This year marks the 110th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s death, and though it might sound a bit macabre, this may nevertheless be a good celebratory occasion to review the best Alice in Wonderland film adaptations.
Perhaps more fascinating than Alice in Wonderland itself is the mind from which the story sprang. Contrastive to his work, Carroll, or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), was said to be a rather dry and stiff man. As a mathematician and logician at Christ Church Oxford, he was orderly and meticulous, maybe what would now be characterized as bordering on OCD. But more than adhering to rules and order, he loved to break them, twist them, and turn them around completely until he arrived at the insane world that is Wonderland. Yet, saying that Wonderland is only a trippy celebration of chaos and disorder would be wrong. Alice in Wonderland very cleverly challenges the taken-for-granted logic of the adult world by using a child as a heroine who questions and doubts everything. In this, Carroll brilliantly captures a child responding to a world that has rules and logic that she, other than adults, does not yet fully understand and accept as ‘normal’.
Carroll loved the world of children and had a lot of friendships with them. But one child seemed to incite something in him that no other children had before. Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, was the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. Like Alice, she was pushy, imperious, and liked to boss everyone around, often shaking the fringe out of her face with a self-important expression. On the very warm and sunny afternoon of July 4th 1862, Carroll and his friend Robinson Duckworth took Alice and her sisters Lorena and Edith up the river Thames to Godstow. Over and over, Alice had pleaded Carroll to tell him a story and now, backed up by her sisters, she asked him again. And so, somewhat unwillingly, Carroll began the story that would make him one of the most-read children’s authors of all time.
Alice in Wonderland is an incredibly rich and versatile literary work so the options in making a filmic adaptation are endless. In this review, I have tried to avoid addressing the elephant in the room in the shape of classics and blockbusters such as Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Alice’s adult revisits to Wonderland in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Into the Looking Glass (2016), with the desire to shine some light on more obscure and forgotten but nevertheless marvelous Alice adaptations. There is nothing snobbish behind this: I have enjoyed the Disney classic and both of Burton’s films tremendously but sometimes it is more interesting to move away from the Queen of Hearts and study the soldiers silently painting the roses instead.
As for the list itself, because I found that the films are, in their own terms, each so unique and different, it felt wrong to bring any hierarchical order to the list. So I decided to take the King of Hearts advice, and to “begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” As such, the films are listed in chronological order by the year of their release and are provided with a Queen-of-Hearts-ranking.
Alice in Wonderland (1903) – Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow (♥♥♥♥)
This 9-minute silent film is the first Alice adaptation ever made, and was successfully restored by the British Film Institute in 2010. When it was released in 1903, it was the longest film yet produced in Britain, running about 12 minutes. Because of its length, the film was not suitable for theatres who preferred a variety of short clips on different subjects, so the scenes were sold individually. There were no professional actors involved in this production. Alice is portrayed by Mabel Clark who normally acted as the studio’s secretary and errand girl. Hepworth himself played the frog footman while his wife filled in the role of the White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts. The only one who launched a successful acting career after this production was the family dog, Blair, who became famous as the star of Rescued by Rover (1905).
Notable about this production are the special effects which are for that time quite impressive. Alice’s shrinking scene is seamlessly montaged, and the Cheshire cat is portrayed by a real-life cat artfully projected into the bushes. Though with the right music the film is enjoyable, it is Carroll’s wit and puns that are really conspicuous by their absence. With the characters being muted, some scenes are just comically monotonous. For a solid minute – remember that the film is 9 minutes long – we see poor Alice nearly developing carpal tunnel syndrome from waving her handkerchief to draw the attention of a clearly disinterested Cheshire Cat. Still, in all its simplicity the film is quite enchanting.
Alice in Wonderland (1931) – Bud Pollard (♥♥♥)
This 45 minute film was the first Alice adaptation with sound, and for that reason alone deserves a place in the list. Pollard’s adaptation was a low-budget production which becomes clear from the uninspiring camera work and the clumsy performance of the amateur actors, which elicited sympathy among Mordaunt Hall, a reviewer of the New York Times who wrote at that time: “poor little Alice had to go through the ordeal of coming to shadow life in an old studio in Fort Lee, N. J., instead of enjoying the manifold advantages of her rich cousins who hop from printed pages to the screen amid the comforts of a well-equipped Hollywood studio.” Luckily, the production doesn’t cast a shadow on the star of the film, Ruth Gilbert, a 1930s version of Jennifer Aniston, who, with permanently wide eyes and an inexhaustible array of facial expressions, is an utterly captivating Alice. Even outnumbered by the most bizarre creatures, she manages to catch the audience’s eyes throughout the entire film. Yet, no matter how Gilbert steals the show with her sincere impressions and the mesmerizing cadence of her voice, the film was inevitably dominated by the 1933 big-budget Hollywood adaptation from Paramount Pictures.
Alice in Wonderland (1933) – Norman Z. McLeod (♥♥♥)
In the 1930s, the centenary of Lewis Carroll’s birth caused a wave of “Alice fever” on both sides of the Atlantic where the number of Alice films, plays, songs, and puppet shows skyrocketed, so Hollywood couldn’t stay behind. With a generous budget and an all-star cast, including W.C. Fields, Cary Grant, and Gary Cooper, viewers can revel in the Golden Age Hollywood nostalgia of McLeod’s adaptation. Combining elements from both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the film is with its lavish décor and boisterous music quite phenomenal. Though the production seemed to be bound for success, the film was a notable flop at the box office. Perhaps you can say that this was because the stars who were supposed to draw in the audiences were as Wonderland’s creatures appallingly unrecognizable: Cary Grant’s handsome and youthful features were muzzled by the greasy cow’s head of the Mock Turtle (see above), and, as the White Knight the usually suave Gary Cooper resembled a medieval version of Sega’s Dr. Eggman – though W.C. Fields, known for his heavy-drinking and misanthropic comic persona, is the perfect Humpty Dumpty if there ever was one. The film made critics doubt whether a live-action fantasy with strange-looking characters could make for a successful film – criticism which was proved wrong by The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Nevertheless, Hollywood did not dare to go for another live-action Alice adaptation and left it untouched until Tim Burton picked it up again 80 years later.
Alice in Wonderland (1949) – Dallas Bower and Lou Bunin (♥♥♥)
This French (!) adaptation met some disputes upon its release. The film was kept out of Britain because the Queen of Hearts was said to look too much like Queen Victoria. Across the Atlantic, producer Lou Bunin was fighting with Disney Studios who were at that time working on their full-length animated version of Alice. Disney feared that Bunin’s “inferior” Alice would deceive the public into going to see the wrong picture, and “spoil” their take on Alice. Clearly enjoying this battle over Wonderland, Time Magazine wrote at that time a three-part article series in which they likened Disney and Bounin to Tweedledee and Tweedledum: “Tweedledum and Tweedledee agreed to have a battle; for Tweedledum said Tweedledee had spoiled his nice new rattle.” Eventually, Disney lost the case and was sentenced with bad reviews and a disappointing box office.
The film can be seen as the first Alice adaptation to experiment with live-action and animation. Clearly avoiding the danger of scaring its viewers, Wonderland’s creatures are portrayed by slow-stop animated puppets that aren’t disturbingly creepy for a change, which makes for a welcoming retreat from the puppet horror of other adaptations. Another uplifting element in this film are the musical songs, and especially Carol Marsh’s (Alice) beautiful singing voice is the real dealmaker of this film.
Alice in Wonderland (1966) – Jonathan Miller (♥♥♥♥♥)
Miller’s Alice was broadcasted in the centenary year of the publication of Carroll’s novel and was not aimed at children – its screening was scheduled at 9 pm, when most children would have been in their beds. The film was probably too artsy for them anyway: with its black-and-white cinematography, the film departs from the colourful extravagance usually associated with Alice in Wonderland. Likewise, Miller strictly avoided using special effects, grand set designs, and imposing costumes to capture the surreal dream-like quality of Carroll’s novel. “I like great simplicity in all my work,” Miller explains. “I don’t like lots of florid detail.” Indeed, the people who Alice meets are simple Victorians who don’t need Tenniel-inspired funny masks and animal costumes to show off their insanity. For Miller, stripping down the characters to make them resemble Alice’s contemporaries allows for a new interpretation of Alice in Wonderland: “Once you take the animal heads off, you begin to see what it’s all about. A small child, surrounded by hurrying, worried people, thinking ‘Is that what being grown up is like?’” In her lucid trip into the world of adulthood, Alice, played by a frizzy-haired Anne-Marie Mallik, is the only voice of reason and beholds Wonderland’s doings with a haughtiness in her voice that is not entirely misplaced: the characters are – like some adults Miller seems to suggest – self-important but substantially silly. With the trance-like sound of Ravi Skankar’s sitar guiding us through Wonderland, Miller’s Alice is a very trippy yet sophisticated take on Carroll’s novel.
Alice ou la Dernière Fugue (1977) – Claude Chabrol (♥♥♥♥)
Though there are no Cheshire Cats, White rabbits, and Mad Hatters in this film, Chabrol’s Alice is on her own otherworldly adventure where she meets the strangest figures. This film has a Hitchcockian setting: Alice Carol leaves her husband whom, for unspecified reasons, “she can’t stand anymore.” On her way to freedom, her car breaks down leaving her stranded in the rain at an old mansion. The master of the house invites her to stay the night to have her car fixed. Alice is plagued by suspicion, yet she accepts. The next day, Alice finds the mansion completely abandoned. Driving off in her repaired car, she notices that a tree trunk is blocking her way out so reluctantly she heads back to the mansion. There she meets a young man who tells her that there is simply no way out and that she has to save her strength because “the nightmare has only just begun.” And so, Alice falls into a rabbit hole where all sorts of nightmarish and hallucinatory events take place. Repeatedly she tries to escape but she always ends up back at the mansion.
The 70s are considered to be the low point of Chabrol’s career, though it is clear that here he was at his experimental highpoint. Alice ou la Dernière Fugue is a haunting philosophical exploration of the grounds between reality and dream, life and death. The criticism that the film received upon its release was mainly pointed at the casting of Sylvia Kristel as Alice. Kristel had recently become a worldwide star through her role in the Emmanuelle films and Chabrol was said to ride the wave of the film’s erotica, having her appear completely naked in one scene. However, this does grieve injustice to Kristel performance: as Alice she faces the reality of her new world with admirable soberness and nonchalance, sometimes even visibly bored by the tediousness and futility of her escape attempts. Alice ou la Dernière Fugue is a captivating and ungraspable film that leaves the viewer puzzled long after the end credits.
Alisa v Strane Chudes (1981) – Efrem Pruzhansky (♥♥♥♥♥)
On July 4th 1867, the day on which Carroll had told the tale of Alice in Wonderland to Alice Liddell exactly five years earlier, Carroll’s close friend and colleague Henry Liddon said, “we should go together to Russia.” Carroll accepted Liddon’s invitation and the two gentlemen embarked on a journey that would later become the first and last time Carroll departed England. His travels are recorded in Russian Journal which was first commercially published in 1935. Though he was, as a reverend, officially sent to Russia as a supporter of the reunification of Eastern and Western Churches, during his trip Carroll couldn’t resist to occasionally revel in the curiosities and oddities that Russia brought him. This included jotting down Russian words that were, for the English tongue, monstrously impossible to pronounce, one of his favourites being “Zashtsheeshtschayjushtsheekhsya” which loosely translates to “defenders”. Carroll’s fascination for Russia is entirely mutual: Alice in Wonderland has been a greatly influential work in Russian literature. The novel was first published in 1879 as Sonya in a Kingdom of Wonder, and the identity of the translator and the illustrator, who were not mentioned in this edition, remains to this day an object of speculation. Other translations followed, often made by famous Russian authors such as Anton Chekov, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuil Marshak.
It seems that Alice crosses geographical borders as well as political ones. This 30-minute animated adaptation was created by Soviet Ukrainian film studio Kievnauchfilm “on commission of the USSR State Committee of TV and Radio Broadcasting.” At first sight, the animation may look Japanese but it soon becomes clear that the creatures from Alisa v Strane Chudes are all drawn in their own artistic style: the Cheshire cat resembles Andy Warhol’s sketches of his own cat, Sam: the Mad Tea Party crew looks remarkably simplistic with basic colours and little detail, in stark contrast with their wacky personalities; and the Queen of Hearts is made up of a beautiful assemblage of metallic textures and patterns. Alice herself seems to be modelled after a Victorian porcelain doll, bathing in all kinds of warm colours and hues. Equally stunning is Alisa v Zazerkale (1982), Pruzhansky’s adaptation of Alice Through the Looking Glass. Watching Alice in Wonderland in Russian is a strange yet stimulating experience, and perhaps the perfect way to revive Carroll’s epic journey.
Watch Alisa v Strane Chudes (1981) (Alice in Wonderland)
Watch Alisa v Zazerkale (1982) (Through the Looking Glass)
Alice at the Palace (1982) – Elizabeth Swados (♥♥♥♥)
Before Meryl Streep was rocking blue overalls on a Greek island in Mama Mia! (2008), she was rocking pink ones on Broadway. This vaudeville revue-style interpretation of Carroll’s story is probably one of the most creative ones. Alice at the Palace is a true music extravaganza. From Gospel to 60s folk music, there is no genre that didn’t make it to the shortlist of this American musical odyssey: Bill the Lizard is a member of a barbershop sextet; the Duchess’s baby scats its way through a jazz routine, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong-style; and the Mad Tea party is a good ol’ country music fest. Curiouser and curiouser is that the lyrics consist nearly entirely of Carroll’s original text and dialogue. Meanwhile, Streep’s Alice enjoys her musical trip through Wonderland with high kicks, twirls, and quirky dance moves. Another star in this production is Debbie Allen. In her pre-Fame era, she gives us a Queen of Hearts with the appeal of a soul diva: arrogant, temperamental (“OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!”) but nevertheless irresistibly ravishing.
Despite the charming cast and its clever use of music, Alice at the Palace has largely fallen into oblivion – especially on Streep’s portfolio it seems to have been scribbled away in some forgotten corner. Completely unjustified, I would say: even though it, admittedly, may require a taste for musicals, the production is visibly made with passion and joy, making it an unmissable Alice adaptation.
Dreamchild (1985) – Gavin Millar (♥♥♥)
Carroll’s friendship with seven-year-old Alice Liddell, for whom he wrote Alice in Wonderland, has always been a great topic for a heated dinner table debate: was his admiration for Alice just innocent affection, or was there something more sinister luring beneath the surface? Carroll photographed Alice obsessively, with different outfits and different poses as if she was his real-life doll, and each picture seems so intimate that it feels as though you’re intruding on something. Carroll was not secretive about his fascination with photographing little girls, ideally nude. To Gertrude Thompson, an artist who made sketches of (naked) girl faeries and nymphs, he wrote: “I confess I do not admire naked boys in pictures. They always seem… to need clothes, whereas one hardly sees why the lovely forms of girls should ever be covered up.” Though it should be said that Victorians were obsessed with children who symbolized innocence, frankness, goodness, and purity, this attraction to all that was innocent, as Katie Roiphe claims, might have had some sexual undertones: “Children were safe, and in their safety, certain thoughts – dirty, sensual thoughts – were allowed to flourish.”
Whether sexual or purely sentimental, for Dreamchild’s Alice her friendship with Carroll caused lifelong issues. We see an elderly and widowed Alice, brilliantly portrayed by Coral Browne who won a BAFTA award for this role, visiting New York to receive an honorary degree on the centenary of Carroll’s birth. Alice’s memory of Carroll (played by a quiet and reserved Ian Holm) continues to haunt her in the form of flashbacks and dreams. Though never expressed sexually, Carroll’s love for Alice reached far beyond the usual expressions of kindness. In retrospect, for Alice this left behind a frightening aftertaste on Wonderland. The creatures – by the curtesy of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop – appear in Alice’s dreams as agonizing creations. Though his admiration for Alice was rather extreme, Carroll is no monster – rather a tragic, stuttering figure who leaves Alice (and the viewer) torn between confusion, contempt, pity, and sympathy.
Neco z Alenky (1988) – Jan Švankmajer (♥♥♥♥♥)
A taxidermist’s nightmare – or dream? After the short film Jabberwocky (1971), which with a butt-slapping hand repeatedly interrupting the opening credits probably has one of the most notable opening scenes in film history, Czech surrealist film director Jan Švankmajer had enough courage to take on a 1.5 hour adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Criticizing previous adaptations which generally read Carroll’s novel as a fairytale, Švankmajer realized his Alice as a dream: “between a dream and a fairy tale there is a fundamental difference. While a fairy tale has got an educational aspect – it works with the moral of the lifted forefinger (good overcomes evil), dream, as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realisation of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure.”
Indeed, Neco z Alenky (1988) is far removed from the Tim Burton/ Disney pleasantries. There’s nothing cutesy and quirky going on here: the roles of Wonderland’s normally charming characters, the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, and the Caterpillar, are filled by a collection of grotesque stuffed animals, puppets, and clay dolls that scare the living daylight out of you. It might be hard to stomach the occasional creepiness, but it’s worth it. The film is absolutely stunning, making use of very basic visuals and slow-stop motion to capture the insane world of Wonderland, which makes it stand out from the rest of the crowd.
 Battle of Wonderland. Time, 7/16/1951, Vol. 58, Issue 3