Tim Burton's fairytale worlds
Untitled (Romeo and Juliet), Tim Burton, 1981–1984
Stories & Ideas

Fri 14 May 2010

Tim Burton's fairytale worlds

Animation Craft Exhibition Film

Assistant Curator Kate Warren explores Tim Burton's affinity with the darker, subversive re-imaginings of traditional fairy tale and fable storytelling.

Assistant Curator Kate Warren explores Tim Burton's affinity with the darker, subversive re-imaginings of traditional fairy tale and fable storytelling.

There's a naughtiness in Tim that's similar to Roald Dahl. A little bit of wickedness, a little bit of teasing, a subversiveness. Both of them never lost the gift of knowing what it's like to be a child - a very rare gift ...

Felicity 'Liccy' Dahl

The best children's stories are ones from which parents can derive as much pleasure and enjoyment as the children that they read them to. These are stories that speak on multiple levels to their audience; the childhood books that readers can return to in adulthood to discover all the hidden meanings. The same can be said of films that target youthful viewers; the timeless children's classics of cinema reach across generations, rewarding both the young and the young at heart.

Such qualities are present in many of Tim Burton's films and while much focus has been placed on Burton's visual creative process it is also pertinent to remember his fascination with literary sources. Whether bringing to life his own literary creations such as The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) or The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories (1997), or adapting popular works with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) or Alice in Wonderland (2010), Burton has a unique ability to integrate the broad appeal of these texts with his own distinctive cinematic style, offering delightful and resonant subversions of childhood favourites.

Burton's films are characterised by a rich visual imagination coupled with simple, pared back methods of storytelling. These features point strongly to Burton's affinity with literary traditions of fairy tales and fables. The enduring popularity and universal appeal of fairy tales lie in the recurrent plot components, archetypal characters and common narrative functions found across different stories (2). Fairy tales allow a form of escapism into worlds of fantasy and the supernatural, while often remaining grounded by particular morals and lessons. Although Burton acknowledges that as a child he "wasn't a very literary person" (3), his films share many sensibilities with these storytelling traditions. Burton has built his career upon re-interpreting his formative childhood experiences and obsessions. While film and television have been particularly strong influences, some of Burton's most important and recurring inspirations have also come from (children's) books.

Nowadays fairy tales are most commonly associated with children's literature, however the violent and graphic nature of certain fairy tales (4) is often overlooked in contemporary culture (5). Burton, however, embraces the dark elements, describing the fairy tale tradition as "about as disturbing as it gets" (6). This might explain some of his frustration when working as an apprentice animator at Walt Disney Studios, whose approach to adapting fairy tales tends to understate the more sinister elements. Burton has of course continued to work with Disney through such successful projects as The Nightmare Before Christmas (as producer) and Alice in Wonderland. However, when the studio allowed Burton to make his first project as an apprentice, he produced something diametrically opposite to the more light-hearted productions he had been working on.

The result was Burton's six-minute stop-motion film Vincent (1982), a tribute to actor Vincent Price and author Edgar Allan Poe, two key childhood influences. Burton was not simply inspired by the creative and artistic value of such figures, he related deeply and personally to them: "[They] spoke to me," says Burton (7). He has likened growing up in Burbank, California, to the sense of suffocation and isolation felt in Poe's explorations of being buried alive, with stories such as The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) and The Cask of Amontillado (1846).8 As with many of his films, these references are not simple homages or cinematic allusions, they are embedded in the profound connections that Burton makes with such texts. These interests are embodied in the film's protagonist Vincent Malloy, a seven-year-old boy who fantasises about enacting Poe's Gothic tales in his suburban house, and dreams of being a "tortured soul" like Price. In this way, Vincent anticipates many of the common themes and influences that Burton has continued to explore through his cinematic and artistic projects.

Tim Burton portrait

Tim Burton

Burton enlisted Vincent Price to provide the film's voice-over narration, which in its use of rhyming verse reflects another of Burton's singular inspirations, Dr. Seuss. Burton explains his attraction to the children's author: "I grew up loving Dr. Seuss.[His] books were perfect: right number of words, the right rhythms, great subversive stories" (9). Burton again returns to this inspiration in The Nightmare Before Christmas, which was based upon a three-page poem and original drawings that he created while working at Disney. Also inspired by the well-known poem The Night Before Christmas (1823) (10), it is another example of Burton's predilection for taking familiar and recognisable stories and interpreting them with a characteristically dark and subversive twist - "German Expressionism combined with Dr. Seuss" (11). Burton also emulated Dr. Seuss as a teenager with his unpublished manuscript The Giant Zlig (1976), however with Nightmare he succeeded in creating an iconic and gentle horror story in a similar vein to his idol, which continues to find new audiences while maintaining a devoted fan base.

In 1997, Burton published a collection of twenty-three illustrated short stories, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories. Written in verse, the stories feature a collection of strange and disfigured children - with names such as Voodoo Girl and Roy, the Toxic Boy - who are often isolated and rejected by family and society. The collection's final story, 'Oyster Boy Steps Out' is a mere ten words long:

For Halloween,
Oyster Boy decided to go as a human 

– Tim Burton on 'Oyster Boy Steps Out' (12)

This remarkably simple piece is emblematic of the way that Burton's films, art and literary projects speak to audiences through a combination of narrative simplicity and emotional complexity. Despite being only two lines it engages with a context beyond its own fictional world, succinctly touching upon emotions and experiences common to children, teenagers and adults alike. His partner, Helena Bonham Carter explains: "Tim resonates with the young because.he has kept in touch with the child he once was" (13). Audiences of all ages can relate to the emotional resonance that he instills in his characters and stories, most of which are tied strongly to Burton's own experiences. As David Breskin shrewdly notes in an interview with Burton, "the more personal you make something, if it's true, if it's pure, the more universal it is" (14).

These short stories also recall Dr. Seuss. However, in their politically incorrect renderings of ugly and unwanted children they complement another like-minded literary influence. In the timeless children's novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), Roald Dahl includes a series of rhyming songs which mischievously exult the unfortunate fates met by four ungrateful children. Most of Burton's children also meet tragic ends - Stick Boy is burned alive, Oyster Boy is eaten by his father - albeit in a rather sympathetic and melancholy mode. Dahl's poems are even more caustic and pointed in the punishments dished out to his nasty little monsters:

A hundred knives go slice, slice, slice; 
We add some sugar, cream, and spice;
We boil him for a minute more,
Until we're absolutely sure. 

– Roald Dahl on Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (15)

We very much regret that we
Shall simply have to wait and see
If we can get him back his height.
But if we can't - it serves him right 

– Roald Dahl on Mike Teevee from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (15)

These delightfully wicked treats are some of the notable elements that Burton includes in his 2005 adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with the assistance of composer Danny Elfman. Dahl's novel is a children's classic that continues to capture generations of young fans; it is truly a book that readers can re-visit as adults with similar enjoyment. The story is also known through Mel Stuart's film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), which was a relative failure at the box office but has subsequently gained a cult following (16). Neither Dahl nor Burton were fans of the earlier film (17), which departed from the novel in its tone and narrative content. For example, Charlie was forced to "prove" his virtue through his encounters with Arthur Slugworth, a marginal character in Dahl's novel whose role was expanded in the film. By re-approaching this tale, Burton set out to return squarely to Dahl's text as inspiration (18) and "reclaim a children's classic" (19).

With the backlog of nostalgic connotations and childhood memories surrounding Charlie, a new cinematic adaptation required a director with an affinity for Dahl's sensibilities, but also with their own personal vision. Burton was an ideal fit in the opinion of Dahl's widow, Liccy, who appreciated the shared sentiment between the director and her late husband, as the quote at the beginning of this essay reveals-a dark subversiveness coupled with youthful enthusiasm. The result is a film that retains Dahl's anarchic spirit, while containing characteristically Burtonesque elements.

Although Dahl's novel contains complex prose and verse, its story development is deceptively simple. Describing Charlie as a "modern fable" (20), Burton remains faithful to its narrative structure, not over-complicating it with additional sub-plots or scenarios. The film does not portray Charlie as exceptional or special; he is an ordinary boy who, as Wonka says, is "just lucky to be here." Burton resists the classical Hollywood imperative to "test" the central character by introducing numerous obstacles to overcome. At the same time, he creates further depth and appeal by elaborating on some of the more fantastical elements of Dahl's story. The highly choreographed Oompa-Loompa musical sequences and Wonka's previous journeys to Loompaland and India are visual feasts. The tour group's roller coaster-like boat journey down Wonka's chocolate river and, of course, the downfalls of the other four children are gleefully humorous yet slightly sinister.

The most significant change that Burton and screenwriter John August made was to delve deeper into the character of Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp), adding a back-story that is typically Burtonesque. Wonka is portrayed as a creative genius who has a fractured relationship with his overbearing father, which has caused him to retreat from the outside world. In the novel Wonka's eccentricity is present but unexplained. For Burton, the idea of adding context was crucial in order for audiences to connect with the character (21). It also affords the film a final resolution which is neither simplistic nor overly "happily ever after," which Liccy Dahl thinks her husband would have enjoyed (22).

The level of intertextuality in Burton's Charlie indicates that the film was made not simply for children, but also for adults who grew up savouring the novel. It is an increasing trend in contemporary cinema - films based on children's texts that cater to a now grown-up fan base (23). Recent examples include Wes Anderson's adaptation of another Roald Dahl novel, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) (24) and Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are (2009) (25). However, Burton remains one of the forerunners, continuing this tendency with Alice in Wonderland

If the weight of previous interpretations hung over Burton's Charlie, then it is amplified exponentially with Alice. Lewis Carroll's characters and stories are part of the modern cultural fabric; they are so ubiquitous that it is near impossible to separate the original texts from the myriad of interpretations and references. With this in mind, Burton's latest film is not an adaptation, it is more akin to a sequel that draws upon the two novels of the series, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1872). Carroll's foremost innovation in these texts was to use verse and prose in a form of literary nonsense, creating otherworldly environments and entirely fanciful creatures. The strength of his writing evokes a visual iconography powerfully embedded in popular consciousness.

Tim Burton and Mia Wasikowska - Alice in Wonderland (2010).jpg

Tim Burton on the set of 'Alice in Wonderland' (2010) with Mia Wasikowska

When creating Alice, Burton was inspired by the enduring visual resonance of Carroll's novels and in particular by their dreamlike structures. In Burton's film Alice Kingsley is a nineteen-year-old who once visited Wonderland as a child. Apart from a recurring childhood dream she does not remember her youthful adventures, and her return journey is experienced as if in a dream state, evoking a sense of déjà vu and rediscovery. While this narrative construction is entirely new, it allows Burton's film to expand upon the surreal and dreamlike nature of the original texts. Carroll's novels are episodic and without a clear construction of "beginning, middle, end," meaning they don't translate easily into linear film-making (26). Rather than trying to adapt the stories literally, Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton have made use of this fragmented form, producing a film that taps into the sense of wonder and the uncanny that characterises Carroll's books. 

Much like the logic of dreams - which draw from and conflate various experiences in a way that only truly makes sense while the dreamer is asleep - Burton's Alice takes iconic characters and fragmented elements from Carroll's texts and merges them into a profoundly original interpretation. Helena Bonham Carter's character of the Red Queen is an amalgam of two of Carroll's creations, the Queen of Hearts and the Red Queen. Under her despotic rule, Wonderland is in dark disarray, far removed from the colourful and cartoonish world of previous interpretations. The role of the Mad Hatter (27), portrayed by Johnny Depp, has been expanded and developed as a tragic figure. The Red Queen and the Mad Hatter have been conceived and designed to achieve maximum visual impact - due largely to Burton's work with key collaborators such as costume designer Colleen Atwood-which contributes to the creative re-imagining of these figures.

Accentuated by the use of 3D technology, Burton's Alice offers a reinvention of Wonderland that is ominous, psychedelic and haunting. Instead of recreating a prior vision, Burton's film references previous interpretations through its stark difference, which producer Jennifer Todd describes as "darker and a little more adult" (28). It links into something that Burton has always understood throughout his career, that children enjoy being scared (29). Halloween, nightmares and scary movies are childhood rites of passage, as is finding out that "happy endings" are not always possible.

Alice in Wonderland continues Burton's fascination with the dark and politically incorrect currents in children's literature, so often the elements that endow such texts with lasting appeal. Burton has been called "the classic fairytale [sic] filmmaker of our time" (30). But more importantly, he understands that fairy tales have never been static entities. For centuries they have been re-told and re-scripted by different storytellers and for different purposes. Tim Burton's latest incarnation of Alice in Wonderland maintains this tradition, offering an original and unmistakable version of a modern-day classic.


1. Liccy Dahl, executive producer of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and widow of author Roald Dahl. Quoted in Leah Gallo, The Art of Tim Burton, Steeles Publishing, Los Angeles, 2009, p 225. 
2. These common and recurrent structures of fairy tales have been analysed extensively, notably by Russian formalist scholar Vladimir Propp (1895–1970) in his seminal text Morphology of the Folktale, trans Laurence Scott, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1968. 
3. Tim Burton, quoted in Geoff Boucher, 'Tim Burton talks about Johnny Depp, Alice in Wonderland and The Dark Knight', Los Angeles Times, 15 October 2008, (accessed 13 January 2010). 
4. Charles Perrault's Bluebeard (1697) is a particularly disturbing example. 
5. Jack Zipes, 'Spells of Enchantment: An Overview of the History of Fairy Tales', When Dreams Came True: Classical Fairy Tales and Their Tradition, Routledge, New York and London, 1999, pp 1–29. 
6. Tim Burton, quoted in David Breskin, 'Tim Burton' in Tim Burton Interviews, ed. Kristian Fraga, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2005, p 70. 
7. Tim Burton, Burton on Burton, ed. Mark Salisbury, Faber and Faber, London, 2006, p 16. 
8. Kristine McKenna, 'Playboy Interview: Tim Burton' in Tim Burton Interviews, ed. Kristian Fraga, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2005, pp 166–7. 
9. Tim Burton, Burton on Burton, p 19. 
10. This poem is also known as 'A Visit from St Nicholas' and 'Twas the Night Before Christmas'. Its authorship is commonly attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, but has also been claimed for Major Henry Livingston, Jr.. Don Foster, 'Yes, Virginia, There Was a Santa Claus', Author Unknown: On The Trail of Anonymous, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2000, pp 221–75. 
11. Tim Burton, quoted in Edwin Page, Gothic Fantasy: The Films of Tim Burton, Marion Boyars, London and New York, 2007, p 114. 
12. Tim Burton, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories, HarperCollins, New York, 1997, pp 112–3. 
13. Helena Bonham Carter, quoted in Leah Gallo, The Art of Tim Burton, Steeles Publishing, Los Angeles, 2009, p 153. 
14. David Breskin, Tim Burton Interviews, p 68. 
15. Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1979, pp 69 & 116. 
16. Edwin Page, Gothic Fantasy: The Films of Tim Burton, p 210. 
17. John Horn, 'A Nuttier 'Chocolate', Los Angeles Times, 6 February 2005, (accessed January 28, 2010). 
18. Tim Burton, Burton on Burton, pp. 225–6. 
19. Geoff Boucher, Los Angeles Times
20. Tim Burton, Burton on Burton, p 223. 
21. Chris Nashawaty, 'The Truth About 'Charlie', Entertainment Weekly, 1 July 2005, (accessed 21 January 2010). 
22. David Gritten, 'The Fantastically Adaptable Mr Dahl', The Daily Telegraph, September 8, 2006, (accessed 13 January 2010). 
23. Stephanie Bunbury, 'Super Furry Animals', Sydney Morning Herald, 26 December 2009, (accessed 15 January 2010). 
24. Roald Dahl's novel Fantastic Mr. Fox was first published in 1970. 
25. Based upon Maurice Sendak's picture book Where the Wild Things Are, first published in 1963. 
26. Mark Salisbury, Alice in Wonderland: A Visual Companion, Disney Editions, New York, 2010, p 14. 
27. In Carroll's texts the character is simply referred to as the Hatter. 
28. Jennifer Todd, quoted in Mark Salisbury, Alice in Wonderland: A Visual Companion, p 65. 
29. 'Tim Burton-Burton Upset About Politically Correct Parents', Daily Express, 1 August 2009 (accessed 20 January 2010). 
30. Suzanne Todd, quoted in Mark Salisbury, Alice in Wonderland: A Visual Companion, p 26.