In Alice in Wonderland movies (including, by the looks of things, the new Tim Burton one), Carroll's two stories tend to be strangely combined. Admittedly, because my copy includes both stories, I have always read them together. But, even as a kid, I knew that the white rabbit's world was one of cards and the world of Tweedledum and Tweedledee was set on a chess board.
In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is just minding her own business outside, sort-of listening to her sister but really playing with her cat Dinah. Then, a white rabbit in a waistcoat runs by. So naturally, Alice follows the white rabbit down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Or rather, into a long corridor filled with doors she can't open. And then she discovers a table with a key on it. But the key only fits into a tiny door that Alice is much to big to fit through. Luckily, magically, a bottle appears with a label saying "Drink Me" tied to its neck. Alice obliges (after diligently checking to see if it had the marks of poison on it - don't let it be said that Carroll was without morals) and quickly shrinks. The shrinking (and subsequent growing) motif is a common one in Wonderland and in the beginning, brings Alice to tears (mostly of frustration, I think).
But eventually she makes her way through the little door and into Wonderland. Once there, she engages in a ridiculous caucus-race, explodes into a giant inside the white rabbit's house, meets the caterpillar who sits on the infamous mushroom, attends the Mad Hatter's tea party (although I must say I always thought the March Hare and the Doormouse were the most interesting of the guests), tries to talk with the constantly disappearing and reappearing Cheshire Cat, plays croquet with the Queen of Hearts (using a flamingo for a mallet and a hedgehog for a ball), listens to the story of the Mock Turtle in the company of a Gryphon, and goes to court for allegedly stealing the Queen of Hearts' tarts. It's an absolute whirlwind of adventure (and I left bits out!) and a very quick read.
In Through the Looking Glass, Alice is a bit older and instead of playing with Dinah at the beginning of the story, she is playing with Dinah's kittens. And she is indoors, in the drawing room, which is where she notices that in the mirror there is a Looking-Glass House, which is exactly like hers only backward. So Alice decides to explore the Looking-Glass House further and visiting it, whereupon she encounters a garden of rather rude talking flowers. The main premise of the Looking-Glass world is that it's all a giant chess board, and after Alice enters the board she's obliged to play the game. In doing so, she encounters Tweedledee and Tweedledum (who tell her the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter and all the poor little oysters), Humpty Dumpty, and the Red and White Queens (among others).
Usually I hate it when the main character wakes up at the end of the story (which Alice does in both books) because it throws all the action into a wishy-washy light and often seems to indicate a lack of follow-through on the author's part. But, here it works for me. Maybe it's because the worlds Alice visits are so strange that they really work as the kind of disjointed dreamworld that most readers have experienced at one time or another. And whether or not the stories are the result of Carroll's own opium-induced dreaming, Alice's perspective and language certainly ring true.
But beyond the dreamy quality of Alice, what I love most about the books are all the extra poems and songs and stories that Carroll includes. "The Jabberwocky" and "The Walrus and the Carpenter" (both from Through the Looking Glass) are probably my favourites, but "You are Old Father William" and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat" (from Wonderland) are also excellent. Carroll has such a knack for language and parody, which makes Alice a real treasure-trove for a reader, allowing you to pick up on different angles and suggestions each time you read it.
Alice's Adventures In Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass
by Lewis Carroll
First published in 1865 (Wonderland) and 1871 (Looking-Glass) (Cover image shown from 1968 Magnum Easy Eye edition)