Maybe watching too many Alice in Wonderland’s has started to mess with me.
It started on Christmas night in the early 90s when the 1985 miniseries played on television. This was my first exposure to Wonderland and from then on, this was the benchmark on which to base my view of all adaptations.
It’s really hard to pinpoint what it is about Alice and her adventures which have captured our imagination for over a century. He may have published other works, but Lewis Carroll will always be the man who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865.
Born Charles Dodgson in January 1832, Lewis Carroll (as he ended up being known) remained an enigma and mystery for the majority of his life, very much reflected in the nonsensical goings-on in his books. His eventual friendship with fellow Englishman Henry Liddell and his children (Ina, Alice and Edith) would prove inspirational, especially his tradition of taking the girls out on the river for picnics in England. A fictionalised account of this time is portrayed in Dreamchild (1985).
It was on one such picnic that Dodgson invented the outline of the Alice story. Encouraged to write it down, the book sold well and Carroll followed it with Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There in 1872. Over time, both books have been wedged together as one complete book… and this, my friend, is where things get disjointed, almost nonsensical (Alice would approve). Characters and worlds from both books have intertwined via popular culture and now we expect many norms in the adaptations.
Since the early 1900s, filmmakers have been drawn to the story of Alice. Being a huge fan, it irks me when they take too many liberties with the story, hence distorting which is what in both Wonderland and Looking Glass-land.
Scholars over the years have said Alice in Wonderland is unfilmable. Not because the imagery is hard to re-create, but due to its lack of climactic scenes and no middle or end. She wakes up, it was all just a dream – the end.
Essentially, the book shows a young Alice dealing with her own fantasy world, one free from the restrictions of Victorian society in which she inhabited. I believe the characters in Wonderland represent the elders she ‘deals with’ in the real world, however her Wonderland experiences attempt to make sense of the otherworldly things adults can tend to say! By turning them into animals, Carroll has almost made them caricatures.
Film adaptations are mixed: from the surreal, to the very Victorian in feel (echoing the setting of the original book) to the star-studded musical extravanaganza that either lovingly adapt or happily butcher Carroll’s work for the sake of following the Hollywood template. Tenniel’s original illustrations from the books have influenced the traditional look of the characters but Disney also had its hand in moulding our perception of what the characters should look like.
Signs you could be watching an Alice In Wonderland movie adaptation:
- Forgettable songs: It is understandable when these are musically structured, based on Carroll original lyrics in the books. But other songs are used to ‘flesh out’ the story and they can be awful! Perhaps an exception is Disney’s 1951 score which is adequate (but not overly memorable).
- All-star cast: Stars take the cameo character roles, hidden under garish makeup and animal costumes rendering them unrecognisable.
- Taking liberty with the books: Blending both the first and second books’ plots (and characters) and hoping no-one will really notice. Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Walrus and the Carpenter, the garden of live flowers, and even the Jabberwocky, are all elements of the Looking Glass book that seem quite at home in the first story and are often incorporated in film adaptations.
So here’s a look at the key adaptations which are deemed most influential. There are many more, if you dig deep. A few of these had no theatrical release, but have been included anyway.
Kristian’s Top 9 Alice in Wonderland adaptations from Worst to Best
Too many Alices (can there ever be too many?) and many hours spent in Wonderland has left with me with the following list:
9. Alice In Wonderland (2010)
What’s this? Johnny Depp in a Tim Burton movie… with Helena Bonham Carter. Again. Burton has successfully messed up Alice’s world and created an entirely new plot based on the existing characters. The biggest mistake he made was not renaming it to something along the lines of ‘Alice Returns to Wonderland’. I anticipated a sea of tears, and a Mock Turtle, but alas no. Burton has said the original Alice stories didn’t appeal to him but he was most likely drawn to the potential big dollars and teaming with Disney as his reasoning. Off with its head!
8. Alice (1988)
What’s this? A surreal Czech film directed by Jan Svankmajer which features a slew of unusual (terrifying?) images. For example, the White Rabbit breaks out of a glass case, walks over the glass from the case, and continually sews himself back up as sawdust spills from his side. Creepy…
7. Alice In Wonderland (1966)
What’s this? In this tv movie directed by Jonathan Miller, Alice leaves the Liddell picnic to encounter the characters of Wonderland, who remain in Victorian dress, almost reinforcing the thought that all characters were a representation of adults in Alice’s ‘real world’.
6. Alice in Wonderland (1999)
What’s this? Released a year after British telemovie Alice Through The Looking Glass (below) this could quite easily be the sister to that film in tone and feel. Starring Martin Short, Whoopi Goldberg, Gene Wilder and many more big names, it starts off as a promising adaptation… but then comes Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and well… we’ve entered Looking Glass territory again for no reason.
5. Alice Through The Looking Glass (1998)
What’s this? Starring Kate Beckinsale and Steve Coogan, this is the best adaptation of Carroll’s follow-up book. It probably shouldn’t be on this list as it’s only really a ‘sequel’ movie, but – thank you, Britain’s Channel 4, for putting the story straight in this tv movie.
4. Alice In Wonderland (1933)
What’s this? The earliest of the versions I have watched. The film uses elements from both books, with director Norman Z. McLeod moulding Looking Glass with Wonderland seamlessly.
3. Disney’s Alice In Wonderland (1951)
What’s this? This works as a slick/mainstream Alice adaptation, made palatable for children and Disney’s typical audience through animation. The film was an initial failure, believed to be due to the film’s “unfilmable” nature. One reviewer called it “a series of disconnected bits of weirdness”. Correct, but it was oh-so-influential. Heck, who doesn’t think of some of the Disney characters when we read Alice in Wonderland? They are so engrained in our psyche. You can’t diss it either: the basic Wonderland plot is there.
2. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1972)
What’s this? A solid British musical film adaptation that seems to use most of the original dialogue (but had to bring in Tweedledee and Tweedledum to flesh it out, didn’t they!). Robert Helpmann (The Childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) makes an appearance as the Mad Hatter, as does Michael Crawford as the White Rabbit.
1. Alice in Wonderland (1985)
What’s this? This is the two-part television miniseries I fell in love with as a kid. It is definitely flawed and falls a bit flat halfway through Part Two but it has this innocence which seems to permeate a lot of 80s films. It harks back to the era of live television specials. Still, it has many great moments for me: Carol Channing as the White Queen turning into a sheep (singing “Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday… but never ever jam today!”). Or what about Oscar-winner Shelley Winters, doing nothing but squawking like a bird because she actually forgot her lines! Be sure to watch this one – it’s the adaptation against which all others should be measured.
Still to come…
In 2016 comes the follow-up to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, with Australian Mia Wasikowska and Johnny Depp reprising their roles as Alice and the Mad Hatter respectively – only this time, the sequel, titled Through The Looking Glass, will be directed by The Muppets’ James Bobin.
Still, I think we are due for another big screen reboot of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. You know the type I mean: an all-star cast and a solid, accurate adaptation of the work with every scene intact. However, maybe hold off on the songs…