Alice is always the central focus of any Alice in Wonderland adaptation. That, of course, is only natural. They are Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, after all.
Still, I have always been drawn to the Mad Hatter. From Lewis Carroll’s original, illustrated so appropriately and famously by Sir John Tenniel…
…to Ed Wynn and the “Merry Unbirthdays”…
…to Martin Short and “Auntie’s Wooden Leg.” (I say, I say, I say!)
Each eccentric. Each unique. Each bringing with him bushels of laughter and happy memories. I have loved them all. They were among my best childhood friends of the imagination.
But, eventually, I began to notice that, though I loved the Mad Hatter as much as I ever had, I felt as if something was missing or no longer the same—as if I didn’t quite know everything there was to know about my old friend. Without revealing his secrets to me, he quietly slipped back into that Looking Glass world, inside a pink leather, gilded book, slowly gathering dust on a cherrywood shelf.
You see, in the intervening years, I had grown up. And in that growing—with all the pain, heartache, and changing it usually brings—I had let a part of me wither, dry up, and blow away in the stormy blasts Life and Time often seem so pleased to throw.
One night, exhausted and home alone, I turned on the television for some mindless channel-surfing. I lit on Discovery Family, which was showing Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (2010). Somehow, though the movie was already several years old, I had never seen it. So, I murmured to no one, “Ah, it’s Tim Burton…Johnny Depp…Alan Rickman…it can’t be bad,” and I pressed “select.” I watched, slowly becoming entranced as the story, at once dark, magical, and mesmerizing, drew me to its heart. And then, at the height of my enthrallment, came the Scene of Scenes:
“You’re not the same as you were before. You were much more muchier. You’ve lost your muchness. In there. Something’s missing.”
I had to pause the movie. In that moment, Mia Wasikowska and Johnny Depp disappeared. For an otherworldly second, it wasn’t just a movie anymore. I was looking at the Hatter, my old friend, who hadn’t seen me for many years, and he was telling me that, though he would still know me anywhere, there was something about me he didn’t recognize. Something in me was missing. And he was right. I had changed greatly since he saw me last. But so had he. The Hatter and I met again as two adults, slightly worse for the wear, having been bandied about by life, rather like two hedgehogs in a game of the Red Queen’s croquet. Then and there, I felt I knew him better than I ever had before.
As I kept watching, our old kinship grew in new ways. It was no longer the merriment of a child having a pretend tea party with a beloved character, who likes to sing silly songs to make her laugh. Slowly, the Hatter revealed his secrets to me—things that only my grown-up heart could understand. There was pain, loss, fear, and death, all pressing in, making him say about his own mind: “I don’t like it in here…It’s terribly crowded.” He wasn’t okay. He hadn’t been okay for a long time. And his conscious awareness of that shifted from moment to moment. Yet it was okay not to be okay. He had important work to do. People to protect. People to love.
Soon, a tiny detail became one of my favorite scenes. It happened so quickly and as part of such an otherwise poignant sequence that it could easily pass by unnoticed. Although it was “not a pretty story,” the Hatter sat down to tell Alice—and to tell me—how the Red Queen first turned the Jabberwocky loose on the people of Underland. This was followed by images of chaos and carnage, culminating in a flashback of the Hatter returning to the scene of the attack to pick up his hat, which, during the tumult, had fallen off as he tried to protect the White Queen. Everything around him—which, moments ago, was full of fun, full of life—had been destroyed. His world was, quite literally, on fire. His hat was on fire, too—that beautiful, iconic, “In This Style, 10/6,” all sooty and smoldering, with little tongues of flame still clinging to it in a mocking sort of way. With painful silence, he stooped to pick it up. Underneath, though everything else had been destroyed, was a small, hat-sized circle of green grass: safe, guarded, alive because it had been beneath the Hatter’s hat.
Later, in a similarly symbolic gesture, Alice, having shrunk to three inches tall, crawled under his hat to hide and rest.
My old friend was showing me how he discovered and took command of his purpose.
Under the Hatter’s hat. So much more than just a mop of wild, orange curls. Ever so much more than madness.
These were, of course, and necessarily so, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. She was the central figure. She was there, as prophesied, to slay the Jabberwocky. She was there to save Underland. But the Hatter—he was the heart of her story. The protector. The provider of hope. So delightfully imperfect. Such wise, whacky “muchness.” Crazy. Mad. Wonderful.
My heart ached when Alice left. Alice always leaves, but it was different this time:
“You won’t remember me.”
Again, he was right. It was very likely that Alice would forget. She had forgotten before. But what hurt me most was that I had forgotten. All at once, I felt the part of me that had withered away start to surge with new life.
That night, the Hatter taught me something he never could have shown me at any of our tea parties in days gone by. I am responsible for nurturing and protecting what comes to me, what belongs to me, what takes refuge “under my hat.” The world is full of Jabberwockies, who delight in setting afire everything that is wholesome, cherished, lovely, and good. The hat is mine, and no matter how broken or scarred I may be, it is my job to love, to live, and to fight with grit, honor, and determination for myself and for those seeking respite, from tall to small. Even if the world falls apart and Time seems to have stopped for me, there is always, always something to strive for, to reach for, to look forward to—even if it’s just a clean cup of tea. And there should never be “no room” at my tea table.
I could never forget again.
In homage to the companion of my childhood and the friend of my adulthood, I designed and built this costume, inch by inch, myself—down to the blue butterfly (Absolem) clipped to my shoulder and the pin-cushion ring on my left hand. The hat, made of cardboard and jewelry wire, is designed to be striking but lightweight, allowing me more freedom of movement to dance the Futterwacken or to hug little ones who are so happy to see the Hatter. The whole ensemble took weeks of planning, stitching, gluing, drawing, cutting, painting, wire-shaping, and make-up practicing to create what you see in these pictures. I have donned it often and stepped into character for various functions and occasions year-round. It is a wardrobe of pure delight.
I hope to wear it for many years yet to come.
"Did someone pull you by the hand?
How many miles to Wonderland?
Please tell us, so we’ll understand…"