When Disney announced a live-action continuation of the Alice in Wonderland stories, I was skeptical. I do very much enjoy re-tellings of stories, but sequels to well-loved stories rarely live up to the promise they hold, often folding under the weight of the beloved original story.
In Carroll’s original Alice texts, the Red Queen and the Queen of Hearts are distinct characters; they don’t actually appear in the same book. The Queen of Hearts appears in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865 ), while the Red Queen appears in the sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). The Red Queen is a chess piece in the Looking-Glass world, and she teaches Alice quite a lot about the game. The Queen of Hearts, though, is bloodthirsty and aggressive, constantly demanding that someone be beheaded.
Years of adaptations that combine the two stories, however, have served to confuse the lines between Red Queen and Queen of Hearts—especially the Disney adaptations, as both the 1951 cartoon and the 2010 live-action film combine the characters.
In the 1951 cartoon, Disney called her The Queen of Hearts, but she often uttered lines from the Red Queen of Through the Looking-Glass–an effect of more-or-less combining the two books into one film. And though Tim Burton’s version of the character is called the Red Queen, she is highly associated with the heart imagery that marks The Queen of Hearts.
She is also terrible. Her subjects often refer to her as Bloody Big Head, as all of her power went literally to her head—Bonham Carter’s head was enlarged three times its normal size to create the effect. Not only does she execute those who oppose her, but her vanity is so great that her subjects and most loyal advisers wear horrifying prosthetic noses and ears to avoid being more attractive than the Red Queen.
And while Disney princesses often obtain help from creatures and help them (think of the songs from Cinderella and Snow White especially, and of the subversion in the newer film Enchanted), the Red Queen uses animals as croquet mallets, croquet balls, and furniture. Much like her body, which is negatively marked by her overlarge head, her costumes and surroundings are marked by reminders that she is tyrannical, vain, and quick-tempered.
She’s no princess—she’s another evil queen.