Much of a Muchness

In case you missed all ads during the Olympics (and the ads that are plastering bus shelters around my house), Tim Burton’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland opens tomorrow, March 5. On one hand, I think it’s great since I’m sure lots of people will go to see it and I’m always in favor of people getting acquainted with Lewis Carroll fantastic world. On the other hand, I’m a bit disappointed, since most of the reviews I have seen seem to be pretty negative.

As you may already know, the conceit of the Tim Burton version is that Alice is returning to Wonderland after a ten year absence and although the characters there remember her, she does not remember them. Variety agreed that the script needed some sort of “narrative backbone” not provided by the books, but claimed that this one “turns “Alice” into a formulaic piece of work, which Carroll’s creation was anything but. Climactic action setpiece, with an unlikely young warrior taking on a fearsome beast while gobs of CGI soldiers clash, smacks of “The Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter,” “The Golden Compass,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and any number of other such recent ventures.” The LA Times is similarly unimpressed, describing the set-up as “old-school” and citing the same problems with the CGI climax reminiscent of LOTR. It’s overall take is that the film is “surprisingly inert overall” and words like “tedious” and tiresome” pepper the review. You can check out more reviews at Rotten Tomatoes and there are some that are more positive, but the overall opinion seems to be definitely on the downside. Not quite what I had hoped. Oh well. Of course I haven’t seen the film yet myself and reviews aren’t always the be all and end all. I’d love to hear from any of you who do see the film–please add your comments and let us know your thoughts.

In the end, no matter what Tim Burton does,we always have plenty of really neat Lewis Carroll stuff here at the Rosenbach: books, drawings, letters, photographs, and more. I’ll be running Carroll-themes Hands-on Tours on March 10, 14, and 17th so you can see for yourself. I hope that you can join me.

Now for something completely different. If you are more interested in history than literature, you might be interested in what I spent my day today doing–I was a volunteer judge for the Philadelphia competition of National History Day. For those of you who haven’t heard of History Day, I like to think of it as a science fair for History geeks. Students in grades 6-12 pick historical topics related to an annual theme and then present their research to judges in a variety of formats: papers, performances, documentaries, exhibits, and websites. The top finishers from our region go on to compete at the state level and then the Nationals.

This year’s theme was Innovation in History and there were projects on everything from blood banking to the Emancipation Proclamation to the history of the computer. The competition puts a big emphasis on doing original research using primary sources and from what I saw today, it’s working! Several of the students I judged said that the best part of their project was getting to go to archives and work with documents–this was something they had never done before. The emphasis on primary sources also tends to encourage students to seek out local history topics, where the resources are close at hand and I think it’s great for them to learn more about the ways that history surrounds us right here in Philadelphia.

Basically, I can’t praise History Day enough. I competed seven times as student myself back in Connecticut and I think it was really critical in my developing historical research skills and my skills in writing and editing. So I was thrilled when Philly got involved with the program five years ago, thanks to the leadership of V. Chapman Smith at the National Archives. And having judged five years ago and judged today, I can see the difference in the work the students are producing. So kudos to them and to their hard-working teachers and to the folks who put History Day together every year. And if any of my readers know a budding historian who’s in middle school or high school, you might want to encourage them to consider entering History Day. You don’t have to do it as part of a class, you can do it on your own (I did it that way 6 out of my 7 years) and it’s a really great experience. Also, for those young historians out there, please remember that the Rosenbach is a functioning research library and anyone is more than welcome to make an appointment and use our resources. We are here for you.