Alice through the projector lens

Mark charts the cinematic history of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, from the earliest days of the moving image to the present day…

With a new interpretation of the Lewis Carroll classic on DVD and Blu-ray, I thought it might be an interesting diversion to look at the history of Alice In Wonderland in cinema and TV. This is far from a definitive list of Alice-inspired productions, but here are some of those that fell down my rabbit hole…

Alice In Wonderland (1903)

The first film Alice, I think, it stood out if only for the impressively lavish costumes and sets which the director insisted remain faithful to the drawings of Sir John Tenniel, the original illustrator of Lewis Carroll‘s story. However, that blew all the budget, so the cast is mostly the crew, including ‘Alice’ Mabel Clark who was also the studio secretary. When this came out it was the longest running British film produced at the time, with a running time of 12 minutes! Yet, due to the short screening nature of the film market of the time, this was considered too long, and so Alicewas sold for screening in smaller scene-sized chunks.

Ad – content continues below

Alice‘s Adventures In Wonderland (1910)

This Edison Company-made Alice takes its title from the 1865 novel, created by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll. With a running time of just ten minutes, this doesn’t really tell the story, but instead provides the audience with a faithful snapshot of the most memorable characters. I especially like the painted backdrops in this production.

Alice In Wonderland (1915)

It’s been commented that this early film version is rather disturbing, as the lack of sound tends to give the W.W. Young production something of a possibly unintentional horror twist. If you want to experience the eerie nature of this production, it’s on YouTube, although it’s now hired Haydn to provide a soundtrack.

Ad – content continues below

Alice In Wonderland (1923)

It’s a little known fact that the 1955 animated production was not Disney’s first attempt to cover this subject. Back in 1923, he used the story as a platform for a short cartoon, where Alice visits an animation studio and then dreams of being in the cartoons. This was so successful it spawned a series of Alice Comedies in the twenties. This is also on YouTube if you fancy a gander.

Alice In Wonderland (1931)

This was a groundbreaking Alice in many respects, being both the first one with sound and using that feature to deliver the first Carroll-accurate dialogue. It was made by Metropolitan Studios hoping to cash in on a rise in interest in all things Carroll, ahead of the 100th anniversary of the writer’s birth the following year. Although it sported a mostly amateur cast, it was probably the inspiration for the Paramount movie that is next on the list.

Ad – content continues below

Alice In Wonderland (1933)

This must have the most famous cast ever to grace an Alice movie, so why do people not remember it? Among the luminaries in here are Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, W.C. Fields as Humpty-Dumpty, Sterling Holloway as the Frog and Gary Cooper as the White Knight. I’ve only seen part of the 76 minute running time, and even if it is in black and white, I was rather impressed. I suspect if this had been made in colour, this would have been the one Alice film we’d all recall.

Alice Au Pays Des Merveilles (1949)

This movie demonstrates the very international appearance of the characters and narrative, being a French film. With typically Gallic imagination, most of the fantasy characters are played by puppets. Its release outside Europe was delayed because of a legal dispute between the makers and Disney, who were working on their own animated version.

Ad – content continues below

Alice In Wonderland (1951)

The colourful Disney full length animated adventures of Alice appeared in 1951, and contains elements from the original Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass. Considering the effort and cost that went into this, it was a major box office disappointment for Disney. But it was dragged back into the public consciousness when a cut-down version was shown on US Network TV in their Disneyland series. It’s now considered to be much better than it was received at the time.

Alice In Wonderland (1966)

Jonathan Miller has a stab at the material in 1966 using the very broadest strokes of British acting resources. Included in this cast are Michael Redgrave, Peter Cook and Peter Sellers, among others. For whatever reason, it was shot on monochrome, reducing its appeal, I suspect.

Ad – content continues below

Alice In Wonderland (Or What’s A Nice Kid Like You Doing In A Place Like This?) (1966)

While Miller was doing his Brit Alice, the Americans produced an animated TV extravaganza that was nominated for an Emmy. It was certainly a contemporary piece, featuring the voice talents of Zsa Zsa Gabor as the Queen of Hearts and Sammy Davis Jr. as The Cheshire Cat.

However, as it was produced by Joseph Barbera and William Hanna, they couldn’t resist the temptation for some cross-promotion, which manifests itself as the Caterpillar who has both the voices of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble.

Alice‘s Adventures In Wonderland (1972)

Ad – content continues below

This is one of the most popular movies set in Wonderland, where a rather mature Fiona Fullerton takes the lead role. Much of this production appears to build on that done by Jonathan Miller just six years earlier, and it follows the same intent to fill the screen with as many well-known British actors as possible. In this one, Peter Sellers is the March Hare and Dudley Moore the Dormouse. It has some good scenes, but I recall seeing it as a youngster and finding it exceptionally boring.

Alice In Wonderland (1982)

The stage play origins of this production are all too evident in what is otherwise a distinctive and stylish reworking of the Carroll source material. For whatever reason, the actors blast out their lines like they’re trying to commune with the very back row of the auditorium, oddly.

Alice In Wonderland (1985)

Ad – content continues below

For sheer oddness, this American made-for-TV musical version is quite exceptional. It was directed by TV veteran Harry Harris, whose resume included Gunsmoke, Lost In Space, Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, and virtually every cop/detective show between the 60s and 90s. Why he was chosen is explained by the credited producer, Irwin Allen.

What’s really interesting is that it contains many performers who were big in the 50s and 60s, including Red Buttons, Donald O’Connor, Shelley Winters, Anthony Newley, Roddy McDowall and Sammy Davis Jr. I’ve not seen this for a long time, but I intend to search it out if only to see again Scott Baio as Pat the Pig, Telly Savalas as the Cheshire Cat and Ringo Starr as the Mock Turtle.

Dreamchild (1985)

This is an exceptionally weird movie that combines both the obtuse characters of Lewis Carroll and the possibly wilder imaginings of the Henson Creature Shop. In it, a reporter aims to discover the truth about Alice, when interviewing an 80-year-old woman who might be her. Ian Holm plays the Reverend Charles L. Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) in flashback, and it’s more about how adults deal with the their childhood in retrospect, than his literary works.

Alice Through The Looking Glass (1987)

Ad – content continues below

A low budget animated Alice, featuring the voice talents of Phyllis Diller as the White Queen, and Jonathan Winters as both Tweedledee&Tweedledum. It bears little relation to anything created by Lewis Carroll, borrowing the Heffalumps from Winnie The Pooh, for some obscure reason. The only valid reason for seeking this out on YouTube is to experience Mr T as the Jabberwock. Fool!

Neco z Alenky (1988)

Surrealist Czech language Alice using live action and stop-motion animation that was latterly dubbed into English for DVD as Alice. This was supposedly made for children, but I’ve seen in on YouTube, and I can only assume it was made for youngsters who’ve already got a doctorate in psychology. It makes the Lewis Carroll-inspired parts seem the least bizarre things in it. Through The Looking Glass (1998)

Ad – content continues below

Produced by Channel 4 as a movie, it features a young Kate Beckinsale as Alice. This production is most noticeable for including the lost “Wasp in a Wig” section, which was removed from the original book by Carroll and only rediscovered in 1974 when documents containing the additional material came to auction.

Alice In Wonderland (1999)

I’m not a great fan of Hallmark TV movies, but this one has its moments. It also has a wonderful cast that includes Ben Kingsley, Martin Short as the Mad Hatter, Whoopi Goldberg as the Cheshire Cat, Peter Ustinov as the Walrus, Gene Wilder as the Mock Turtle, Christopher Lloyd as the White Knight, and Miranda Richardson as the Queen. The accolades here must go to Wilder, whose take on the Mock Turtle is just amazing. Robbie Coltrane also turns up as Tweedledum, and Ken Dodd, curiously, as the mouse.

Alice (2009)

Ad – content continues below

A TV miniseries created by the same people, RHI Entertainment, who created the disappointing Wizard Of Oz reworking Tin Man. This was actually much better received by the public and gave the SyFy Channel one of their biggest audiences ever for the three-hour-long screenings. However, some critics hated it (as they had Tin Man), with many complaining that the running time resulted in a long-winded exercise. The best things in this are Kathy Bates as the Queen of Hearts and Tim Curry as the Dodo.

Alice In Wonderland (2010)

After just 59 years, Disney couldn’t resist the temptation to revisit Wonderland once more, this time giving Tim Burton the opportunity to explore yet another suppressed side of his unique personality. What makes this stand out from the rest is the use of CGI, to turn what is already a surreal story into something positively hallucinogenic. With this one under his belt, Depp is now rapidly running out of classically mad people to play, I’d suggest.

Honourable mentions:

Alice Through A Looking Glass (1928) This is the first film to reference Carroll’s 1871 book, Through The Looking-Glass, And What Alice Found There. This pre-sound version was directed by Walter Lang, famous for the 1956 version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King And I. I’d love to tell you more, but that’s about all I’ve discovered about this movie.

Ad – content continues below

Alice Of Wonderland In Paris (1966) As if Wonderland wasn’t strange enough, this animated interpretation takes Alice to the Paris underground on a bicycle. Apparently it’s hilarious if seen drunk, I’m told.

Jabberwocky (1977) Directed by ex-Python Terry Gilliam and starring Michael Palin, Jabberwocky is based on a poem that’s part of Through The Looking Glass. It features a typical mix of the absurd and disturbing, possibly pointing out where Python and Carroll creatively overlapped.Alice In Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy (1976) The first pornographic Alicemovie, I believe, though I’ve never seen it.

A Dream Of Alice (1982) A TV version I saw at the time, where Jenny Agutter is Alice, although apart from the late great Michael Hordern being in it, I can’t recall much more or find any references to it.

Alice At The Palace (1982) Carroll’s Alice was seven-and-a-half years old, but in this TV production she’s portrayed by Meryl Streep (then 32!). But despite that, those that saw this musical production rate it very highly. I’m not one of those.

Fushigi No Kuni No Alice (1984) It’s a Japanese Alice, and how odd that combination is can be fully explored on YouTube.

Alice In Wonderland (2006) This Indian movie has a synopsis of which Carroll himself would have been proud. It’s about a brother and sister, where Alice is mentally challenged and Victor, her brother, is a magician who looks after her. If you want bizarre connections, it’s a reworking of Benny And Joon, which starred Johnny Depp. What this has to do with Lewis Carroll totally eludes me.

Ad – content continues below

Alice In Wonderland is on Disney DVD and Blu-ray from Friday 4th June.