In the course of preparing for the Wonderland burlesque number this weekend, we've been looking at quite a few adaptations. Some are better (or at least more nostalgic) than you'd expect, while some dollar-store versions are virtually unwatchable (if incongruously well cast--that cinematic abortion is a cast of nobodies, plus Michael Crawford, Dudley Moore, and Peter Sellers). We've also been looking at the design and plot of the Tim Burton version that opens in two weeks. Most folks I know are excited for it... But I'm really, really skeptical.
It's just-- It's just too much Tim Burton.
See, as much as we're supposed to hate the commercialization of art, and the compromises that go into making it marketable, I honestly tend to think artists of all stripes do their best work when their passions and voices are in conflict with some other force, be it a collaborator or a market. When an artist has free rein to just do whatever he wants, the work tends to get self indulgent and its quality suffers.
Look at John Lennon. I like some of his post-Beatles work, but it's overwhelmingly "LOOK AT MY ARTNESS", and honestly not all that good. In any case, it can't measure up to the work he produced when he and McCartney were aggravating each other with their barely-compatible voices.
Hell, take Shakespeare. It's an enduring myth that Willie was the kind of genius whose very touch made plays turn to gold, but boy howdy, it ain't so. His greatest plays truly are great, and were all written with an extremely delicate balance of pleasing his inspiring-fucking-muse, pleasing whatever monarch was currently warming the throne, and pleasing his market, which ran an economic range from "tries to kill enough rats for a dinner" to "queen". That's a hell of a lot of compromises to his Pure Artistic Soul, and the result is Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Richard 3, R&J, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, Othello... So if compromises kill Pure Art, imagine what Bill could've done with a free hand, amiright?
Try reading Love's labour's Lost sometime. I dare ya. It's a play written by an intellectual playwright for an audience of intellectuals who appreciated intellectual playwrights. And today, it's one of Shakespeare's least-performed plays. For good reason, too: the wordplay is nearly impenetrable, and much of it is in dead languages. Hell, there are "jokes" that require you to decline Latin nouns just to get to the pun, all for the sake of a dick joke.
Compare with Tim Burton. Tastes differ, but I have few complaints about Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, Mars Attacks, or Ed Wood, or even Peewee's Big Adventure. They generally had a strong "voice" of dissatisfied freakness, but it was moderated by the need to make a profitable movie. As time's gone on, though, it's like Burton ran out of people willing to tell him "no". I liked Sweeney Todd, but sweet Jesus somebody should've stepped in to insist Johnny Depp get some singing lessons. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory went so over the top it was embarassing, and did anybody who doesn't live in Hot Topic actually see Corpse Bride?
All of his films seem to be turning into Tim Burton, the Motion Picture, and Alice looks like it's gonna be another step down that road. It's an inherent risk of the kind of success that gives you a guaranteed audience.
[Not to say the alternative is better; if the "market forces" control a work completely, that'll probably suck too. Even most people who know their Shakespeare tend not to have seen The Merry Wives of Windsor. That play's market forces boiled down to a queen saying "I want a new Falstaff play by next Saturday".]