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ALICE AT 150

A HISTORY OF WONDERLAND ON FILM

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By Daniel Lammin
4th July 2015
This week, Lewis Carroll’s seminal children’s classic ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ celebrates its 150th anniversary. Of course there are many other classic novels that have been around much longer, but there are very few books for children that have not only survived the test of time as well as ‘Alice’, but have become such a part of our collective consciousness and imagination. It has always remained in print and intact, never a word changed and almost always accompanied by John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations. Along with its sequel ‘Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There’, it has been studied, debated over, analysed, praised, damned and adored almost more than any other book in the English language. Perhaps what is most incredible though is that, even after a century and a half, it’s still as magical, hilarious, hypnotic and wildly entertaining as the day it was published.

Carroll’s masterpieces is among my favourite books, so much so that I own at least three different editions, studied them at university and always make sure I have a copy handy when I go on a long holiday. So as you can imagine, being a film buff and an ‘Alice’ fanatic, I’ve spent a lot of time trawling through the numerous film and television adaptations. Some are sublime and some are garbage, so to commemorate her 150th anniversary, I’m going to share with you my thoughts on some of the most significant adaptations of Alice’s journey through Wonderland, including some gems you may have never heard of.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933)
In an effort to save themselves from bankruptcy, Paramount threw every resource and major star they had into this lavish adaptation. For a film very few people have heard of or remember it always comes as a shock to see names like Cary Grant, W.C. Fields and Gary Cooper in the cast list. Working off a recently successful stage adaptation, the film follows a pattern which would become standard for ‘Alice’ adaptations, combining the two books into a single film. For 1933, this was a huge production with lavish sets and ground-breaking special effects. Unfortunately it was a flop, many blaming the fact that the all-star cast were unrecognisable under the creature effects. Watching it today it hasn’t aged well, the old Hollywood charm seeming at odds with Carroll’s cracking wit, and the creature designs don’t hold up well, so that many characters look like potatoes with eyes and a mouth. It was also cut to ribbons before release, so there’s a haphazard quality to it. It’s not much more than a curiosity now, but it is significant in one respect – it is still the only live-action Hollywood film to directly adapt the Alice Books.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951)
If there is one adaptation almost everyone knows, it’s this one from Walt Disney. The legendary animator had already referenced Alice in his early shorts, but they had very little to do with the novels themselves. Making this film almost drove the filmmakers insane trying to tame Carroll’s novels, but the results are just sublime. Sure, they change many of the songs and some of the story, they add characters and pick-and-choose what they want from the two books, but what the Disney film captures that no other film has yet to capture is the energy, the wit and the comedy of Carroll’s books. It moves at a cracking pace, it revels in the silly and absurd and, most important of all, it’s wildly entertaining. Disney would later say that ‘Alice’ was one of the most difficult projects the studio ever worked on, but all that effort to get it right pays off and then some. The animation is gorgeous, the storytelling is flawless and while it might not follow the books to the letter, it captures their soul and magic. As far as I’m concerned, this is still the best adaptation of the Alice Books ever made.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1966)
Of the films on this list, this is the one you’ve likely never heard of. It was the first significant television adaptation of ‘Alice’, commissioned by the BBC and directed by acclaimed theatre director Jonathan Miller. However, rather than aiming for a young audience, this is an Alice for adults, drawing on the satirical side of the novels. There are no creature costumes or magical sets, Miller shooting on Victorian locations across England with a staggering cast playing their characters as human beings, regardless of whether they are animal, vegetable or mineral. This is ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as performed by Peter Sellers, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Leo McKern, Anna-Marie Mallik and Alan Bennett, with a score by Ravi Shankar and shot in haunting black-and-white. Now don’t tell me that doesn’t sound pretty goddamn awesome. By bringing out the social commentary hidden in the novels, the film highlights the secret genius in Carroll’s writing, and conjures up a vision of Alice unlike anything seen before or since. It was practically impossible to get for decades until the success of the 2010 Tim Burton film prompted a long-awaited DVD release (probably the only good thing that film did). If you have any interest in the Alice Books, you must see this extraordinary film. For this Alice fanatic, it was a jaw-dropping experience.
ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (1972)
I’m only going to give this British musical a passing mention if only to tell you to avoid at all costs. Don’t be drawn in by it having Michael Crawford, Ralph Richardson, Peter Sellers and Dennis Waterman in it – this is a dull, horrid and infantile adaptation that pulls off the most heinous crime of being stupidly boring. I never even finished watching it. Do yourself a favour and go nowhere near the horrid thing!
DREAMCHILD (1985)
I’m breaking my rule here – ‘Dreamchild’ isn’t an adaptation of the Alice Books, but it’s worth mentioning because it’s one of the only films to address the author himself, the Reverend Charles Dodgson (known to us as Lewis Carroll) and his muse Alice Liddell. Written by acclaimed screenwriter Dennis Potter, the film not only addresses their legacy but also their unusual and uncomfortable relationship. In 1932, Alice Hargreaves (Coral Browne) travels to New York to speak at a celebration of the centenary of Carroll’s birth. The experience causes her to revisit and re-examine her childhood friendship with Carroll (Ian Holm). Rather than avoiding the uncomfortable, the film directly addresses the darker undercurrent of Carroll’s feelings towards the young Alice, even using moments from the novels themselves, brought to life beautifully by the Jim Henson Creature Workshop. It isn’t a hidden classic by any means, but the beautiful performances and sharp writing give an insight into the soul behind ‘Alice’ and the two people responsible for her creation.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1985)
Most people of my generation will probably know this one almost as well as the Disney film, as it was one of the biggest TV mini-series of its day. Commissioned by CBS and produced by Irwin Allen, it was an enormous production with big production values and an all-star cast, including Carol Channing ("Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday..."), Roddy McDowell and Red Buttons. It works much better as a piece of childhood nostalgia or loveable camp than a certified classic, especially the stupid songs that replace the ones in the books, but the two-part series is significant for two reasons. Firstly, as far as I can see, it was the first to attempt adapting both books as fully as possible, and secondly it tried to hold Carroll’s episodic narrative together by giving Alice a strong motivation. It still doesn’t entirely work, but it has a charm of its own and it at least tries its best to do the book justice.
ALICE (1988)
Radical Czech filmmaker and animator Jan Švankmajer made a bizarre offering to the canon of Alice films with his free adaptation of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, combining live action with his own iconic style of stop-motion animation. I’m not even sure how to describe it - something like a fever dream populated with the characters and ideas of the Alice Books, executed with a kind of clockwork nightmare style. That isn’t to say this is a "dark Alice" (which is a frustrating concept on its own, don’t even get me started), but by filtering Carroll’s story through his own cultural and artistic sensibilities, Švankmajer pulls out some of the more uncomfortable imagery of the books and dissects them with his camera like a scalpel. The Alice Books are rich material for analysis, and this film seems to be digging deep into the subconscious of the book. It’s a slow and very meticulous film, but for those with the patience (and the stomach), it’s a stunning film and probably the strangest of the Alice adaptations.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1999)
The Alice Books have always attracted more attention from television rather than cinema (probably because of the difficulties inherent in adapting it), and this NBC-commissioned version is the most recent attempt. Once again, we have another incredible cast (which is probably thanks to the book’s legacy and the tiny size of most parts), including Miranda Richardson, Martin Short, Whoopi Goldberg, Christopher Lloyd, Gene Wilder, Ben Kingsley, Peter Ustinov and Pete Postlethwaite, tackling both books in a surprisingly effective adaptation. Like the 1985 mini-series, Alice is given a stronger motivation than in the books (as well as being significantly older), the filmmakers pulling on the theme in the novel of the transition from childhood to adulthood. For the most part it works beautifully – the performances are consistently excellent, the production design is a gorgeous attempt the recreate Tenniel’s drawings, and the classical texture of the book is preserved. The only thing lacking is the fun and energy of the book. This ‘Alice’ is a plodding one, taking its time and missing much of the humour. There probably aren’t many other films as reverent of the original novels, but that seems to be a hindrance rather than a help. Still, it’s one of the better adaptations out there.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)
‘Alice’ by name but certainly not ‘Alice’ in any other way, this abysmal blockbuster hit is easily one of the worst adaptations of Carroll’s books. Rather than adapting the books themselves, it’s a kind of sequel about some silly nonsense where Alice goes back to Underland (name changed because reasons) to fulfil a prophecy (there’s now a prophecy in the story because reasons) to save the world from the Red Queen (who is suddenly the villain because reasons) with the help of the Mad Hatter (who is now a full-character named Tarrant and is a potential love interest because reasons). Not only does the film not work as an adaptation (making up funny words and names does not make you Lewis Carroll, Linda Wolverton!) it barely works as a film on its own right. I could literally spend hours telling you all the reasons this film is an offensive mess, but the film pretty much speaks for itself. And now they’re making a sequel called ‘Through the Looking Glass’ which will undoubtedly have nothing to do with that book and apparently features the Mad Hatter’s Dad. Because reasons.

And that’s just scratching the surface of the legacy of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ on film. There are other adaptations and spin-offs, there are original works inspired by it and even a porn version or two. It’s little wonder though why these books have inspired filmmakers since the invention of cinema – there are few as rich and iconic as Lewis Carroll’s two masterpieces, filled with visual treats and memorable characters. We’ve been beguiled by Alice for 150 years, and I have no doubt we’ll still be talking about her (and making movies about her) in another 150 years from now.

And if anyone needs someone to make a new big-screen adaptation, I do have one ready to go. Just saying.

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