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Taking Alice, er Alyss, to the dark side

Producer Frank Beddor bucked big Hollywood for a Wonderland all his own -- on the page.

November 18, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Frank BEDDOR -- a successful Hollywood producer with an oddball book idea he was burning to write -- thought he knew how this game was played.

"I was really excited because my agent said, 'I can put you in the room,' " Beddor recalled from a room of his own, papered with whimsical graphics, in his Wilshire Boulevard production office. "And I took the Hollywood approach: I would get into the room and pitch them. I thought it was gonna be great. You know how in Hollywood you want to go to the studio head, go over all those layers?"

Beddor, 48, has the energy and zealous confidence you'd expect in a former actor, world-champion freestyle skier and stuntman, as well as the kind of bland, blue-eyed handsomeness that Greg Kinnear has spent much of his career undercutting. He managed to sell the idea for "There's Something About Mary," which he produced, in a Sundance ski lift.

But his charms weren't, in the end, enough: New York publishers listened politely and handed his projects to their editors, who were resentful at being passed over. "An editor wants to discover someone. Not only that, I was from Hollywood -- and I was a producer! I mean, I couldn't have had more strikes against me. They decided it was garbage, I'm sure, before they even read it."

It's all guesswork, of course, why he was rejected. But whatever the reason, he ended up getting shut down more than a dozen times. Undaunted, he did what Robert Frost and Jimi Hendrix before him did after struggling for attention in the States: He went to England, where the book found a publisher and became a critical and popular sensation.

That battle won, seven years later, Beddor is about halfway into the design of a fantasy-fiction empire called "The Looking Glass Wars." The series, which extends and inverts the work of Lewis Carroll, includes the eponymous initial volume, published in the U.K. in 2004 and in the States, where it became a bestseller, in 2006; a second novel in a projected trilogy called "Seeing Redd"; the graphic novel "Hatter M."; and a scrapbook called "Princess Alyss of Wonderland." (The scrapbook, in pink, looks as girl-targeted as the ultraviolent, dark-shades-of-blue graphic novel is testosterone-drenched.)

These last two offer alternate ways to get into the series, as will an online game called the "Card Soldier Wars," which came out this month, and a CD soundtrack.

Amazingly, given all this Hollywood-style spinning off, which might suggest a cynical franchise, "The Looking Glass Wars" books are intelligently and briskly written, and don't read like they were written by a movie producer trying to cash in.

What's most impressive about them is that the novels seems to be recounting a universe fully imagined ahead of time. Beddor admires what he calls "the epic world creators" such as J.R.R. Tolkien, "Dune's" Frank Herbert and Philip Pullman of "His Dark Materials." Beddor's books seem tailor-made for kids who've completed the "Harry Potter" series and are looking up, a bit dazed from the experience, eager for somewhere else to go.

Like "Potter," it's made of conventional elements: The reluctant hero, tussles over royal succession, a magic with a good and evil side. "Basically I flipped all these conventions on their ear, to make them relevant and darker, for a contemporary audience. And by the way," he said, still stung from a battle of his own, "this is what the public domain is made to do."

An Alice in exile

The conceit of "The Looking Glass Wars" is that Carroll's Alice books were a sanitized, watered-down version of the "real" story: the truly harrowing tale of a princess who flees Wonderland when her parents are killed in a palace coup by her evil aunt. Escaping through a looking glass, Alyss -- even her name was scrambled in Carroll's telling -- ends up an orphan on the dirty streets of London, pining to return to Wonderland's armies of cards and chess pieces and the family's ace bodyguard, Hatter Madigan. If she returns, she and the "Alyssian" rebels must fight the bloodthirsty Queen Redd.

"This ingenious reworking," wrote the Times of London, "is powerful, eventful and dark. Which is entirely legitimate, given the surreality of the original."

Beddor, who'd disliked the Alice books when he was forced to read them as an outdoorsy, "Treasure Island"-loving kid in Minnesota, was introduced to a new way of seeing them on a trip to London for the premiere of "Mary." After catching a display of playing cards at the British Museum, he met an antiquarian dealer who showed him a set of Alice-themed cards from the 19th century.

"He said the cards had been handed down to him over generations," recalled Beddor, "and that this story was handed down with them -- a different interpretation of where Lewis Carroll was coming from. That someone had created these cards to tell a deeper, darker story. It was like Grimm's fairy tales, oral storytelling."

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