''Alice'' ain't no wonderland, says Ty Burr

By Ty Burr
Updated May 17, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Why the hot new videogame is a travesty

Let me state this right at the outset: Classic literature shouldn’t be sacred. If you want to set ”Romeo and Juliet” in modern-day L.A. with Leonardo DiCaprio, or ”Hamlet” in New York with Ethan Hawke, or, hell, ”Moby Dick” in a bathtub with Britney Spears, fine by me. As long as the resulting movie (or book, or whatever) honors the fundamental qualities that make the original source a classic — and as long as it’s a GOOD movie (or book, or whatever), the guardians of good taste have no right to carp.

Which brings me to a videogame called ”Alice.”

It’s based on ”Alice in Wonderland” and you won’t be able to buy it until this fall. I saw a preview version last week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles — a gaming-industry convention that’s not unlike sticking your head inside a Sony Playstation for three solid days. ”Alice” is the work of a young game designer named American McGee, and it turns Lewis Carroll’s classic work into, for all intents and purposes, a first-person shooter along the lines of ”Doom” and ”Quake.”

Because it takes place seven years after the book, Alice is now a righteous CGI babe (think Lara Croft in a pinafore), and she gets these way-cool weapons to help her fight the Queen of Hearts, who has gone nuclear and set herself up as the dictator of Wonderland. Along the way, Alice gets to avail herself of sundry, totally Goth helper-demons and exchange lamely punning dialogue with folks like the Mad Hatter (Dude!) and what looks like Trent Reznor’s Cheshire Cat. But basically she just runs around a lot.

As a computer game, ”Alice” looks pretty cool. If it was an interactive website, it would be hip enough to hurt. As an extrapolation of a genuinely great book… well, it’s a travesty.

Have you ever actually read ”Alice in Wonderland”? It’s weird as hell, and that’s its strength. Coincidentally, I’m reading it to my 5 year old daughter these days — she’d seen the Disney version and was jazzed to discover there was a book that offered more of the story — and we both find ourselves, on our respective levels of understanding, alternately laughing ourselves silly and quietly creeped out.

Carroll was rigorously committed to dream logic and a kind of playful dread; as an adult, I can see glimmerings that ultimately lead to Kafka; for my daughter, there’s a delight in identifying with a child heroine who overcomes an annoying, intransigent world where rules change with the bite of a mushroom. It’s deep stuff, and deeply smart, no matter what age you are.

And that’s my problem with ”Alice” the game. It’s not that it traduces a dewy, innocent children’s book. It’s that it’s stupid. McGee has taken all the logic-bending darkness of Lewis Carroll and reduced it to shallow, fake-Goth tinsel, and how can he do otherwise when first-person shooters are by their very nature no deeper than a kiddie pool? That’s why they’re fun — they’re sensory overload experiences where you go in, frag some bad guys, get through all the levels, and head back to the real world with your nerve ends pleasantly jangling.

You want to make one of these out of a literary classic? Try ”The Iliad,” or ”Last of the Mohicans.” Heck, try Henry James — at least that would work as satire. But American McGee’s ”Alice” — in its concept and in the execution I saw previewed — merely skirts around the edges of the rabbit hole. Carroll’s original sucks you all the way down, and more unsettlingly than pixels will ever do justice.