: “I’m just now realizing how much time I spent alone,” he told an interviewer. “Kind of frightening, really.”

Or, just as easily, about the man who was Lewis Carroll—Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a shy, stammering lecturer in mathematics at Oxford who put a deeply personal spin on the Victorian romanticization of childhood. Dodgson’s fondly recalled boyhood was a mirror-image reversal of Burton’s unhappy memories of his early years—a sunlit idyll that still beckoned him when he was “a lonely old bachelor,” as he only half-jokingly dubbed himself at 52.

Consciously or not, Burton hints that the Mad Hatter is Dodgson’s funhouse-mirror reflection. His Hatter has CGI doll-eyes, larger than life and slightly cockeyed for that zany effect; Dodgson’s eyes were asymmetrical. And he always wore a top hat. Depp reads his character as “hypersensitive”; Dodgson was painfully sensitive in social situations, grateful for any little kindness, acutely conscious of slights. Depp’s Hatter needs “to travel into another state, another personality, to be able to survive,” the actor says. Dodgson, too, lived a double life. He was chloroform in the classroom, a humorless bore tripped up by his stutter. In the company of the beautiful “little misses” he worshipped as icons of innocence, however, his stammering vanished and he morphed “into another state, another personality,” transforming into a charming joke-teller and talespinner of endless ingenuity. His dean’s daughter Alice Liddell was one such girl; for her, he free-associated the story that would later become Alice in Wonderland, dreaming it out loud as they rowed along the river on a drowsy summer’s day.

If Burton’s Hatter is Dodgson, the “tragic element” in his past is swaddled in mystery. It may be his mother’s death, at 47, from “inflammation of the brain,” an event that tore a hole in the 19-year-old Dodgson’s life. “His instincts were to lock his unhappiness in his own heart, preserving a cheerful external demeanor which hid his true thoughts,” writes biographer Anne Clark. Even so, he was devastated; “an air of melancholy ... hung over him for many months.”

Or it may be the Lord of the Flies savagery of boarding school, where Dodgson may have been teased about his stutter or bullied—or worse. “Should he have attempted any homosexual activity, or found himself the victim or unwilling witness of it,” writes Jean Gattégno, in Lewis Carroll: Fragments of a Looking-Glass, “everything in his family upbringing”—his father was a minister—“would certainly have made him react with horror.” Tellingly, he avoided the subject ever after as unmentionably awful, and exhibited a lifelong revulsion toward little boys that contrasted dramatically with his worshipful attitude toward prepubertal girls.

Much has been made of his passionate crushes—there is no other word—on little girls, preferably of the age of 10; of his habit of showering them with kisses, his eagerness to photograph them in Nature’s Own Costume, to borrow the Victorian euphemism (though always with their mothers’ written approval, and never if the child showed the least sign of “a modest shrinking,” it should be noted). Although he never molested his little friends and was remembered with great affection by nearly all of them, Dodgson was undoubtedly sexually arrested. He was celibate to the end of his life, and fell out of touch with most of his child friends when they made the “difficult transition,” as he put it, from little-girlhood into puberty.

Long after Alice Liddell had grown into womanhood, he wrote, “still she haunts me, phantomwise,” in the poem that serves as an epilogue to Through the Looking-Glass. A lonely logician scarred by some long-ago trauma and trapped in the humdrum world of academe, he dreamed, all his days, of returning to the Wonderland of his childhood. In his mind, Pre-Raphaelite gamines like Alice and the countless little girlfriends who followed (but never replaced) harmonized the Victorian cult of the child with his own obscure longings. They were, as the Carroll scholar Peter Coveney puts it, “the expression of the romantic pastoral child, the symbol of Blake’s innocent Life, but also the expression of Dodgson’s frustrated exclusion from Life.”

In their midst, he was a gray-haired child, but they were always young and he was always old and growing older, with every tick of the White Rabbit’s watch. His time moves faster than theirs, and he knows what his playmates don’t yet know—that memories start dying the moment you make them. “Even real scented rushes, you know, last only a very little while—and these, being dream-rushes, melted away almost like snow, as they lay in heaps at her feet ...”(Through the Looking-Glass)

A frenetic, rackety mash-up of both Carroll books, Burton’s Alice is a hollow, thumping thrillride in 3-D, its disconnected set pieces whizzing by like the crockery the demented March Hare hurls through the fourth wall to make us duck. In psychological and intellectual terms, though, it’s as flat as a playing card, bereft of the zingy wordplay, rigorous illogic, and unforgettable one-liners that have made Carroll’s books beloved by Victorian children, French Surrealists, and Edward Gorey alike.

The only depth in the film, whether Burton knows it or not, lies in the pools of sadness in the Hatter’s eyes. That sadness is Dodgson’s, a sadness captured in the wistful little sigh of a poem he wrote, the one that runs,

I’d give all wealth that years have piled,

The slow result of life’s decay

To be once more a little child

For one bright summer-day.

When we learn that Dodgson was only 22 when he wrote these lines, their sadness increases by a power of 10. Or, by Wonderland logic, 10/6.

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