From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Curiouser and Curiouser: Alice on Film

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This weekend heralds the release of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, where the director will attempt to put his stamp on a cinematic tradition.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published as a children’s book in 1865, has had a particular appeal to moviemakers since they were first able to crank out the film. The story’s vivid images were perfect material for this new medium, and the early movie adaptations especially did an excellent job of preserving the vignette-y, illogical narrative. (It helped that the films were silent, and so the focus was on the special effects and not so much on killer dialogue.)

Below, nine adaptations of Alice that are good, bad, or downright curious.
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1. Alice in Wonderland, 1903.

This eight-minute adaptation (the earliest known) used state-of-the-art special effects to illustrate Alice’s dream journey (check out the superimposed and utterly disinterested Cheshire Cat!); when effects got too tricky, a handy title card covered a surprising amount of narrative ground for breaks in the action. Considered feature-film length when it came out, the movie by necessity skips large portions of the original movie, lingering on the Eat Me/Drink Me size-shifting and on the parade of cards, featuring a cast of dozens.
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2. Alice in Wonderland, 1915.

Possibly the best Alice adaptation to date, this 50-minute silent film combines sophisticated storytelling with costume and design that are impressive even today (the Duchess’s enlarged puppet head is suitably off-putting even on flickering celluloid. The story-within-a-poem of Old Father William is particularly well-executed, if baffling in its inclusion. Some of Carroll’s set pieces get short shrift, but the well-chosen title cards and the charming Viola Savoy as Alice combine to make a sublime rendering of the tale.
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3. Alice in Wonderland, 1933.

Here’s where things start to go off the rails. This Alice looks like those that had come before it – almost exactly so, with this Duchess having the same structure, and less impact, than 1915’s. Unfortunately, by now there’s the air of forced whimsy, with Alice furiously exuding charm as if she’s been told she can’t go home until she wins over everyone in the audience. The story is a mash of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, live-action and animation, and seems mostly an excuse to put a parade of Hollywood dignitaries in second-rate costumes. The movie’s weird blend of outré and caution is best seen in the drink bottle (“DRINK ME,” and then clearly underneath, “Not Poison,”) that comes ten minutes or so before the croquet game played with live flamingoes. Unless you like a little animal cruelty with your forced whimsy, skip this one.
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4. Alice in Wonderland, 1951.

The definitive Alice. Disney struck gold with this animated musical, thanks to a catchy stable of songs, and all the lush animation power for which Disney was known. His Alice is markedly more polite that Carroll’s, but beyond that tweak, the movie is truer to Carroll’s vision than would be expected from a man who bowdlerized every fairy tale he could get his hands on. The parade of playing cards and the Mad Hatter’s tea party are unsettling, and the Cheshire Cat is downright creepy, lending the appropriately dark edge to a story about a girl realizing the importance of a world that makes sense.
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5. Alice in Wonderland, 1966.

Well, if you’re going to go wacky, go wacky, I guess. This BBC TV movie begins as a black-and-white throwback to earlier Alices and throws in a healthy dose of 1960s trippy. A smug and emotionless Alice, now less curious than counterculture, smirks her way through an art-house Wonderland alone, as strange beasts (here, only self-important adults) spout often-hostile nonsense at one another, forcing Alice to rely on herself for a rescue. It’s Alice as metaphor for a generational shift, a classical canvas for a mod message (set to Ravi Shankar music, and with one of the oddest Caucus Races of all).
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6. Neco z Alenky (Alice), 1988.

Less a retelling of Alice than a meta-commentary on the prepubescent subconscious, this Czech version of Alice in Wonderland goes on a meandering psychological treatise that occasionally passes characters from Carroll’s story like they’re gates in a surrealist slalom. The doll-like (and occasionally, literal doll) Alice explores this claustrophobic domestic landscape without fear, though the stop-motion White Rabbit is enough to give anyone the creeps. From the solemn child actress to the kitchen where the dinner meat crawls out of the crockpot to safety, this Alice will haunt your dreams.
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7. Alice Through the Looking Glass, 1998.

This version of the tale tackles the second Alice book, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. The filmmakers gathered top rate talent – Ian Holm, Greg Wise, Steve Coogan, Kate Beckinsale back when she could act – but unfortunately must have blown the budget on casting, because everything else is done on a shoestring, which gives the whole thing the air of a school project. It also doesn’t help the sophistication thematically to have a frame story where a mother goes through the looking glass and becomes Alice the child, for reasons never explained. Still, this version retains a sort of composed whimsy, from the unflappable Beckinsale (who pulls off a decent Alice) to the numerous poetic interludes to the silent-movie homage by Ian Holm’s White Knight and his Buster Keaton doppelganger for a surprisingly touching rendition of the White Knight’s Song. It’s all a little nonsense, but that’s what Alice is about, anyway.
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8. The Matrix, 1999.

The references are blatant – the White Rabbit, the red pill that leads you down the rabbit hole – but the overall narrative arc of The Matrix makes it a pretty successful adaptation of the Alice archetype. I’m just saying, if you’re going to make a movie about a curious innocent who stumbles onto a world where nothing makes sense and who has to get guidance from mystifying characters who refuse to give you a straight answer until you’re able to bend the rules set down by a superhuman and terrifying ruler, go big or go home. And if you’re going to take that sort of tack with Alice in Wonderland, the broader you can go from the source material, the better.
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9. Alice, 2009.

Otherwise, you get Alice. A modern-day update with some promise, it made a crucial mistake: if you’re going to closely adapt a story whose entire point is nonsense, trying to lay a coherent plot over the top is not going to get you anywhere good, and you end up with a lot of thought-out references completely wasted in a storyline that makes even less sense than what you started with. In this case, poor Alice swam through deep water, was rescued by a tortoise…and ended up in an underworld stock market based on draining captive humans of their emotions via a magical casino. (I don’t know, either.)
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This weekend, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland will join this list for good or ill; until then, let’s go back to the beginning and enjoy the 1903 version. (Perfect for today’s short attention spans – it’s like they knew!)

Genevieve Valentine’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Fantasy, Federations, and more. She is a columnist at Tor.com and Fantasy Magazine. Her first novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, is forthcoming in 2011. Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog.

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