Anjin is Alice: The Parallels Between “Shogun” and “Alice in Wonderland”

(Caution: The following article contains spoilers for the FX/Hulu miniseries “Shogun”)

FX and Hulu’s tremendous miniseries Shogun has sadly concluded, with another season unfortunately unlikely. Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks’ masterful adaptation of James Clavell’s novel about a stranded English navigator in feudal Japan has become one of the most popular and best-reviewed shows of 2024. It was the most-streamed program across all platforms in its first two weeks of release and has earned rave reviews both in the West and in Japan, praised for its visuals, performances, and authenticity. It is sure to be a favorite during awards season. Shogun is a classic fish-out-of-water story. It is also a classic example of the Alice in Wonderland paradigm in modern storytelling. My esteemed, and hilarious, colleague Jared Hoffman touched upon these similarities in his recent blog, and we’ll go into more detail here.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the ultimate fish-out-of-water story. With no sense of what she’s getting into, Alice follows the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole and finds herself in a completely alien realm – Wonderland. In a land she didn’t even know existed five minutes before, Alice digests potions with body-morphing properties, takes tea with a mad milliner, and angers a decapitating monarch. Throughout her journey, she’s learning on the fly, continuously adapting to rules and customs with a variety of characters serving as her unreliable guides. Alice must adapt to survive, discovering a deep well of inner strength in the process.

Still image of Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne (Anjin) from the FX/Hulu historical drama miniseries "Shogun".

Blackthorne was one step ahead of Alice when he began his journey – at least he knew the world he was traveling to existed. Portuguese missionaries and merchants had established contact with Japan in the sixteenth century. But they were the only Europeans who had ever been to Japan. In fact, William Adams, on whom Blackthorne is based, is credited as the first Englishman to reach the country. Before that, all the knowledge the good subjects of Queen Elizabeth had about Japan came from shadowy rumors and fanciful legends.

Not wanting to be late to the proverbial party like a certain rabbit, Dutch merchants funded a trading mission to Japan, of which Blackthorne was the chief navigator. He and his companions arrive in Japan exhausted, emaciated, and starving. They wash up on the shore of a small fishing village where they are swiftly taken captive by Lord Yabushige, a scheming vassal of Lord Toranaga, one of the five Regents ruling Japan and facing the threat of impeachment from the other four Regents, led by Lord Ishido. But in Japan, impeachment doesn’t just mean removal from office. It’s a death sentence. Like Alice when she stumbles into the Jack of Knaves’ trial, Blackthorne finds himself in a hostile environment. He is completely ignorant of the rules and one wrong step could mean off with his head. Or being boiled alive. Or dismemberment by cannonball. He does not help himself with his often bullish and impulsive behavior, and his ignorance of the language and culture makes his life more difficult and more dangerous.

Still image of Hiroyuki Sanada as Lord Yoshii Toranaga and Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko from the FX/Hulu historical drama miniseries "Shogun".

Language plays an essential role in both Shogun and Lewis Carroll’s novel. Though Wonderlandians speak English, Alice soon realizes that their use of the language is a tad…different. Confronted by a series of confounding riddles and turns of phrases, Alice must reorient her mind to the way language is used in Wonderland. It allows her to better navigate this strange land and better understand the beings who live there. Language is a window into culture, after all.

In Shogun, one of the main obstacles for Blackthorne, who is soon given the name Anjin (Japanese for “pilot”) by his new hosts, when he lands in Japan is, obviously, he doesn’t know the language. Equally obvious, and just as problematic, is the fact that few in Japan speak English. Luckily, for Anjin, he speaks Portuguese, which is more common, but not widespread. (The show performs a clever and effective trick in depicting the language usage of the characters. Japanese is spoken as Japanese while Portuguese is spoken as English.) Therefore, Anjin has to rely on translators to communicate with Japanese lords such as Toranaga and Yabushige.

Still image of Tadanobu Asano as Kashigi Yabushige from the FX/Hulu historical drama miniseries "Shogun".

But that presents a problem, as Anjin hardly trusts those tasked with translating for him. In an early scene, Anjin is enraged at the prospect of a Portuguese Jesuit priest translating for him, correctly assuming that the Catholic clergyman will twist the Protestant Anjin’s words. It is only when Mariko, a noblewoman and Catholic convert in the service of Toranaga, becomes his translator that Anjin feels comfortable communicating. Throughout the series, Anjin learns Japanese, his fluency correlating to his cultural assimilation.

Another of the major shared themes of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Shogun is the question of identity. Who are we? What makes us who we are? How should we express and act on that identity within the context of their community? The zany, topsy-turvy, emotionally effusive Wonderland was constructed as a counterpoint to the stuffiness of Victorian society. In Shogun, Anjin experiences the opposite. While the 17th century may not have been the most emotionally progressive environment, it was markedly different from how the show depicts feudal Japan, where hiding one’s true emotions and intentions is essential to surviving the snake pit that is court politics. This philosophy is exemplified by the idea of the Eightfold Fence, a concept of compartmentalization which allows a person to perform their duties while keeping their true feelings and values intact. An intellectual safe space, if you will.

Still image of Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko from the FX/Hulu historical drama miniseries "Shogun".

The Eightfold Fence also relates to the concept of honor and self-sacrifice exhibited by many of the Japanese characters in Shogun. Viewers see these beliefs in practice in the first episode when one of Toranaga’s vassals commits seppuku, a form of ritualistic suicide, after speaking out of turn during a contentious meeting of the Five Regents. The vassal’s actions are designed to exhibit and retain honor for himself and his family. Mariko also desires to commit seppuku because of the dishonorable actions of her father, believing her death to be the only way for her family to regain their honor. She can’t, however, due to her oath of service to Toranaga, which supersedes her own wishes.

For Anjin, who wears his emotions on his sleeve and believes in Western ideas of individualism, these concepts are confusing and antithetical to his views of the world. The preservation of one’s life above all else is paramount, especially for a freelance navigator who grew up without the privileges of wealth or station. But as Alice had to adapt to Wonderland in order to survive, Anjin had to assimilate in order to keep himself alive and reach his goal of returning home to England. What begins as self-preservation, however, turns into an honest appreciation for the customs of his new home. By the end of the series, Anjin fully embodies the beliefs and practices of a Japanese samurai, even willing to commit seppuku in order to save a village from Toranaga’s retribution.

Still image of Hiroyuki Sanada as Lord Yoshii Toranaga and Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne (Anjin) from the FX/Hulu historical drama miniseries "Shogun".

While Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Shogun are radically different in genre, aesthetic, and the instances of men and horses dismembered by cannonball, they share a common thread in the type of story they tell. Both are extreme fish-out-of-water stories featuring characters who must assimilate in order to survive. The fact that we can actually draw parallels between a television show released in 2023 and taking place in 1600 Japan with an English children’s novel published in 1865 speaks to the staying power of stories that tap into universal human experiences.


An itinerant storyteller, John Drain attended the University of Edinburgh before studying film at DePaul University in Chicago and later earned an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute Conservatory. John focuses on writing mysteries and thrillers featuring characters who are thrown into the deep end of the pool and struggle to just keep their heads above water. His work has been recognized by the Academy Nicholls Fellowship, the Austin Film Festival, ScreenCraft, Cinestory, and the Montreal Independent Film Festival. In a previous life, John created and produced theme park attractions across the globe for a wide variety of audiences. John keeps busy in his spare time with three Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and a seemingly never-ending stack of medieval history books.

Dream into Nightmare: “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” and Lewis Carroll’s Monster

Black Mirror was released to rave reviews in 2011, establishing itself as one of the most popular and well-regarded shows of the 2010s. It has helped repopularise the anthology format and has earned an avalanche of awards and nominations, including eight Emmy Awards. Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi series branches into a variety of genres but mostly lives in the dystopian space, fitting with the parameters of speculative fiction. Black Mirror frequently utilizes technology and media to comment on current social issues and has been lauded for its near-Simpsons level of prescience. Just Google China’s Social Credit System, Waldo, or David Cameron and a pig. (Fair warning for that last one).

In 2017, Brooker and executive producer Annabel Jones teamed with Netflix, which now distributes the series, to develop an interactive episode. The project eventually grew into a feature film released in 2018: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Set in the 1980s, the film stars Fionn Whitehead as programmer Stefan Butler, who is adapting a fantasy “choose your own adventure” book into a video game titled Bandersnatch. An exploration of free will, the film blends post-modernism, comedy, and horror with a heavy dose of Philip K. Dick to give audiences a unique experience in which they control the direction of the story. With 150 minutes of unique footage and multiple “choice points,” Bandersnatch offers viewers over one trillion paths they can take within the film, mirroring (pun not intended) the game being developed in the story.

Still image of Fionn Whitehead as Stefan Butler playing a video game from the Netflix science fiction interactive film "Black Mirror: Bandersnatch".

Alice aficionados are sure to recognize the nod to Lewis Carroll in the title. The reference is actually twofold. The film took its title from Bandersnatch, a video game developed by Imagine Software that was in turn inspired by Lewis Carroll’s creation. The game, however, was never released due to the company’s bankruptcy in 1984. But what is a bandersnatch? And how does a creature created over 150 years ago for a fantasy novel and a nonsense poem relate to Brooker and Jones’ sci-fi psychological thriller?

Lewis Carroll’s bandersnatch is a monster that appears in his 1871 sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, as well as his 1874 poem, The Hunting of the Snark. The beast is described as having a long neck, snapping jaws, ferocious, and extremely fast. In Peter Newell’s 1902 illustration, one of the earliest depictions of the beast, the bandersnatch appears in cartoonish fashion with the body and head of a lion and pointed ears, horns, a dog’s nose, and human hands. Its home is in the world behind the looking-glass, and in The Hunting of the Snark, it is encountered after the hunters cross an ocean.

Illustration of the bandersnatch and Jubjub bird by artist Peter Newell for the 1902 edition of the novel "Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Saw There" by Lewis Carroll.

The overzealous Banker is the first unfortunate soul to cross the bandersnatch when he leaves his party (mistake number one). Carroll writes, “But while he was seeking with thimbles and care/A Bandersnatch swiftly drew nigh/And grabbed at the Banker, who shrieked in despair/For he knew it was useless to fly.” The Banker tried to bribe the beast (mistake number two) but the bandersnatch had no use for the Queen’s currency. He “… merely extended its neck/And grabbed at the Banker again.” The monster continued his assault: “Without rest or pause — while those frumious jaws/Went savagely snapping around —/He (the Banker) skipped and he hopped, and he floundered and flopped/Till fainting he fell to the ground.” The Banker was saved from a painful and ignominious end when the rest of his party caught up, their numbers causing the bandersnatch to flee.

As with all of Lewis Carroll’s creations, the bandersnatch has had a substantial reach in pop culture, inspiring artists, and undergoing numerous reinventions over the past century and a half. In Anna Matlock Richards’ A New Alice in the Old Wonderland, written less than 25 years after the beast’s first appearance, the bandersnatch is given extremely long legs and the ability to fly. Fantasy and sci-fi author Roger Zelazny describes his hissing bandersnatch as walking side-to-side and leaving a trail of steaming saliva. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland reimagines the monster as a large white beast with elements of a bulldog, snow leopard, and bear with rows of razor-sharp teeth. The Shadowrun tabletop role-playing games gave the bandersnatch the ability to mask both its appearance and body heat. It seems that the bandersnatch has popped up in as many different iterations as Alice herself.

Still image of the bandersnatch roaring at Mia Wasikowska as Alice Kingsleigh in Tim Burton's 2010 period adventure fantasy film "Alice in Wonderland".

But what does this have to do with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch? A clue may be found in the musings of Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), a successful game designer employed by the company that agrees to fund Stefan’s game. In a conversation with Stefan, Colin opines about the darker meaning of Pac-Man: “He (Pac-Man) thinks he’s got free will, but really he’s trapped in a maze, in a system. All he can do is consume, he’s pursued by demons that are probably just in his own head and even if he does manage to escape by slipping out one side of the maze, what happens? He comes right back in the other side. People think it’s a happy game. It’s not a happy game, it’s a fucking nightmare world…”

Still image of Will Poulter as Colin Ritman from the Netflix science fiction interactive film "Black Mirror: Bandersnatch".

The theme of a dream turning into a nightmare dominates Stefan’s arc in the film. His passion project, the story that connects him to his dead mother, turns into a real-life nightmare during the development process, driving him to insanity and violence. The bandersnatch, in all of its iterations, is depicted as a beast of incredible ferocity. Its frumious jaws promise destruction with every snap. Its blazing speed and considerable strength make for a formidable adversary. It’s a representation of danger and pain. The term Wonderland is often used to describe something fantastical, amazing, astonishing – a dream. The bandersnatch makes a wonderland a nightmare.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch uses the iconography and qualities of Lewis Carroll’s bandersnatch to represent the danger of obsession. Like how Pac-Man is all-consuming and driven by demons, obsession breeds darkness in its host, manifesting in violence and pain. The bandersnatch is the physical manifestation. It is ferocious and merciless, savagely snapping around and devouring its prey. Over the years, many have reimagined Carroll’s Wonderland as a nightmarish realm, an assault on sanity. The same thing is happening in Bandersnatch, where passion and potential are twisted into a ferocious beast bent on destroying all in its path.


An itinerant storyteller, John Drain attended the University of Edinburgh before studying film at DePaul University in Chicago and later earned an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute Conservatory. John focuses on writing mysteries and thrillers featuring characters who are thrown into the deep end of the pool and struggle to just keep their heads above water. His work has been recognized by the Academy Nicholls Fellowship, the Austin Film Festival, ScreenCraft, Cinestory, and the Montreal Independent Film Festival. In a previous life, John created and produced theme park attractions across the globe for a wide variety of audiences. John keeps busy in his spare time with three Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and a seemingly never-ending stack of medieval history books.

“Alice in Wonderland” in “The Way Home” and What to Expect from Season 3

“‘Who am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” Alice had just grown to the size of a giant, frightening the White Rabbit, which motivated her to ask this soul-searching question in Chapter Two of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s something we constantly ask ourselves throughout our lives, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. One of the primary reasons Alice in Wonderland continues to captivate audiences and inspire creators is because it deals with universal questions of identity and personhood. In most respects, characters in every story undertake a journey of self-discovery and Alice’s odyssey through Wonderland is a perfect model for artists. From The Matrix to Alice in Borderland to Poor Things, there is a long history of films and TV shows that have used elements of Alice in Wonderland to tell their stories.

One of the most recent series to use Alice as direct inspiration is the time-travel family drama, The Way Home. The Hallmark Channel original recently finished airing its second season in March and work is already underway on Season 3, slated to premiere in 2025. The Way Home follows three generations of strong and independent women (Andie MacDowell, Chyler Leigh, and Sadie Laflamme-Snow) who “embark on an enlightening journey none of them could have imagined as they learn how to find their way back to each other.” Season One begins with Kat (Leigh) and the aptly named Alice (Laflamme-Snow) returning to Kat’s hometown of Port Haven in rural Canada to live with her estranged mother Del (MacDowell). Alice’s adjustment to her new home takes an interesting turn when she falls into a pool on Del’s property and discovers it’s a portal for time travel.

A still image from the Hallmark Channel original series "The Way Home" featuring Sadie Laflamme-Snow as Alice staring into a pond.

Does that sound familiar? Maybe reminiscent of a young girl falling down a bunny’s burrow in a fantasy novel written under a pseudonym by an Oxford mathematician and photographer? Well, don’t worry, if you think it sounds a little like Alice in Wonderland, you haven’t eaten any “magic” mushrooms. The similarities are by design.

Speaking recently to Variety, co-showrunner Alexandra Clarke, who runs the series with her mother Heather Conkie, said, “As we started looking at this show and the concept, it became so much clearer to us how oddly echoing it all was to the book, and we sort of thought well, if it’s there, let’s use it. It’s a story about a girl that literally falls down the rabbit hole into a whole other world and is trying to make sense of what she’s seeing and of her adventures there.” Clarke and Conkie, along with creator Marly Reed, were reinforced in their choice of inspiration when the first books they saw on a trip to a discount bookstore were Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. “We thought, ‘OK, that’s a sign,’” said Conkie.

Clarke, Conkie, and Reed used the theme of self-discovery in Carroll’s novel to influence their Alice’s arc. In Season One, they send her down their rabbit hole to the Wonderland of 1999, where she encounters her mother and grandmother, learns about the trauma keeping them apart in the present, and explores the type of person she wants to be. Like Carroll’s Alice, The Way Home’s Alice finds herself in a strange world where previous norms are upended, requiring self-exploration as well as exploration of the environment in order to navigate this unfamiliar place.

A promotional image from the Hallmark Channel original series "The Way Home" featuring Chyler Leigh, Sadie Laflamme-Snow, and Andie MacDowell.

Using the past to jumpstart a coming-of-age story is an excellent mechanism that brings to mind another of Alice’s lines. After the “Drink Me”/”Eat Me” scene in which Alice dramatically shrinks and grows, she comments to the Caterpillar, “It’s no use going back to yesterday. I was a different person then.” This is an astute insight about the importance of moving forward and not being stuck in the past. Yet The Way Home shows it is useful to go back to yesterday if the person or people you’re observing are your mother and grandmother, discovering the different people they were in the past. In The Way Home, Alice’s insights into the issues that drove Kat and Del apart directly relate to her sense of identity and how she grows as a character.

For Season Two, Clarke, Conkie, and Reed looked at the second installment of Carroll’s Wonderland canon and based Alice’s journey on Through the Looking-Glass. Clarke said, “The way it begins is her looking through a mirror into this other world and wondering what’s there and hoping it’ll take her back to Wonderland. It does, but it’s a wonderland that’s upside down and reversed. Everything good is bad and everything up is down and if you actually look at Alice’s journey in particular through Season Two, that’s exactly what happened. We made a really big point throughout the season of having her be on the outside looking in, which is exactly how Alice who was in that book.”

A still image from the Hallmark Channel original series "The Way Home" featuring Sadie Laflamme-Snow as Alice reading a copy of the novel "Through the Looking-Glass" by Lewis Carroll.

Again, the creative team behind The Way Home identified one of the core themes of Alice’s experience in Carroll’s novel and transposed that onto their Alice. The feeling of being on the outside looking in is common to all teenagers and a large portion of adults. Even within the context of family, younger people often feel ostracized to a certain extent due to their ignorance of events and experiences before their time that still color the relationships between older family members. This unresolved trauma drives wedges between all generations and, if left untreated, can doom relationships. In The Way Home, time travel provides the mechanism through which Alice and Kat can learn from that trauma, allowing them to heal in the present.

Alice in Wonderland will also play a large role in the upcoming Season Three, though its influence may be more general than direct. “I think the thing we’re going to kind of try and do this season is looking at the two books as a whole as a set and what to sort of glean from the two of them and who owns them. And the themes of them will still be a huge part of our show,” said Clarke of their approach to next season. She went on to say, “…the trips that Alice takes, the trips that Kat takes, they’re always going to different wonderlands and different worlds for very different reasons.”

A still image from the Hallmark Channel original series "The Way Home" featuring Andie MacDowell as Del and Sadie Laflamme-Snow as Alice at a farmers market.

This idea of using “different wonderlands” to address certain aspects of a character’s development echoes Carroll, who tailored the Wonderlands Alice visits to reflect her emotional maturity. It’s a beautiful example of character-driven storytelling, where the character defines the world instead of vice versa. As The Way Home ages into its third season, it’s clear that the show’s creative brain trust has a firm grasp on how to continue the development of their characters they so wonderfully executed in the first two seasons. What is also clear is that 159 years after its initial publication, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland continues to directly influence storytelling, continually reaffirming its position as one of the most influential works of art ever made.


An itinerant storyteller, John Drain attended the University of Edinburgh before studying film at DePaul University in Chicago and later earned an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute Conservatory. John focuses on writing mysteries and thrillers featuring characters who are thrown into the deep end of the pool and struggle to just keep their heads above water. His work has been recognized by the Academy Nicholls Fellowship, the Austin Film Festival, ScreenCraft, Cinestory, and the Montreal Independent Film Festival. In a previous life, John created and produced theme park attractions across the globe for a wide variety of audiences. John keeps busy in his spare time with three Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and a seemingly never-ending stack of medieval history books.

From “Wicked” to “The Omen”: Evil Children in Film

What is the most terrifying thing you can think of? Spiders? Public speaking? Failure? All are excellent options. Now, let me raise another – evil children. It’s an inversion of expectations. Kids are supposed to be kind, innocent, and full of life. Adults are the ones who perpetrate evil. The idea of children killing someone or summoning the Devil is entirely contrary to our expectations about how the world works. So when those twins appear in the hallway in The Shining or when Damien smiles in The Omen – it’s absolutely terrifying. The creepy kid is a common trope in horror films and even in thrillers, like Wicked. These films have captured the imaginations of their viewers and certainly inspired some nightmares too. 

Here’s a list of ten of the best movies featuring “evil kids”:


Still image from Richard Donner's 1976 supernatural horror film "The Omen," featuring Harvey Spencer Stevens as Damien Thorn in a suit and cap.

The Omen
If you think raising kids is hard, try telling the Antichrist he has a bedtime. That’s what Gregory Peck and Lee Remick have to deal with in the 1976 classic The Omen. One of the original evil kid movies, The Omen opens with an American diplomat, Robert Thorn, and his pregnant wife Katherine living in Rome. When Katherine gives birth, Robert is told that the child has tragically died and is convinced by the hospital chaplain to secretly adopt another child. Robert doesn’t tell Katherine about the switcheroo and five years later, they discover that their sweet Damien is none other than the son of Satan. Helmed by Richard Donner (Superman, The Goonies, Lethal Weapon), The Omen is a suspenseful, spine-tingling thriller that also helped popularize “666” as a sign of the devil. It grossed over $60 million on a $2.8 million budget and routinely appears on lists of the best horror films, including AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills.

Still image of Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther in the 2009 psychological horror film "Orphan" directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.

Orphan
These types of films really aren’t favorable toward adoption. The 2009 psychological horror film Orphan stars Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard as a couple who adopt a nine-year-old girl after losing their unborn child. At least both parents knew this time. They soon experience every parent’s worst nightmare (I imagine). Their new daughter, played by Isabelle Fuhrman in a delightfully horrifying performance, is actually a 33-year-old Estonian serial killer with a hormonal disorder that stunted her growth, allowing her to pose as a child. Roger Ebert called Orphan a “shamefully effective horror film” and took in almost $80 million at the box office. But want to know something that will keep you up at night? Orphan is actually loosely based on the true story of Barbora Skrlova, a 34-year-old Estonian woman who posed as a child twice and even got her first adoptive mother to chain and starve her own sons. Chills.

Still image of John Franklin as Isaac Chroner in the 1984 supernatural horror film "Children of the Corn".

Children of the Corn
Children of the Corn is 92 minutes of gory 80s fun. Based on the 1977 Stephen King short story (of course), Children of the Corn features an ensemble cast led by The Terminator star Linda Hamilton and is set in the cornfields of Nebraska. After the corn crop fails, local 9-year-old Isaac Chroner takes an interesting path to ensure the success of next year’s harvest. Isaac brainwashes all the local children into serving an evil deity named “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” and leads them to slaughter all the adults in the town in an act of mass sacrifice. And that’s just in Act One! The bloodfest was met with tepid responses from audiences and critics upon its release in 1984 but has since gained cult status, resulting in an 11-film franchise and inspiring a hilarious early South Park episode, “The Wacky Molestation Adventure”.

Still image of Julia Stiles as Ellie Christianson in the 1998 thriller "Wicked".

Wicked
Julia Stiles’ audition for disturbed Ellie Christianson in the 1998 thriller Wicked blew away director Michael Steinberg and producer Frank Beddor, who said, “…we knew. She was Ellie.” Ellie is a sixteen-year-old girl with a problem – her mom. Now, it’s certainly not uncommon for a teenager to have problems with their mom. But this teenager hates her mom because her mom is standing in the way of the person she desires the most – her dad. Yes, Ellie is in love with her father Ben, and will stop at nothing, including whacking her mom on the head with a stone mask, in her quest to have him. Wicked is a tense, chilling thriller with flashes of noir mixed with dark comedy. Julia Stiles is electric in her breakout role, producing a nuanced portrayal that still incites empathy for a character whose actions are truly detestable. The film was a smash at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival where Stiles’ performance made her “the darling of the festival”. She also won the award for Best Actress at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic.

Still image of Elijah Wood as Mark Evans and Macaulay Culkin as Henry Evans in the 1993 psychological thriller "The Good Son".

The Good Son
Macaulay Culkin is arguably the greatest child actor in the history of Hollywood and he really shows off his range in the 1993 psychological thriller, The Good Son. Written by Booker Prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan (Atonement), the film features Elijah Wood, as Mark Evans, who moves in with his aunt, uncle, and cousins after his mother dies. Reconnecting with your family is usually fun and a good source of healing. But not for Mark, who quickly learns his cousin, Henry (Culkin), is a brutal psychopath. Henry causes a massive car crash, tries to kill his sister Connie (twice), and admits to drowning his late brother over the ownership of a rubber duck, establishing himself as one of the great evil child characters. The Good Son fell flat with critics, who bristled at the twisted narrative and felt uncomfortable seeing Macaulay Culkin in such a villainous role. Honestly, that just makes the film more appealing audiences clearly agreed, buying $60 million worth of tickets during the film’s theatrical run.

Still image of Lina Leandersson as Eli in the 2008 Swedish romantic horror film "Let the Right One In".

Let the Right One In
Nobody ever thinks of vampires as young children. They appear to us as a dashing Romanian count, a charismatic Parisian actor, or a glittering centenarian posing as a high schooler. The 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In, based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, flips vampire tropes on their head with their humanist treatment of 12-year-old vampire Eli. During a dark, snowy Swedish winter, Oskar, a shy child who’s a favorite target of bullies, meets his new neighbor Eli. The two loners bond, building a friendship that only deepens when Oskar discovers Eli is a vampire. The film is a beautiful exploration of humanity featuring moving performances and brilliant cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema. Bloody Disgusting ranked it as the best horror film of the decade, calling it an “austerely beautiful creation”. Let the Right One In won dozens of awards including five Guldbagges at the Swedish Oscars.

Still image of Jacob Kogan as piano prodigy Joshua Cairn in the 2007 psychological thriller "Joshua".

Joshua
Every parent would be thrilled if their child was a prodigy, right? Well, not so fast. The 2007 thriller Joshua stars Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga (her second entry on this list) as parents to 9-year-old piano prodigy Joshua (Jacob Kogan). Everything seems to be idyllic at first, (aside from Joshua’s penchant to dress like a young Patrick Bateman, a huge red flag), until Joshua’s parents come home with his baby sister Lily. The wannabe Mozart shows his sociopathic side and begins to terrorize his family. He kills the family dog, gaslights his mother until she’s committed, tries to murder his sister, does murder his grandmother, and frames his father for abuse. Joshua is a creepy, disturbing psychological thriller, with Duane Byrge writing for The Hollywood Reporter the film is a “brilliant house-of-horror tale with Hitchcockian flare.” It was also well-received on the festival circuit, being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and winning the Cinematography Award at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

Still image of Blake Woodruff as David in the 2007 horror film "Whisper".

Whisper
It seems that 2007 was an especially good year for movies featuring evil children. Whisper is a chilling slow burn featuring Josh Holloway and Sarah Wayne Callies as a down-on-their-luck couple who, after being denied a bank loan, decide to take part in kidnapping a child to get the money they need. It’s a drastic step and one that backfires spectacularly when the child, eight-year-old David, starts commanding the members of the kidnapping ring to kill each other. It turns out that David is actually a demon with the power to convince mere mortals to do anything with only a whisper. Of course, David’s actions aren’t necessarily evil in this context. He was kidnapped after all. However, a demon child with supernatural powers of persuasion is pretty darn evil.

Still image of a child in a blue smock wearing a painted hood/mask from J.A. Bayona's 2007 gothic supernatural horror film "The Orphanage".

The Orphanage (El orfanato)
Another 2007 entry on our list is The Orphanage, a Spanish-Mexican gothic horror film that grossed almost $80 million and won seven Goya Awards (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars). J.A. Bayona’s directorial debut follows a woman, Laura, who brings her family back to her childhood home, a now-closed orphanage. She intends to reopen the orphanage as a home for disabled children, but things start to go haywire when Laura’s son Simon makes an invisible new friend and disappears soon after. The Orphanage earned praise for its grounded approach to horror, relying on craft rather than CG or gore. As Ellie Violet Bramley wrote for The Guardian, “It’s the humanity of the thing that went bump in the night that makes you shudder for a long while after.”

Still image of Lisa and Louise Burns as the Grady twins in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 psychological horror film "The Shining".

The Shining
A bonafide horror classic, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining proved to be both terrifying on screen and on set. Adapted from Stephen King’s novel of the same name, The Shining follows Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) as a writer and recovering alcoholic who takes a job as the offseason caretaker of the Overlook Hotel deep in the Colorado Rockies. Jack, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd) are soon snowed in, and that’s where the “fun” begins. Jack slowly loses his sanity, the hotel is haunted, and Danny turns out to have psychic powers (“the shining”). Now, Danny isn’t the evil child that got The Shining on this list. It’s those creepy twins in the hallway. Pure nightmare fuel. The girls are actually the murdered daughters of the former caretaker, who went insane and murdered his whole family. So while the girls may not have started out as well, there’s no mistaking their malevolent intentions when they ask Danny, “Come and play with us…Forever… and ever… and ever.”


An itinerant storyteller, John Drain attended the University of Edinburgh before studying film at DePaul University in Chicago and later earned an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute Conservatory. John focuses on writing mysteries and thrillers featuring characters who are thrown into the deep end of the pool and struggle to just keep their heads above water. His work has been recognized by the Academy Nicholls Fellowship, the Austin Film Festival, ScreenCraft, Cinestory, and the Montreal Independent Film Festival. In a previous life, John created and produced theme park attractions across the globe for a wide variety of audiences. John keeps busy in his spare time with three Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and a seemingly never-ending stack of medieval history books.

Mad Hatter and “Batman: The Animated Series”: When Wonderland Came To Gotham

Sometimes in the far reaches of space, two stars orbit each other closely and, over time, spiral inward until they collide, creating a magnetic field more than a trillion times stronger than Earth. The subsequent explosion is called a gamma-ray burst, the brightest and most energetic type of event since the Big Bang. The result? It can form a black hole, a body of pure nothingness where not even light can escape. Or the collision can create a brand new neutron star, bigger and heavier than before.

What does this have to do with Alice in Wonderland? Well, in 1948 Lew Sayre Schwartz and comic book pioneer Bill Finger engineered a stellar collision of their own when they turned Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter into a villain for Batman #49. The joining of Wonderland and Gotham was like two pop culture stars slamming into each other, producing a massive gamma-ray burst and creating a new, compelling take on an iconic character. Forty-four years after the Mad Hatter first terrorized Gotham, Paul Dini brought him to the screen in Season One of the groundbreaking show, Batman: The Animated Series.

Still image from the episode "Mad as a Hatter" of the animated show "Batman: The Animated Series" featuring Batman confronting Jervis Tetch/the Mad Hatter.

The Mad Hatter of Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS) is more grounded than in Carroll’s books, shaped to fit within the more realistic parameters of the noir-tinted cartoon. Hatter is the evil persona of Jervis Tetch, who is first introduced as a socially awkward but brilliant scientist developing mind-control chips for Wayne Enterprises. Tetch is a devotee of Lewis Carroll’s works and is obsessed with the office executive assistant, Alice, who (obviously) has blonde hair with bangs and wears a blue dress.

Tetch’s first appearance comes in the Season One episode, “Mad as a Hatter ”, in which transformation into the villainous Hatter takes place. Tetch is overjoyed when he learns that Alice and her boyfriend, Billy, have broken up and uses his mind control chips in an effort to impress her on a night town. He plays the bigshot, putting chips on servers, photographers, the maitre d’, and anyone who makes him look important to Alice. But he is driven mad with rage and jealousy when Alice reveals that she and Billy made up. Worse, they’re engaged. Tetch uses his mind control technology to make Billy dump Alice (again) and later kidnaps her. Batman becomes suspicious of Tetch when he connects the mind control cards to an illustration of Alice in Wonderland in Tetch’s office showing the Mad Hatter with the same type of card in his hat. Batman confronts Tetch in “Wonderland”, a section of the Gotham Storybook Land amusement park. After a thrilling fight, Batman throws his Batarang at the cords holding up a large Jabberwock statue. The Batarang cuts the cords and the statue falls on Tetch, trapping him. Batman frees Alice and Billy from Tetch’s mind-control devices and Tetch is thrown into Arkham Asylum.

Still image from the episode "Mad as a Hatter" of the animated show "Batman: The Animated Series" featuring Jervis Tetch/the Mad Hatter and Alice.

“Mad as a Hatter” is overflowing with references to Alice. Tetch constantly quotes the books, muttering “curiouser and curiouser” when he finds Alice crying about her break-up and exclaiming “Callooh! Callay! O frabjous day!” after his first “date” with her. As he descends into madness, Tetch dresses his henchmen as Alice characters including the Walrus and the Carpenter, Cheshire Cat, Caterpillar, the White Rabbit, and the Red Queen. Finally, when his defeat is clear, Tetch quotes the “Lobster Quadrille,” lamenting that he “could not join the dance.” For fans of Alice easter eggs, this episode is like being alone at an easter egg roll.

Writers Laren Bright and Michael Reaves continued to mine Carroll’s themes and devices in Hatter’s second appearance, “Perchance to Dream”. It opens with Batman being knocked out and waking up in a “Wonderland,” one where Batman is someone else, he (Bruce Wayne) is engaged to Selina Kyle, and his parents are still alive. Though tempted to remain in this “perfect” world, Bruce can’t shake the idea that something is wrong. He eventually deduces that he is stuck in a dream world. He confronts “Batman” and it turns out that the Caped Crusader is none other than Jervis Tetch, who has (predictably) escaped from Arkham Asylum. Tetch used his mind control technology to create a dream world for Bruce to keep Batman out of his own life. Bruce breaks out of the dream world and defeats Tetch in the real world, leading to Tetch being arrested again and sent to Arkham. The episode is a beautiful exploration of love and loss and shows the potential of using established works to enrich another storytelling world.

Still image from the episode "Perchance to Dream" of the animated show "Batman: The Animated Series" featuring Bruce Wayne and Jervis Tetch/the Mad Hatter.

In “The Worry Men” Hatter escapes from Arkham again (they really need to do something about the security in that place) and travels to South America, where he brainwashes the wealthy Veronica Vreeland into transporting Worry Men dolls back to Gotham and giving them out to her high society friends. The dolls contain Hatter’s brainwashing chips, resulting in Gotham’s wealthy elite funneling $100 million to Tetch/Hatter. But once Batman realizes that he has been hoodwinked into sending Tetch money, he tracks down the mad villain and makes him pay for his crimes.

The Mad Hatter’s final appearance as a main villain in Batman: The Animated Series comes in the Season Two episode “Trial”. He uses his mind control chips to brainwash the Arkham guards (again, that facility really needs a security audit) so that he and other icons of the Gotham rogues gallery can take control of the asylum. They kidnap District Attorney Janet Van Dorn, well known for her anti-Batman beliefs, and later lure the Dark Knight to Arkham where he is arrested. The villains then put Batman on trial for being responsible for their various conditions and evil deeds, calling to mind the Red Queen’s kangaroo court in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Despite her dislike of Batman, Van Dorn defends him and, to everyone’s surprise, gets him acquitted, though Batman is still forced to fight his way out after the Joker and other villains decide to disregard the “verdict”.

Still image from the animated show "Batman: The Animated Series" featuring Jervis Tetch/the Mad Hatter with his hands clasped and a maniacal grin.

The Mad Hatter in Batman: The Animated Series is an excellent example of using existing I.P. to create something fresh and exciting. The writers and producers of BTAS took the iconography and themes from Lewis Carroll’s work and perfectly grafted them onto the world of their show. The Alice references in “Mad as a Hatter” fueled a thoroughly entertaining adventure. Their use of dreams and a “Wonderland” in “Perchance to Dream” is a perfect marriage of Carroll’s themes and the tragedy of Bruce Wayne/Batman’s life. Their grounded construction of Jervis Tetch/the Mad Hatter delves into the birth of madness, imbuing the character with the intensely human emotions of jealousy and obsession, which motivate his transformation into the insane milliner.


An itinerant storyteller, John Drain attended the University of Edinburgh before studying film at DePaul University in Chicago and later earned an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute Conservatory. John focuses on writing mysteries and thrillers featuring characters who are thrown into the deep end of the pool and struggle to just keep their heads above water. His work has been recognized by the Academy Nicholls Fellowship, the Austin Film Festival, ScreenCraft, Cinestory, and the Montreal Independent Film Festival. In a previous life, John created and produced theme park attractions across the globe for a wide variety of audiences. John keeps busy in his spare time with three Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and a seemingly never-ending stack of medieval history books.

Top 10 Julia Stiles Performances Ranked

Julia Stiles recently wrapped production on her directorial debut, “Wish You Were Here,” which she adapted from the bestseller of the same name by Renee Carlino. The romance stars Isabelle Fuhrman (The Hunger Games, The Novice) as a directionless server whose whirlwind one-night-stand with a terminally ill painter changes both of their lives. The film marks the culmination of an evolution for the Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated Stiles. With her tour-de-force breakthrough in the thriller Wicked, directed by Michael Steinberg and produced by Frank Beddor, Stiles launched a near-thirty-year career in front of the camera, which has produced a wide range of entertaining, compelling, and iconic performances. With her first directorial effort in the can, let’s take a look back at Julia Stiles’ top ten roles.


Still image of Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger covered in paint from the 1999 teen romantic comedy film "10 Things I Hate About You".

10 Things I Hate About You

Following the rabid reaction at Sundance to her debut lead role in Wicked, Julia Stiles was cast in the 1999 romantic comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, Gil Junger’s modern-day retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Stiles is transcendent as Katarina “Kat” Strafford, an antisocial high schooler who is pursued by Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger), an Australian bad boy who is paid to woo Kat as part of a plot designed to get her father (Larry Miller) to relax his restrictions regarding dating for Kat and her younger sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik). Starring opposite the sublime Ledger, Stiles deftly blends rage, intelligence, and vulnerability to create a beautiful portrayal of a young woman learning to allow herself to be loved and be loved. The film grossed $60 million at the box office and has become an iconic piece of 90s pop culture. The emotional core of the movie, Stiles’ performance was lauded by critics and led to a Most Promising Actress award from the Chicago Film Critics Association and established her as an up-and-coming star.

Still image of Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas dancing from the 2001 romance film "Save the Last Dance".

Save the Last Dance

Stiles cemented her status as a cult teen hero with her turn as Julliard hopeful Sara Johnson in the 2001 hit Save the Last Dance. A part of the wave of early 2000s teen dance movies, Save the Last Dance follows Sara, who quits ballet and moves to the South Side of Chicago with her father after her mother dies in a car accident. Depressed and struggling to navigate her new life, Sara is reinvigorated when she falls for Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas) at a hip-hop dance club at her new school. Their love motivates Sara to continue to pursue her passion for ballet and her dreams of attending Julliard. Stiles again imbues her character with a strength and wit uncommon for the genre and displays undeniable chemistry with Thomas. Stiles trained in ballet and hip-hop for two months ahead of shooting, preparation that paid off when Save the Last Dance debuted at #1 at the box office en route to taking in $131.7 million worldwide. Stiles was nominated for a host of awards and that dance scene has become an iconic teen movie moment, which she reenacted alongside Chloe Fineman on Saturday Night Live in 2023.

Still image of Julia Stiles and Michael C. Hall in a bathroom from Season 5 of the Showtime crime drama television series "Dexter".

Dexter – Season 5

Julia Stiles breathed new life into Dexter with her performance as Lumen Pierce in Season 5. Pierce is a survivor of an attack by a group of men including rapist-serial killer Boyd Fowler. When Pierce witnesses Dexter (Michael C. Hall) kill Fowler, she tries to convince the vigilante to help her take revenge on the rest of her attackers. Initially reluctant, Dexter eventually agrees to help her get vengeance and the two kindred souls develop a romantic relationship. In Dexter, Stiles showcases her ability to portray strength through vulnerability. Her grounded style lends authenticity to the sometimes over-the-top show and helps to humanize Hall’s murderous forensic technician. Stiles’ ten-episode arc as Lumen Pierce “totally changed” her mind about working in television and proved to be one of the most critically acclaimed roles of her career, resulting in Golden Globes and Emmy nominations.

Still image of Julia Stiles in a red shirt and heavy eye shadow from the 1998 thriller film "Wicked".

Wicked

Julia Stiles’ audition for disturbed Ellie Christianson in the 1998 thriller Wicked blew away director Michael Steinberg and producer Frank Beddor, who said, “…we knew. She was Ellie. She also had IT.” The sixteen-year-old Stiles continued to wow her employers and co-stars with her intense portrayal of Ellie, a fourteen-year-old whose twisted obsession with her father (William R. Moses) and hatred of her mother (Chelsea Field) leads to horrifying consequences. Stiles’ performance is pure adolescent rage, depicting a girl who hates the world and will stop at nothing to get what she wants. But Ellie is no caricature. Stiles continuously reminds us that Ellie is still a child, adding depth and shading by showing her character’s insecurities. The result is a nuanced portrayal that still incites empathy for a character whose actions are truly detestable. Wicked proved to be Stiles’ breakthrough. The film was a smash at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival where Stiles’ performance made her “the darling of the festival” and she won the award for Best Actress at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic.

Still image of Julia Stiles and Matt Damon from Paul Greengrass' 2007 espionage action-thriller film "The Bourne Ultimatum".

Bourne Franchise

Julies Stiles stole scenes with her role as CIA logistics technician Nicky Parsons in four of the Jason Bourne films opposite Matt Damon’s amnesiac assassin. An adversary turned ally, Parsons works for Treadstone, a shadowy CIA black-ops program that utilizes behavioral modification to develop almost superhuman assassins. In the first two films, The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, Parsons is a CIA operative who aids the hunt to capture Bourne. But in the third film, The Bourne Ultimatum, Parsons grows disillusioned with the CIA and helps Bourne evade his pursuers. As a character archetype, Nicky Parsons could’ve simply been a functionary. A character whose sole purpose was to move the plot forward by feeding information and exposition to the protagonist. But in Stiles’ hands, Nicky becomes essential to Bourne’s growth as a character. Stiles matches Damon’s intensity step for step, helping to set the foundation for a series of brooding, gritty, and spellbinding action thrillers.

Still image of Julia Stiles in a sauna from the 2001 drama film "The Business of Strangers".

The Business of Strangers

Tony-winning actor Stockard Channing said of her The Business of Strangers co-star: “In addition to her talent, she has an almost feral quality, something that can make people uneasy. She has an effect on people.” Rave reviews from critics are wonderful, but it’s arguably more important when praise comes from those you work with. In Patrick Stettner’s indie drama, Julia Stiles plays Paula, an assistant who helps her former boss Julie take revenge on Nick, a headhunter with whom Paula has a dark connection, when the three are stuck in a hotel after their flights are canceled. Paula is a woman of many secrets, and Stiles plays it perfectly, setting up a series of thrilling twists and turns. Her chemistry with Channing is electric and their back-and-forth drives the emotional resonance of the story. Stiles again reveled in success at Sundance as the film was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize and she was later nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Satellite Awards.

Still image of Julia Stiles and Alec Baldwin in front of a window from the 2000 David Mamet dark comedy film "State and Main".

State and Main

One of the hallmarks of Julia Stiles’ career is her ability to elevate an ensemble. This talent is conspicuously on display in David Mamet’s 2000 comedy State and Main. The film tracks the effects that a film production and its crew have on a small Vermont town. It’s packed with stars, including William H. Macy, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (and John Krasinski in his acting debut). Stiles plays Carla, a crafty local who develops a relationship with Alec Baldwin’s Bob Barrenger, the film’s star who is attracted to underage girls. Stiles is electric in her nuanced portrayal of Carla, showcasing once again her ability to show strength through vulnerability. Her performance is an essential piece of a stellar cast, one that earned Best Cast awards from the Florida Film Critics Circle, the Online Film Critics Society, and the National Board of Review.

Still image of Julia Stiles and Jennifer Lopez in a prison interrogation room from the 2019 crime comedy-drama film "Hustlers".

Hustlers

Lorene Scafaria’s 2019 crime comedy-drama Hustlers is a visually stunning caper that blends piercing comedy with profound character work. The surprise hit drew comparisons to Goodfellas and praise for the star-studded cast, which included Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer, Lizzo, Cardi B, and, of course, Julia Stiles. Stiles portrays Elizabeth, a journalist following the exploits of a group of New York City strippers who drug and rob stock traders and corporate executives who patronize their club. Stiles doesn’t have the most glamorous role in the film, but she performs an essential function that makes the movie work. Her character represents the audience, giving us a platform through which we empathize and come to love these characters. Her blend of strength and warmth is on full display as she endeavors to tell the story of this diverse, multi-dimensional group of women.

Still image of Julia Stiles, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper from the 2012 David O. Russell romantic dramedy film "Silver Linings Playbook".

Silver Linings Playbook

Julia Stiles once again proves a scene stealer in David O. Russell’s Oscar-nominated 2012 romantic dramedy Silver Linings Playbook. The film follows a former teacher, Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), with bipolar disorder who endeavors to win back his ex-wife after being released from a psychiatric hospital. But his plans are thrown into glorious disarray when he meets Tiffany Maxwell, a widowed dancer who promises to help Pat win his wife back if he enters a dance competition with her. In a supporting cast filled with heavyweights including Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, and Chris Tucker, Stiles stands out as Veronica, Tiffany’s spirited sister. Stiles punctuates brilliant performances from Cooper and Lawrence with her strength and energy, perfectly encapsulating the Philadelphia energy. Stiles earned a host of awards nominations as part of the ensemble, winning at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, as the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, with Lawrence winning for Best Actress.

Still image of Julia Stiles and Mekhi Phifer sitting in a high school gym from the 2001 romantic thriller film "O".

O

The turn of the century saw a run on modern-day retellings of William Shakespeare’s works and Stiles seemed to appear in every one. After starring in 10 Things I Hate About You and Hamlet opposite Ethan Hawke, Stiles plays the Desdemona character in Tim Blake Nelson’s adaptation of Othello, O. Led by Mekhi Phifer as Odin (Othello), and Josh Hartnett as Hugo (Iago), O sets the Bard’s tragedy in a posh prep school where Hugo concocts a devious plan to destroy Odin due to his jealousy of Odin’s heroic exploits on the basketball court. Stiles and Phifer have electric chemistry as the doomed lovers, playing their complex relationship with nuance and power. Stiles imbues Desi with a hidden strength and engenders empathy in the viewers, making for a heart-wrenching experience when Hugo’s plot comes to fruition and Odin tragically murders Desi. Stiles’ firm grasp of her craft and psychology helps to show the continuing relevance of Shakespeare’s work.


An itinerant storyteller, John Drain attended the University of Edinburgh before studying film at DePaul University in Chicago and later earned an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute Conservatory. John focuses on writing mysteries and thrillers featuring characters who are thrown into the deep end of the pool and struggle to just keep their heads above water. His work has been recognized by the Academy Nicholls Fellowship, the Austin Film Festival, ScreenCraft, Cinestory, and the Montreal Independent Film Festival. In a previous life, John created and produced theme park attractions across the globe for a wide variety of audiences. John keeps busy in his spare time with three Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and a seemingly never-ending stack of medieval history books.

Poor Things: Is Alice in Wonderland at the Oscars?

Seventy-two years ago, Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland walked away from the twenty-fourth Academy Awards empty-handed after composer Oliver Wallace lost to Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin (An American in Paris) for what was then called Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. In 2011 Tim Burton’s Alice adaptation took home statuettes for Best Art Direction (Robert Stromberg and Karen O’Hara) and Best Costume Design (Colleen Atwood) having also scored a nomination for Best Visual Effects. This Sunday, Alice will again be attending the Oscars. But in true Wonderland fashion, she’ll be in disguise as Emma Stone’s intrepid heroine Bella Baxter from Yorgos Lanthimos’ surreal masterpiece, Poor Things. Widely regarded as one of best films of the years, Poor Things is nominated for 11 Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress) and has already won five BAFTAs and two Golden Globes amongst a host of other awards. While the film is not an Alice adaptation, nor does it reference Lewis Carroll’s novel, but Lanthimos’ construction of the world of Poor Things and Bella’s character arc are classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an odyssey of self-discovery through a strange yet beautiful world. 

Poor Things begins as Bella Baxter ends (the first time). The eccentric (some might say mad) doctor and scientist Godwin Baxter (the sublime Willem Defoe) saves Bella’s life by transplanting the still-living brain of her unborn fetus after jumping off a bridge. As a result, Bella begins the film with the intellectual and emotional maturity of an infant. She rapidly matures, however, transitioning to a teenage mindset throughout the first act, discovering sexual pleasure and masturbation. Her world continues to broaden when she meets Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), her father’s assistant. McCandles swiftly falls for Bella and she accepts his marriage proposal. But Bella’s curiosity for the outside world and thirst for sexual exploration leads her to run off with her father’s debauched, scoundrel of lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (the delightfully outrageous Mark Ruffalo). What follows is a coming-of-age epic equal parts sensual, troubling, and enlightening. 

Still image of Emma Stone as Bella Baxter with a glass bubble over her head from Yorgos Lanthimos' "Poor Things".

So what does this have to do with Alice in Wonderland? Well, it can (and will) be argued that Bella is an Alice avatar, that Poor Things is an adult version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice’s journey is one of self-discovery, in which her journey through a strange, seemingly arbitrary world informs how she defines herself. When the Caterpillar asks Alice who she is, Alice replies, “I-I hardly know, Sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.”

Alice feeling like she has gone through rapid change mirrors Bella’s arc over the course of Poor Things. Bella rushes through her emotional development, going from an infant to an emotional mature adult in the span of about a year. Just as Alice feels anxious about her sudden changes, Bella also experiences intense shock at certain points throughout her journey. One pivotal experience comes when the cruise ship on which Bella and Duncan are traveling stops at Alexandria, Egypt. Bella disembarks and is horrified to witness the intense suffering of the city’s indigent. 

Still image of sandstone tower in Alexandria from Yorgos Lanthimos' "Poor Things".

Prior to this experience, Bella had been sheltered. Whether confined to the twisted yet familiar environs of Godwin’s home or ensconced in the variety of sensual pleasures offered by Libson hotels and Mediterranean cruise ships during her galavanting with Duncan, Bella had never experienced, much less seen, true suffering. This revelation is devastating and causes Bella to experience an existential crisis, questioning everything she’d ever been told. Her distress and inexperience with the “real world” leads her to make the impulsive decision to give the ship’s crew Duncan’s money, who falsely promise to use it to support the poor of Alexandria. This has disastrous consequences on Bella and Duncan, leaving them penniless and stranded in Marseille. Yet the experience causes Bella to grow, giving her a more realistic view of people and morality. 

One of the common beliefs about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is that it is a pure nonsense tale in which Alice breezes from one surreal episode to the next until she wakes up back in Oxford, her odyssey in Wonderland ostensibly just a dream. Yet Alice does undergo a change throughout her story. At the Knave of Hearts’ trial, Alice becomes more confident in herself, criticizing the arbitrary nature of the inquest and standing up for herself in front of the Queen of Hearts. Alice’s experiences in Wonderland did change her. Alice needed to be independent and think for herself in order to navigate that wild world and those lessons prepared her to confront the tyrannical Queen at the end of the story. 

Still image of Emma Stone as Bella Baxter in a white dress from Yorgos Lanthimos' "Poor Things".

Similarly, Bella’s experiences with Duncan, in Alexandria, and in her time as a sex worker in Marseille prepared her to confront her ex-husband, the sadistic General Alfie Blessington. Blessington was the reason for Bella’s suicide in her previous life, his cruelty and controlling nature driving her to jump into the Thames rather than let her and her child suffer under his tyranny. But by the end of the film Bella has developed a strong sense of her own independence and competency, leading her to exact revenge on her former tormentor. It is a powerful moment, showing how the lessons imparted struggle can lead to triumph. 

The world’s of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Poor Things also perform similar functions in relation to their protagonists. With both stories initially set in Victorian England, their secondary worlds provide a juxtaposition of customs and rules to the protagonists’ primary worlds. Carroll’s Wonderland is a surreal dreamworld characterized by non-existent rules and ever-changing properties. It is designed to confuse and frustrate Alice’s preconceived notions. Lanthimos’ world is not a fictional realm, it is a twisted version of our world, yet operates as Wonderland due to Bella’s unfamiliarity. The fantastical steampunk aesthetic reflects Bella’s point of view as she moves through a world filled with strange customs and confusing behavior. Both Alice and Bella have unreliable guides. Alice’s include the White Rabbit, the Caterpillar, and Cheshire Cat, while Bella must navigate the ulterior motives of Duncan and Madame Swiney in order to extract value from their examples. For both characters, their “Wonderlands” function as teachers, interacting with them so they can grow and change. 

Still image of Lisbon buildings from Yorgos Lanthimos' "Poor Things".

While not overtly influenced by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Poor Things’ narrative and protagonist certainly share Alice-ean functions and characteristics. Bella’s odyssey of self-discovery through Yorgos Lanthimos’ beautifully crafted world thematically mirrors Alice’s own journey through Wonderland, with both experiences inspiring the characters to grow, becoming more self-confident and self-assured than their former selves. Alice may not be on stage this Sunday at the Dolby Theatre nor may she be thanked if Poor Things captures any gold statuettes, but, nevertheless, the film owes a debt to the type of fantastical coming-of-age story that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland helped popularize.


An itinerant storyteller, John Drain attended the University of Edinburgh before studying film at DePaul University in Chicago and later earned an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute Conservatory. John focuses on writing mysteries and thrillers featuring characters who are thrown into the deep end of the pool and struggle to just keep their heads above water. His work has been recognized by the Academy Nicholls Fellowship, the Austin Film Festival, ScreenCraft, Cinestory, and the Montreal Independent Film Festival. In a previous life, John created and produced theme park attractions across the globe for a wide variety of audiences. John keeps busy in his spare time with three Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and a seemingly never-ending stack of medieval history books.

Before There Was Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked,” There Was Julia Stiles’ Sundance Breakout “Wicked”

For the next 10 days, Hollywood will shift to the slopes of Park City, Utah as scores of independent filmmakers will exhibit their work at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, hoping the festival serves as their coveted “breakout”. Twenty-six years ago, breakouts included Darren Aronofsky (for his debut feature Pi) and Todd Philips (for his infamous documentary Frat House). Lesser known is that Sundance 1998 was the breakout for Julia Stiles, whose turn as the sinister Ellie Christianson in Wicked made her “the darling” of the festival.

Wicked, directed by Michael Steinberg and produced by Frank Beddor, is a genre-bending thriller which Ain’t it Cool News called a “gem of the macabre,” blends noir and camp in telling the story of the twisted Christianson family. Living in the seemingly idyllic upper middle class gated community of Casa Del Norte, it might seem like the Christianson’s live a charmed life, but that facade is in constant danger of crumbling. Karen and Ben are in a loveless marriage, each involved in their own affairs. Karen with the next-door neighbor Lawson and Ben with the family’s nanny, Lena. Stiles dazzles as fourteen-year-old Ellie, an intense teen who despises her mother but is obsessed her father. The story turns sinister when Karen is brutally murdered. Ellie relishes stepping into the void left by her mother as she prepares the family’s meals, wears Karen’s clothes, and deepens her relationship with Ben in a shocking twist. All while the grizzled veteran Detective Boland begins to suspect the teenage Electra may not be so innocent in the death of her mother.

Julia Stiles and William R. Moses sitting on a couch in a production still from the 1998 thriller "Wicked".

Wicked took the festival circuit by storm, earning rave reviews for its bold take on suburban dysfunction and the blended tone. John Cooper in the Sundance 1998 program called the film “an exhilarating hybrid that continuously surprises and amuses,” while Sandy Gow wrote in their description for the Vancouver International Film Festival that “Wicked is one of those films that sucks you into its twisted realm so subtly you don’t realize how far your mind has been bent until you leave the theater.” But the most ardent praise was reserved for Stiles, who took home the Best Actress award at the 1998 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic. Brendan Peterson writing for Film/Tape World said she was “destined for greatness” while Michael Hogan in Vanity Fair wrote, “Stiles gives a smoldering performance of Wicked.” The stage was set for a career-defining reception at the country’s biggest film festival.

Although only sixteen-years-old, Julia Stiles was not a rookie when she stepped into the warped mind of Ellie Christianson. Growing up in the artistic enclave of SoHo, Stiles began acting in avant-garde theater at 11 after sending a letter to the director of the La MaMa Theatre Company asking to audition. Film and television roles quickly followed, including the David E. Kelley medical drama Chicago Hope and a turn as Harrison Ford’s daughter in the 1997 action thriller The Devil’s Own also starring Brad Pitt.

Behind-the-scenes photo of Julia Stiles sitting on a crane from the production of the 1998 thriller "Wicked".
Julia Stiles wearing a red gown holding a wine bottle and a tray of food in a production still from the 1998 thriller "Wicked".

That tenacity Stiles displayed early in her career would serve her well during the casting process for Wicked. Director Michael Steinberg (The Waterdance, Bodies, Rest & Motion) said, “The only condition Frank (producer Frank Beddor) and I set in advance of making the picture was that we had to find the right Ellie.” Beddor credited a little luck in finding their star: “I was helping to produce a short film for acting coach Larry Moses and his Director of Photography recommended a young actress. This was the first I heard of Julia Stiles.”

Beddor and Steinberg sent the script to Stiles’ manager and quickly received a hand-written letter from the teenager expressing her interest in the role. In an interview with MovieMaker, Stiles recounted what drew her to the role: “It’s a fantastic character…I constantly want to shock people. I’d much rather do a risky, groundbreaking movie than one that’s ambivalent. The key is to first shock people, then make them like it.” Beddor flew Stiles out to Los Angeles for an audition with Steinberg. “Julia and I started improvising scenes for Michael,” remembered Beddor, “and we knew…she was Ellie. She had IT. I sensed I had an opportunity to help launch…a real movie star.”

Publicity photograph of producer Frank Beddor, star Julia Stiles, and director Michael Steinberg for the 1998 thriller "Wicked".

The key to Stiles’ breakthrough performance was her nuanced understanding of Ellie and her ability to inhabit her character’s mind. In an interview with Mark Ebner for Black Book, Stiles said, “I understood Ellie. Everything she feels in the story, I have felt in some form in my life…it’s obvious on the surface that I wouldn’t carry on in my life the way Ellie feels about her father. I love my dad, but not the way she did. I couldn’t see it from the outside and look in and say, ‘Well, she’s a psycho who’s in love with her father and wants to kill her mother.’ I had to be her. I was just thinking, I’m just in love. And being angry with my mother was just anger. It just took the bare, raw emotions of love, anger, jealousy, deceit, and betrayal.”

That rare combination of acting chops and understanding of human psychology at only sixteen resulted in a powerhouse performance, one in which Stiles imbues Ellie with rage, danger, and vulnerability. It was the type of brave, daring turn that Sundance embraces. Jose Martinez of SOMA Magazine wrote that it was a “hell bent breakthrough performance…destined to grab an audience’s attention.” That line turned out to be prophetic after a line of teens crowded outside the theater clamoring for Stiles’ autograph after the film’s Sundance screening.

Publicity photograph of Julia Stiles, wearing a white jacket and jeans, for the 1998 thriller "Wicked".
Publicity photograph of Julia Stiles, wearing a blue jacket and carrying a pink suitcase, for the 1998 thriller "Wicked".

Stiles’ Sundance success wasn’t just limited to her on-camera work, however. She also earned the distinction of being the youngest writer invited to the prestigious Sundance Writers Lab for her co-written screenplay, The Anarchist’s Daughter, which follows a Lower East side “punk” who tries to figure out what insanity is by tripping on acid. Oscar winning scribe Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Mission: Impossible, and Top Gun: Maverick) served as a mentor for the program and said that Julia “has the one essential thing that you need to succeed with any hope of keeping your soul: she knows exactly what she wants.”

Stiles’ breakthrough at Sundance proved to be a launch pad for the rest of her career. Off the strength of her performance as Ellie, Stiles was cast as the headstrong Kat Stratford in Gil Junger’s teen classic 10 Things I Hate About You opposite Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Kat’s tough exterior and vulnerable core parallel Ellie’s character in a lot of ways and it’s easy to see why the filmmakers tapped Stiles for the role after seeing her work in Wicked. The Shakespeare update became a pop culture hit and Stiles was feted as one of the new faces in Hollywood and was featured in a Seventeen Magazine profile and graced the cover of Vanity Fair alongside other rising stars Adrien Brody, Reese Witherspoon, and Kate Hudson.

April 1999 cover of "Vanity Fair" magazine featuring actors Adrien Brody, Thandie Newton, Monica Poller, Reese Witherspoon, Julia Stiles, Leelee Sobieski, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Polley, Norman Reedus, Anna Friel, Omar Epps, Kate Hudson, Vinessa Shaw, and Barry Pepper.
August 1998 "Vanity Fair" magazine article featuring actor Julia Stiles in a black and purple dress.

But the outpouring of positive press didn’t affect Stiles’ seriousness about her profession. “What I wanna do is be like a chameleon,” she said, “a Laurence Olivier playing different roles.” It’s safe to say she’s done just that. Stiles’ credit list includes O, The Bourne films opposite Matt Damon, Mona Lisa Smile alongside Julia Roberts, and Silver Linings Playbook as Jennifer Lawrence’s sister. Stiles has also taken her talents to TV with a 10 episode run on Dexter and a starring role in the Amazon comedy The Lake. Stiles has also undertaken important charity work including working for Habitat for Humanity and Amnesty International. She has produced a body of excellent work in a long and diverse career, one that was jump started on the Sundance slopes due to a daring indie titled Wicked.

You can watch Julie Stiles’ breakthrough performance in Wicked on the following streaming platforms: Amazon, YouTube, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, PLEX, and Tubi.


An itinerant storyteller, John Drain attended the University of Edinburgh before studying film at DePaul University in Chicago and later earned an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute Conservatory. John focuses on writing mysteries and thrillers featuring characters who are thrown into the deep end of the pool and struggle to just keep their heads above water. His work has been recognized by the Academy Nicholls Fellowship, the Austin Film Festival, ScreenCraft, Cinestory, and the Montreal Independent Film Festival. In a previous life, John created and produced theme park attractions across the globe for a wide variety of audiences. John keeps busy in his spare time with three Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and a seemingly never-ending stack of medieval history books.

5 Pieces of Science Inspired by Alice in Wonderland

We all know Alice in Wonderland is everywhere. Since Lewis Carroll’s tale about a young girl wandering through Wonderland was published over 150 years ago, Alice has been ever-present in pop culture. There have been numerous adaptations in film, television, literature, video games, and board games. Alice’s story has directly and indirectly inspired musicians and storytellers, most recently with Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things. Words and phrases such as a “Cheshire Cat grin” and “down the rabbit hole” are constant parts of everyday speech. But Alice isn’t just ubiquitous in culture, you can also find her in every facet of science. From the cosmos to psychology, Alice has influenced how we understand and define our world.

Here are five places where you can find Wonderland in science:

The Alice Ring

Wonderland is a wild, mind-bending world entirely different from our own. However, a recent creation by Finnish and American scientists shows that our world might have more in common with Wonderland than we previously thought. The Alice Ring is a decayed monopole “that flips the magnetic charge of any other monopole passing through its center, creating an anti-monopole.”

Yes, as someone who never took physics, that was confusing for me too. A monopole is essentially a magnet with just one magnetic pole. The Alice Ring looks like a regular monopole but when you look inside, things get curiouser and curiouser. “Everything seems to be mirrored, as if the ring were a gateway into a world of antimatter instead of matter,” said co-creator Mikko Mottonen of Aalto University in Finland. A realm where everything appears to be the opposite of the norm? It makes sense why they named it after Alice. The prospect that science can quite literally create mirrored realities is both exciting and frightening, similar to Wonderland.

Medicinal Magic Mushrooms

Mushrooms are synonymous with Alice in Wonderland, especially the psychedelic ones. In the novel, Alice eats a mushroom that changes her size, evoking the hallucinogenic effects of psilocybin mushrooms. While there is no evidence psychedelics or any other type of drug, influenced Lewis Carroll, the story’s connection to mind-altering substances is undeniable, especially since the 1960s when the counterculture embraced the connections to drugs found in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Mushrooms, however, are becoming more and more mainstream. Specifically, their medicinal qualities are being fully explored for the first time. In a recent presentation to the Memphis Rotary Club, Dr. Ronald L. Cowan of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center outlined the exciting possibilities that magic mushrooms have for treating depression. Magic mushrooms showed effects in a few days to two weeks and helped to resolve depression in about two-thirds of patients, both at better rates than traditional antidepressants. Though it is a small sample size, the results are encouraging.

How does Alice play into this? The music, film, literature, and values of the 1960s counterculture that embraced and espoused the psychedelic qualities of Alice in Wonderland have become part of the mainstream, bringing with it more progressive attitudes toward drugs. It is not improbable that Alice’s role in that counterculture, along with its continuing prevalence in our culture, played a role in society being comfortable with exploring the possibly life-changing benefits of psychedelic mushrooms.

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome

Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, example of Alice in science is the mysterious Alice in Wonderland Syndrome. The rare syndrome involves distorted perception and instances of it began cropping up in medical texts around 1900. In a 1952 paper, neurologist Caro Lippman recounted several examples from patients including “a sensation of the neck extending out on one side for a foot or more,” a woman’s “left ear ‘ballooning out 6 inches or more,’” and another patient reporting that if felt like her head grew to “tremendous proportions” and floated up to the ceiling. The litany of other testimonies is very similar to Alice’s experiences in Lewis Carroll’s novel. A common thread amongst Lippman’s patients was that most also suffered from migraine headaches. This gave rise to speculation that Carroll, who also suffered from migraines, may have been directly influenced by his affliction, though no such complaints have been found in his diaries.

The cause of Alice in Wonderland Syndrome is not well understood. Brain inflammation due to the Epstein-Barr virus seems to be the most common cause of symptoms in children while symptomatic adults most often present with migraines. Tumors and schizophrenia are also potential causes. While the syndrome is just as mysterious as the inner workings of Wonderland, scientists are better able to explore the disorder due to neuroimaging technology which can help track the relationship between symptoms and brain activity.

Cheshire Cat Galaxies

The mischievous grin of the Cheshire Cat is an iconic image that has cropped up in a variety of media. The cat’s teasing, enigmatic smile can also be seen in the cosmos. The Cheshire Cat galaxies are a group of distant galaxies that resemble the grin of Lewis Carroll’s feline. The galaxies are an example of gravitational lensing, where the galaxies’ light “has been stretched and bent by the large amounts of mass,” which is usually dark matter. In this case, the mass surrounds the “eyes” and “nose”. The circular “face” is formed by the gravitational lensing of four galaxies far behind the “eye” galaxies.

But these galaxies are not just stagnating in space. Much like Wonderland, they are constantly changing. The two “eye” galaxies, for example, are on a collision course, hurtling towards each other at over 300,000 miles per hour. Astronomers believe that the Cheshire Cat galaxies will eventually become more like a Cyclops group once the two “eye” galaxies collide and merge. But don’t worry, that won’t happen for another billion years.

Borogovia Dinosaur

Lewis Carroll created many fantastical creatures for Wonderland and one of his creations lent its name to a wondrous creature of Earth – a dinosaur. The Borogovia was a small theropod (hollow bones and three toes and claws on each limb) that lived 66-84 million years ago and was first discovered in the 1970s in southern Mongolia. The Borogovia, which belongs to the group of dinosaurs that evolved into birds, reminded paleontologist Halszka Osmolska of another avian creature – Lewis Carroll’s borogoves. Borogoves are mentioned in the poem “Jabberwocky” and Humpty Dumpty describes a borogove as “a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round—something like a live mop.” The spindly legs of the dinosaur certainly evoke the characteristics of its Wonderland namesake and it’s fitting that fiction became fact and this feathered Wonderlander lives on in an ancestor of birds that once roamed Earth.


Meet The Author

An itinerant storyteller, John Drain attended the University of Edinburgh before studying film at DePaul University in Chicago and later earned an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute Conservatory. John focuses on writing mysteries and thrillers featuring characters who are thrown into the deep end of the pool and struggle to just keep their heads above water. His work has been recognized by the Academy Nicholls Fellowship, the Austin Film Festival, ScreenCraft, Cinestory, and the Montreal Independent Film Festival. In a previous life, John created and produced theme park attractions across the globe for a wide variety of audiences. John keeps busy in his spare time with three Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and a seemingly never-ending stack of medieval history books.

Take Your Writing to Wonderland: 7 Tips From Bestselling Authors

Writing is often a daunting proposition. Whether it’s a novel, screenplay, blog article, or even just an email, staring at that blank page can be paralyzing. Self-doubt can be demoralizing. Sometimes, it’s surprising that people can finish anything at all. How do published authors work through the pitfalls of writers to finish (and rewrite) their books?

That’s where we’re here to help. Through Frank’s years of doing comic cons, and introducing the world to The Looking Glass Wars, he’s been on numerous panels where writing is a main topic of discussion. The following article was constructed from his appearance on a panel at the 2015 Salt Lake Comic-Con (Link to Video when published), where he was part of an all-star lineup featuring some of the biggest names in Y.A. and Middle-Grade sci-fi/fantasy. These writers dished out indispensable writing advice that will help you fill up your blank page and take your writing to the next level.

Click here to watch the full video.


Jennifer Nielson

Picture of "The False Prince" author Jennifer Nielson.

“I want you to go out and I want you to find your favorite book, the book that made you want to become a writer. Get a fresh copy of that book because you’re going to destroy it. Go through the book the way a writer would read it. You’re going to highlight every single scene that you love. Then get your pen and start breaking that scene apart. Ask yourself, why does this work? What did my very favorite author do right? As soon as you can break that book apart and understand why it’s your favorite and understand what that author did right, you are going to know exactly what you want to put into your own writing to make yourself better.”

Jennifer Nielson is the prolific scribe of 17 novels, so it’s safe to say she knows what she’s talking about. Her debut, The New York Times Bestselling YA fantasy novel The False Prince, is the first book of the Ascendance Series, which follows an orphan who is trained to impersonate a missing prince. She has also written six YA historical fiction books, including A Night Divided, about a family that is separated by the Berlin Wall.

Platte F Clark

Picture of "Bad Unicorn" author Platte F Clark.

“I wrote my book, I picked up an agent very quickly, and we sold it very quickly. I think it was all because I was convinced this was a book that would never sell. I wrote it thinking, I’m just gonna write what I think would be funny for me to read to my kids, and my kids would like it and I would think it’s entertaining. I didn’t think about the industry. I didn’t think about what was popular. I wasn’t trying to emulate anything. I was actually just going to write a book and then get that out of my head. Then I knew I could write a book and then I was going to write a book that could actually get published. I think in the end, that served me the best because I wasn’t true to anything other than my own voice and what I wanted to do, and it seemed to work out well.”

Platte F Clark is the author of the middle-grade comedic fantasy Bad Unicorn trilogy. Called “deviously enjoyable” by Publisher’s Weekly, the series follows Max Spencer and his band of misfit friends as they’re hunted by a homicidal unicorn.

Frank Beddor

“My first novel, I had no experience with middle grade. I didn’t know anything about it, I was just writing. The protagonist starts off at seven, and then she’s 11, and then she’s 19. That was a big problem in selling the book but the book got published and people still read it and love it. Sometimes going in, ignorance is bliss. In my case, that happens a lot. But my advice is a little trick that I have when I’m writing and I’m into it and I have a really good scene. I don’t ever finish it. I put it down at the end of the day. So that the next morning when I start writing again, I know exactly what I’m going to start writing because I’m already in it. I know what I’m finishing and it just seems to set the whole day.”

It’s probably pretty safe to assume that, if you’re reading this, you know who Frank Beddor is. But let’s recap just to be safe. Frank is a former world champion skier who also produced the hit comedy There’s Something About Mary. His New York Times Bestselling trilogy, The Looking Glass Wars, exposes the true story of Wonderland and chronicles Alyss Heart, heir to the throne of Wonderland, as she fights to regain her crown from her evil aunt, Queen Redd. Beddor has added to the Wonderverse over the years with the Hatter M graphic novel series and the middle-grade novel, Hatter Madigan: Ghost in the H.A.T.B.O.X.

Michael Jensen

“I spent a lot of time stressing and worrying about getting my best ideas on paper. It wasn’t until I finally said, “You know what? I’m spending too much time on finding my best ideas. What effect can make my worst ideas work?” So, I started going to my worst ideas, the ones that just seemed the dumbest and stupid, and I went with them and I grew and I pushed it and I thought, “How creative can I be?” Those best ideas that I had were not as good as those worst ideas because of all the care and all the energy that I put into them. It sometimes takes stepping away from waiting for that perfect idea to show up in that moment of brilliance, and kind of just forcing yourself to be brilliant with some of the bad ideas that you already have.”

Michael Jensen is the author of Woven, a fantasy novel about a young ghost who teams with a spoiled princess to unravel the mystery of his murder and find an ancient needle with the magical power to mend that which has been torn. Publisher’s Weekly called Woven a “charming quest tale” while Kirkus Reviews deemed it a “sure bet for high-fantasy fans”.

Shannon Messenger

“I always say whatever ideas scare you the most, whichever idea feels like it’s gonna be the hardest to write, that’s usually the one. In fact, both of my series were ones where I thought, ‘I don’t know if I’m good enough to write that book.’

The note that I seem to give most often when I’m critiquing new middle-grade work is that the writer tends to forget that the kids need to be the hero of the story. I don’t just mean having a kid as the main character. I mean that you’re reading the book and things are going along, and then you get to the climax and the kid’s solution is they go to an adult, and the adult fixes things for them, and that’s the end of the story. But it’s middle grade, the kid is supposed to be the hero. How different would it have been if Dumbledore was the one who always stepped in and saved things, instead of letting Harry be the hero? I’ve even seen that in Y.A. drafts but it’s especially common when I’m reading middle-grade drafts. I see that a lot with newer writers. It’s like that adult sense steps in, and it’s not that they’ve dumbed down the writing or anything like that, but when they’re trying to figure out how to solve the plot, they rely on adults more than their kid characters. Really, really remember that you’re writing for kids. Let the kids be the hero of the story.”

Shannon Messenger is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, which follows a twelve-year-old Telepath who is forced to leave her earthly home and move to the Lost Cities, where fantasy creatures of all races live. Messenger has also written the Sky Fall series, in which a seventeen-year-old wind spirit falls in love with his bodyguard and battles an evil rival.

James A. Owen

Picture of "Imaginarium Geographica" author James A. Owen.

“The best advice I could give to any writer, whether it’s middle grade, Y.A., whatever you’re writing, is to finish what you start. No one ever really writes a great book. You write a book that you then fix to make as good as you possibly can. I see so many people who are stuck in the middle of a draft, or redrafting or rewriting something and not actually finishing it. You need to finish so that you and your readers, or an editor or an agent have a sense of the entire story that you’re trying to tell. Then you have something that you can actually shape. Sometimes that shaping is small, sometimes it’s going to be huge.

I was six books into the Imaginarium Geographica series and one of my best editors at Simon & Schuster said, “There’s something that isn’t working for this, and here’s how I think we should fix it. What do you think?” And I said, “You are absolutely right.” The solution was, what was originally the prologue in that book became the epilogue and I removed a major character who was in every single chapter. I had to rewrite the entire book. It was excruciating, very excruciating. All along the way you’re giving up lines because now there are conversations that are gone and you can’t repurpose those, you can’t just replace it with another character, because he’s built into the story you’re telling. My editor was right. We could have pushed it out. I could have been a prima donna and said, “Well, this is the sixth book and you got what you’re getting and I’m going to Disneyland.” But she was right and the book was better because we made those changes. Because of those changes, the seventh book in the series, The First Dragon, was the one that was most technically flawless. I had seven lines in my editor’s letter for that book and a note that said, “Apparently, after seven books, you’ve got this down.” That’s all I got.”

James A. Owen is best known as the author of The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica series, which features fictionalized versions of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams who find themselves in possession of a book that holds maps to the worlds of our literary heritage. Owen is also the creator of the comic book series Starchild

James Dashner

Picture of "Maze Runner" author James Dashner.

“When I get an editorial letter, I read it and then I take 48 hours off because I’m so depressed. I just watch movies and sit around and mope. Then usually after that 48 hours, I start to realize it’s not as bad as I first felt. Every time you just start thinking, “This is going to be the one where you get, ‘Wow, this book’s actually perfect. I don’t have any changes for you.’

I am terrible at writing advice. It’s hard for me to articulate how I write books. But one thing that always stands out to me is, and it might be obvious but, it is all about the characters. Face up and make your characters the most important thing that you throw all your devotion into. Every book I’ve ever loved is because I fell in love with and made a connection with the characters. I felt anxious to just even hear them have regular conversations. I just felt like it was there. I grew to care for them and love them. If you just have these really shallow characters and they’re all exactly the same, when they have an action scene and they die, you’d be like, “I don’t care. I hope this guy dies. He’s boring as heck.” Just setting cannot overcome weak characters. Action and suspense cannot overcome weak characters. The most beautiful prose ever written by a human cannot overcome weak characters. So really, really focus on your characters as you write your books and make people care about them.”

With over 21 million books sold, James Dashner is the author of The Maze Runner novels, a Y.A. dystopian science fiction series set in a world devastated by a succession of solar flares and coronal mass ejections. The books spawned a popular film trilogy that grossed nearly $1 billion at the box office. Dashner’s other work includes Y.A. sci-fi series The 13th Reality and The Mortality Doctrine. The Godhead Complex, the seventh book in The Maze Runner series, was released in November 2023.


Meet The Author:

An itinerant storyteller, John Drain attended the University of Edinburgh before studying film at DePaul University in Chicago and later earned an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute Conservatory. John focuses on writing mysteries and thrillers featuring characters who are thrown into the deep end of the pool and struggle to just keep their heads above water. His work has been recognized by the Academy Nicholls Fellowship, the Austin Film Festival, ScreenCraft, Cinestory, and the Montreal Independent Film Festival. In a previous life, John created and produced theme park attractions across the globe for a wide variety of audiences. John keeps busy in his spare time with three Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and a seemingly never-ending stack of medieval history books.