Alice in Wonderland is one of the most adapted works in cinema, which is surprising, really, when you reflect on the fact that the book is pretty much unfilmable. There’s no real narrative thread besides ‘Alice is curious’ and the story is little more than a series of tableaux where Carroll can flex his surrealist prose. In light of the recent Burton riff on this very popular story, I thought I’d do a little historical trek through the numerous filmed versions of this famous novel. (No I haven’t seen the 1976 porn version so don’t expect a review).
Alice in Wonderland – 1903
Directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow, this was a work made only 37 years after the novel was written. It was originally 800ft or 12 minutes long, but 4 minutes have been sadly lost to time. When made, it was the longest film ever produced in Britain.
There’s a very homemade aesthetic to the movie, Hepworth and Stow usually worked on documentaries so they had no access to professional actors. Hepworth appears in the film as the Frog Footman and his wife plays both the White Rabbit and the Red Queen. Alice was played by Mabel Clark, who also worked as a runner and secretary for the production. The interiors were filmed on a small wooden stage outside Hepworth and Stow’s studio and the exteriors were shot at Mount Felix Gardens.
Of particular interest in this film is the way the shot compositions match the original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel. Demonstrating how, even in it’s early form, film was intrinsically influenced by other visual arts.
The movie was recently restored and correctly tinted by the British Film Institute and can now be enjoyed by all thanks to the miracle of YouTube.
There was a 1910 single reel adaptation of the story, produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company and directed by Edwin S. Porter, who is most famous for making “The Great Train Robbery”. I have looked for evidence of surviving prints but have been unable to uncover any and this film may be lost.
Here’s a still from the film that I found on Wikipedia, showing the Tea Party scene.
Alice in Wonderland – 1915
So, we move on to the second US adaptation of Carroll’s novel, a six reeler directed by W.W. Young. With this film, we can already see how much more sophisticated filmmaking was becoming. Of particular note is the wonderful art direction and costuming. The White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat look much better than their 1903 counterparts and the 15 year old actress Viola Savoy, who was already famous for her performance in “The Littlest Rebel”, does a superior job as Alice, though she does it in the typical over-expressive silent hammy way.
The language of montage was just about to take a quantum leap forward with Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”, but at the time of this film’s production, the close-up and mid-shot were still considered fairly experimental and inter-cutting, whilst more prevalent, was not yet the norm. As a result the film still has a very stage-bound look and almost all the action takes place in single fixed shots.
Thanks to YouTube, what remains of the film can be watched for free and online.
The first sound version of the story was produced in 1931, again in the US, and was made to coincide with the centennial of Lewis Carroll’s birth. It was directed by Bud Pollard, who made few films and all of them are supposedly middling. By all accounts, despite the significant promotion this film received, it was seen as a flop by critics and audiences, who found the low budget shoddiness of the sets and costumes appalling and the attempts by the actors to put on English accents embarrassingly bad, particularly Ruth Gilbert as Alice. I haven’t seen it myself.
Alice in Wonderland – 1933
However, I have seen this 1933 version, which is still not great but almost certainly superior. It had a much higher budget and features an astonishingly good cast. At this point, Paramount Studios was on the verge of bankruptcy and so assembled 25 of their most famous actors and poured money into this relatively extravagant version of Alice in Wonderland in a last ditch attempt to stave off financial ruin. As a result, the film has an insane roster of all-star talent filling all of the roles.
With a young, not-yet-famous Cary Grant as Mock Turtle, W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, Richard Arlen as the Cheshire Cat, Ned Sparks as The Caterpillar and Gary Cooper as The White Knight among others, the film is a who’s-who of early talkie talent. I have to give special credit to Edward Everett Horton for giving one of THE most manic portrayals of The Mad Hatter ever committed to celluloid.
The movie was directed by Norman Z. McLeod who is probably most famous for “Pennies From Heaven” and “It’s a Gift” as well as adapted by the great 4 time Oscar winner Joeseph L. Mankiewicz, who wrote “All About Eve” amongst others. The script was heavily influenced by the recent 1932 Broadway adaptation done by Eva Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus.
I have to say that the costumes and set look fucking creepy in this version, there’s a large amount of puppetry and prosthetics employed, and characters such as Tweedledee and Tweedledum look disturbingly close to Butterball from “Hellraiser”. The art direction was largely done by the legendary William Cameron Menzies, one of the great unsung auteurs of early Hollywood. This film is a superb example of how his almost avant-garde sensibilities could take films into interesting places.
This is also the first time animation would be used in an Alice adaptation, Fleischer studios were commissioned to produce the Walrus sequence and out of all the parts of the film, this one holds up the best.
I’ve heard this has finally gotten a DVD release somewhere, but why bother when YouTube is there for you?
Betty in Blunderland – 1934
Probably inspired by his work on the 1933 live action film, Max Fleischer produced a Betty Boop cartoon which takes place in a copyright nebulous place called “Blunderland”. The manic energy of Fleischer’s animation style makes this the most entertaining of the early Alice adaptations. There’s several cute “urban” twists on the fabled land, such as the tunnel to Blunderland being a subway, the magic shrink potion being dispensed from a bar and the Mock Turtle being equipped with a machine gun. We can also see just how much Disney would take away from Fleischer’s treatment of the characters, with the Walrus in particular basically just being copied frame for frame.
Alice in Wonderland – 1949
This French/UK adaptation is the first to be made in colour, though it was filmed in the more degradable form of Ansocolor rather than the resilient Technicolor process and was pretty much impossible to watch until a recent restoration. Directed by Lou Bunin and Dallas Bower, it was also the first to employ stop-motion animation and puppetry for all the inhabitants of Wonderland, with only Alice, played by Carol Marsh, as a real human. Next to Jan Svankmajer’s version this is probably the most disturbing one I’ve seen. A lot of the creatures look like something out of my worst nightmares, with the rabbit and caterpillar suffering most egregiously from this process. The film also is unfortunately marred by several flat out terrible musical sequences.
Despite this, I feel confident is stating that this is by far the most accurate adaptation of Carroll’s book. Most of the lines are largely unchanged and the order of events pretty much exactly copies the book. For those looking for the utmost faithful version of the novel, you’ve found it.
This film had the misfortune to try for a US release three months before Disney’s own version was due to hit the screens. Ol’ Walt, colossal Jew-hating asshole that he was, took the makers of the film to court on the grounds of “unfair competition” and tried to get its release delayed by 18 months on the basis that the public ‘identified the title Alice in Wonderland with the Disney version’. This is before it was even released!
Sadly, the film only exists on a near bootleg-quality DVD at present, although hopefully with the 2008 restoration there’ll be a re-release soon. Here’s a clip which should give you an idea of what the film’s aesthetic is like.
Alice in Wonderland – 1951
I won’t spend a lot of time talking about this one as you’ve no doubt all seen it. I will say that it is probably one of the crown jewels in Disney’s embarrassingly overloaded trove of masterpieces. There’s a fascinating plasticity to the animation style that’s employed here, with characters and locations vanishing, flexing, shifting, molding. Everything seems to constantly be moving and, like Alice, we can never seem to get a comprehensive view of where we are. Mary Blair’s wonderful Modernist take on the backgrounds of Wonderland also adds a definitive surrealist tone to the proceedings, with plenty of bizarre colours and details popping out of the screen at all times. The voice acting is uniformly excellent and I must say that this still has the best version of The Queen of Hearts ever filmed. The colour scheme is riotous and the music is also extremely good. If you haven’t seen it yet, get on it! It’s no doubt the easiest version to find.
Alice in Wonderland – 1966
For some reason of weird serendipity, THREE versions of Alice in Wonderland were released in 1966, with none coming out for 15 years after Disney’s version. There was a French film called “Alice in the Wonderland of Paris”, which I haven’t seen but by all accounts has pretty much nothing to do with the original story. There was also a Hanna-Barbara hour long animated TV special called “Alice in Wonderland (or What’s a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?)” which features music by Sammy Davis Jr and voice acting by Zsa Zsa Gobar, Harvey Korman and Don Messick, as well as the Flintstones for some reason. It’s poorly paced and has the signature Hanna-Barbara slave-labour-by-Koreans look.
The UK-produced filmed stage version by Jonathon Miller is by far the best of the three. There’s a great cast including Peter Sellers as the King of Hearts, Sir John Gielguld as Mock Turtle, Michael Redgrave as The Caterpillar and Peter Cook as the Mad Hatter. The music is by the famous Ravi Shankar and has a decidedly ‘trippy’ tone to it.
The set, which was shot at Netley Hospital, is notably less impressive than most other versions of the film, but the performances easily rank as some of the most engaging. It is a very dated picture, but there’s a thrilling energy to the strength of the acting on display and this is also probably the version which most directly taps into Carroll’s more satirical ideas, with the Red King and Queen being dressed as if they were Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Keep an eye out for an appearance by a very young Eric Idle.
Again available totally free thanks to YouTube.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – 1972
The next version of this story which would hit the screen was the 1972 UK adaptation directed by William Sterling, which for many hardcore AIW hounds stands as the best version and I’m inclined to agree. It has some amazingly great performances and is remarkably faithful to the original TONE of the book, which so few of the adaptations even attempt to replicate. Teenage actor Fiona Fullerton gives us the best version of Alice ever, with a great combination of pluck, curiosity and firm-mindedness. It’s a shame her adult career never took off as she’s able to more than hold her own against a positively decadent cast. You’ve got Michael Crawford as the White Rabbit, Dudley Moore as the Doormouse and Peter Sellers again, this time as the March Hare as well as many many many others. Not to mention John Barry does the score. The music is mostly pretty good and not at all as grating as the 1949 version, though the ones which use Carroll’s original words rather than Don Black’s fare the best. The costumes are well done and the set is very inventive for what was obviously a somewhat middle-budgeted affair. I have to say that this is only the second version to be filmed in colour live action and it definitely uses its pallet exceedingly well.
This is about to get a re-release on DVD but if you can’t wait, here it is on YouTube.
Alice at the Palace – 1981
I really don’t know why this keeps happening, but in 1981 AGAIN there were three versions made simultaneously. One was an animated Polish/Belgian collaboration called “Alice” which features French actress Sophie Barjac in the title role. I’ve never seen it so I can’t tell you if it’s any good. It used to be on VHS but has long fallen into being out of print. If someone can point me in the direction of a copy I’d like to get my hands on it.
Another was a filmed version of “Alice at the Palace” which stars Meryl Streep (!!!) and is a completely stage-bound musical affair, being a direct recording of Elizabeth Strado’s “Alice in Concert” show. Emile Adrolino directs one of the worst adaptations I have ever seen. Meryl tries her best but watching a 32 year old woman attempt to be a child is just too embarrassing for everyone concerned. Tom Hanks she ain’t. The set design is awful, the costumes comically lazy and the songs, Jesus Christ, the SONGS!
If you have a sense of morbid curiosity, here you go.
Alisa v Strane Chudes – 1981
The third film of 1981… oh man the third…
Trust the Russians to make something as bugnuts insane as this. Made with a truly weird combination of cut-out animation and more traditional 2D cells, “Alisa v Strane Chudes’ takes us on a truly mind-shattering trip down the rabbit hole. This version makes way less sense than any other, even the book itself. The animation is completely off the wall, with the director Efrem Pruzhanskiy apparently employing a ‘kitchen sink’ method to the style. The voice acting is great and the songs are just… messed up…
With a running time of only 30 minutes broken into three blocks of 10 minutes, this film moves at breakneck speed and doesn’t include a lot of the denizens of Wonderland but it’s something you’ve just gotta see.
It’s available on YouTube, but sadly only the first clip has English subtitles. If anyone knows Russian and wants to translate the other two you’d be doing every Alice fan in the world a huge favour!
Fushigi no Kuni no Alice – 1985
There were two other versions of Alice in Wonderland which were shot between 1981 and 1983, neither of which I’ve seen. The first was “Alice in Wonderland” (1982) a US TV-Movie directed by John-Clarke Donahue which some people swear is one of the best ever made but I’ve found it impossible to track down.
The other “Alice in Wonderland” (1983) was a filmed version of the Broadway revival of the Eva Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus musical. It stars numerous famous actors but is, again, impossible to track down and what you can see of it looks at best unpromising. Check out Andre Gregory’s truly weird and aggressive performance as the Mad Hatter.
I guess you can’t always be making stuff like “My Dinner With Andre”, right?
Then, in 1983, came the first television show based off of Carroll’s book. This time the Japanese would have a crack at the story, with the wondrously bizarre cartoon show “Fushigi no Kuni no Alice”. Although the format is a little different, as every episode begins with Alice segueing into Wonderland and ends with her ‘waking up’, the show is surprisingly engaging. All the characters are there and whilst there’s almost no fidelity to the story, there’s an undeniable sweetness to the show that I find very enjoyable.
Here’s a clip to give you an idea of the style of animation, which is nowhere near as complex as Disney’s but has a certain simplistic charm to it. Yes Japanophiles, I know this is a dubbed version.
Alice in Wonderland – 1985
This is probably the most well known one after Disney’s. The 1985 US TV-movie was something of a phenomenon when it was released, especially for kids who watched it and have now grown in into uber-nostalgic hipsters. I have to say, however, I don’t think much of this version. Natalie Gregory gives an okay performance as Alice and it’s nice to see an age appropriate actress used for a change, but the whole thing is just way too bloated and cheap looking, with some appalling flat lighting and boring camerawork. Every second-rate actor under the sun seems to have been in this thing, with Sammy Davis Jr once again returning to Carroll’s world, albeit as the Caterpillar this time. You’ve got Shelley Winters, Robert Alexrod and even Scott Baio filling out a roll call of every B-grade performer in the country. Some people say that this show is scary, well yeah maybe if you’re five and have never seen another version of Alice in Wonderland, but it’s really tame compared to a lot of the more exciting adaptations. The music is awful as usual and the bats are literally like those cheesy things on a stick they used for the 1931 Dracula. The movie is split into two, with the first half being an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and the second being Through the Looking Glass.
I think it’s vastly overrated but if you’re curious, here it is.
There were two more adaptation between 1985 and 1988. The first was a UK series which screened in 1986 and is rumoured to be on VHS but I’ve been unable to find a copy, the other was a 1988 Australian animated direct-to-video film, only 51 minutes long which is my most shameful blindspot. The only version my country has ever produced and I’ve never seen it!
Neco z Alenky – 1988
Probably the 3rd most famous version of Alice in Wonderland, Jan Svankmajer’s first feature length film is rite of passage for many an animation fan. Blending his unique creepy stop motion aesthetic with a live action Alice, played by Kristýna Kohoutová in her only screen role ever, Svankmajer succeeds in creating the most nightmarish vision of Carroll’s story yet devised. Unlike every other version, Svankmajer’s Wonderland is a distinctly interior space. Alice seems trapped in a house that has no end, moving ever onwards through dilapidated rooms and old, dusty doors. The creatures of this space, all created from househould objects and bones, are uniformally cruel and aggressive, frequently attempting to hurt Alice or simply annoy her. We never see a sky, or a vista, with our vision always hemmed in by rotting ceilings and walls. The only problem I really have with this version is Svankmajer’s poor grasp of pacing for his first feature, which especially hurts the film considering it’s only 86 minutes long. I found myself getting very impatient with how slowly the story was moving and suspicious Svankmajer filmed less because it was too much work to animate more scenes and characters. Despite these gripes, it’s an undeniably visually arresting film and is packed to the gills with brilliant animation and clever details.
The film is available on DVD, but you can also watch it here for free.
There was an early 90s TV show produced by Disney marketed to the under-10s age bracket which I must confess I never watched, but this intro was frankly enough to convince me not to bother.
Alice in Wonderland – 1999
The most recent version of the story is the 1999 TV movie “Alice in Wonderland” which once more combines elements of Through the Looking Glass. Boasting, again, an all-star cast including Robbie Coltrane, Ben Kingsley, Whoopi Goldberg, Miranda Richardson and Peter Ustinov, this show decided to take things in a much more conventional direction than it’s predecessors. As such, the inherent surrealism of Carroll’s story is fairly muted here, as Alice comes much closer to understanding what’s going on and some of the characters even have, ugh, motivation. The entire film is basically just an exercise for Alice to grow some self-confidence, which bleeds a hell of a lot of the random zany fun out of the narrative as we can often feel that oppressive moral point asserting itself again and again. To make matters worse, the ending is literally almost a direct steal from the end of Wizard of Oz. Many of you may have seen this one as it was given a lot of hype on TV before it screened and maybe you weren’t as underwhelmed as me. Personally I found it fairly weak sauce, saddled with poor special effects and strangely uneven production design, half of which was great and the other half looked desperately cheap. Still, at least there weren’t too many bad songs this time.
The film is now available on DVD.
And so that wraps up my summary of 100 years of Alice in Wonderland. As you can see, there have been countless reworkings of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale of nonsense, some good, some bad, some crazy, some mundane. I hope my little tour has given you an idea of just how obsessed film culture seems to be with this story, and how resilient a tale it is. I also hope I may have introduced you to some cool new versions of a classic story.
Written by Timothy John Sharp