Monday, March 1, 2010

Notes From a Lewis Carroll Fanatic

--Mark Burstein

     Tim Burton's new Alice in Wonderland is hardly the first filmed adaptation of Lewis Carroll's classic tales, though it may be the first to qualify for the "blockbuster" sobriquet.  In fact, technically it isn't an adaptation at all, of course, as it takes on a completely different storyline, based on Alice's return to Wonderland as a nineteen-year-old, and ends up in a titanic battle, which is about as far removed from Alice's gentle Victorian wanderings amid eccentric characters and witty banter as one can get.
     Following is a sampler of some of the more important movie and television versions.  The list is far from comprehensive:  I am not reporting movies that just contain Carrollian segments, not "indy's" with miniscule releases, nor filmed plays (my apologies to Meryl Streep, Richard Burton, and so on) or ice ballets, and so forth.
  • The very first production was released just five years after Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)'s death in 1898.  Produced and directed by Cecil Hepworth in the U.K., this 1903 silent ran ten minutes and included some of the very first motion-picture special effects.
  • A second was by the film company belonging to the inventor of the motion picture camera, Thomas Edison, in 1910, and was also about ten minutes long.
  • The third was a blending (most would say a mixing up) of the two books - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1872) - which became somewhat of a tradition with filmmakers.  Produced by Nonpareil and released in 1915, it ran about fifty mintues long.
  • In 1923, Walt Disney had a live-action girl (Virginia Davis) interact with animated characters in Alice's Wonderland.  It had nothing to do with the books save the title, but Disney continued making an "Alice in Cartoonland" series throughout the Twenties.
  • In 1931, at long last, a Wonderland talkie was made by the Metropolitan studio in New Jersey, directed by Bud Pollard and starring Ruth Gilbert, who possessed a strong New Yawk accent.  She later went on to fame as Milton Berle's lovesick, scatterbrained secretary, Max.
  • The first big-budget effort, by Paramount in 1933, an all-star extravaganza starring Gary Grant, W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper, and so on, was, again, a fabulous mix of the two books.  Most fortuitously, after never having been released on videotape, it is being released on DVD this very week by Universal Studios.
  • The next year also saw the cartoon Betty (Boop) in Blunderland from the Fleischer Studios; a few years later Mickey Mouse went Thru the Mirror.
  • A fine color film came out of France in 1948, directed by Dallas Bower and produced by Lou Bunin, combining a live-action Alice with stop-motion puppetry.  Rumor has it that Disney did all he could to suppress it, as his film was being planned.
  • Released in 1951, Disney's colorful, musical cartoon needs no introduction here.  It was a box-office failure at the time, but found a new life in the late Sixties, followed by great success on video and DVD.
  • Popeye's Swea'pea Thru the Looking Glass cartoon sprang forth in 1955, distributed by King Features
  • The groovy Sixties found a resurgence of interest in Carroll's otherworld of mushrooms and hookah-smoking caterpillars.  Hanna-Barbera's Alice in Wonderland or What's a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This, voiced by Sammy Davis, Jr., Zsa Zsa Gabor, etc. was shown on television in 1966.  Later that year, Alice Through the Looking Glass, a musical version with Jimmy Durante, The Smothers Brothers, etc., ran on television as well.  Meanwhile, in Britain, the BBC produced a low-key, black-and-white Alice in Wonderland that is arguably the best, certainly the most faithful to the spirit, of all cinematic or televisual adaptations.  It was directed by Jonathan Miller, and starred Sir John Gielgud, Peter Sellers, etc.
  • The spirit of the Sixties lasted at least until 1972, when a lavish British musical version of Wonderland starring Fiona Fullerton (later a Bond girl) as Alice, and with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore, and so on came to the big screen.
  • A soft-core porno-slash-musical comedy Alice in Wonderland spewed forth in 1976, produced by Bill Osco, directed by Bud Townsend, and distributed by General National Enterprises.  Ah, me.  It's very nearly watchable, but was the first of many subsequent erotic films "based" on the books, all of which lack even the marginal charm of this original one, and are not subject matter for this brief overview.
  • The next year, Python Films released Terry Gilliam's eponymous film loosely based on the poem "Jabberwocky."
  • Although Dennis Potter's Dreamchild (1985) distributed by Universal, was not a strict adaptation, its frame story about the original Alice (Liddell Hargreaves)'s 1931 trip to America, with puppet flashback segments by Jim Henson, makes it the best and most intelligent of all the movies listed here.  That year also saw the two-part TV extravaganza (one for each book) directed by Irwin Allen, which can only be described as, yes, a disaster.  At least they kept the books apart and had a relatively young (nine-year-old) Alice (most of the actresses before or since then have been in their late teens or twenties; the original Alice was seven in the book).  Can anyone say "Shelly Winters"?
  • The year 1987 saw two forgettable animations:  a (loosely based upon) Looking-Glass voiced by the sixty-nine-year-old Janet Waldo as Alice (and Mr. T as the Jabberwock) from Australia's Burbank Films; and Cineplex-Odeon Films' The Care Bears Adventure in Wonderland, the less said about which the better.
  • A truly watchable (if flawed) surreal live-action and stop-motion film called simply Alice was directed by Jan Svankmajer in Czechoslavakia and released in the U.S. by First Run Features in 1988.
  • The Disney Company entered the fray once again in 1991 with their Adventures in Wonderland television series, which was more a spinoff than an adaptation.  Amusing for its surprise guest appearances (such as Willie Nelson, not to mention O.J. Simpson as the White Rabbit).
  • In 1999, an unrelated pair of television specials aired:  a Looking-Glass from the UK starring Ian Holm and Ian Richardson, and an overblown Wonderland from Hallmark, with Martin Short, Whoopi Goldberg, Christopher Lloyd and the gang chewing huge hunks of scenery.  Although the script was horrid and Alice (Tina Majorino) overly dour, the special effects were probably the best of any of these films to date (I have not yet seen Mr. Burton's).
  • Late last year, the Syfy channel released Alice as a miniseries, "a modern-day spin" on the tale.  Despite the presence of Kathy Bates, Harry Dean Stanton, and other fine actors, no one I know lasted more than half an hour attempting to watch this ill-begotten spawn.
  • There are several versions currently buzzing around the rumor mill, including an adaptation of American McGee's louche videogame, and another by Marilyn Manson.
     In this context, perhaps I won't bang my head against the wall too many times after viewing Burton's latest foray.

Mark Burstein is a lifelong Carrollian; presently Communications Director, and formerly Vice President of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America; editor of the Knight Letter, the magazine of that Society, for twelve years; and has a noted collection numbering over three thousand books by or about Carroll.  He can be contacted at

1 comment:

ArtSparker said...

Just watched the 1966 BBC film, Peter Cook's mad Hatter is a performance of tragic dimensions, the film is also quite beautiful, though certainly not a complete success.