How Syfy's Alice brings the classic into the modern world

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Syfy's upcoming limited series Alice brings a modern interpretation to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, updating the 1866 book by imagining how Wonderland might have evolved over the last 143 years, the show's creators told reporters today.

Writer/director Nick Willing builds on that idea by envisioning a fantasy world with problems that drag real-world humans in, he said in a press conference in Pasadena, Calif., during the Television Critics Association summer press tour. "The White Rabbit is very different," Willing said. "It's not just one character; it's a secret organization that works for the Queen of Hearts and abducts people from our [real-world] land, so they can gamble in the Queen's casino. The 'oysters,' as these human beings are called, are put to play there so their emotions can be drained by the Queen. That is the currency of Wonderland. You can feel whatever you want when you want to feel it. Just take a sip of lust or euphoria."

The Queen (Kathy Bates) gives her people the instant fix of human emotions as a way to pacify them as they had become too unruly when left to their own devices. "The Queen's potions were her way of creating a world of instant gratification so she could control her population," Willing said.

By the evolutionary logic of the series, the original Alice died of old age in the last century. The new Alice (Caterina Scorsone) is very different from Carroll's, Willing said. "Obviously, she's not a little girl," he said. "She's a woman with all the kind of female problems that come from falling in and out of love. So that's one very different character."

In this version of Wonderland, the Mad Hatter (Andrew Lee Potts) may have moments of lucidity. "Hatter in my story; he's a little nuts, but he's pretty solid, too," Willing said. "He's a ducker and diver, as we say in England. He's got a lot of street cred. He's the guy that helps Alice try to find the man she loves, who's been abducted by the White Rabbit."

Carroll may not have envisioned flying vehicle chases and padded walls closing in on his heroine. "The flamingos in our version of Wonderland are flying machines, a cross between a Vespa and a Ducati and a biplane," Willing explained. "You grab the flamingo's neck, which is of course the joystick, and that controls the airplane."

With all these changes, why bother calling it Alice? Willing said that he still drew inspiration for all of his updates from the original source. "Basically, what we did is drew upon the kind of surreal aspects of that world and turned them into the surprises of a thriller and wove a very powerful love story throughout," Willing said. "It's not the Alice in Wonderland that you would've seen adapted many times before. This is a much racier, tougher, sexier, more driven [show] with a classical story, more like a kind of thriller with twists and turns and surprises."

Willing added that his telefilm is still consistent with Carroll's tone. "It's got to be funny," Willing said. "The original is very funny. It's still very fresh. It's got to be full of surprises. It's got to have a very, very strong visual flair. These are all touchstones that drove me when I was developing the show."

Alice premieres this December on Syfy.