Who on Earth ever thought it was a good idea to make a movie of Alice in Wonderland? The story follows a dream-based logic, i.e. no logic at all, there’s mostly nothing in the way of plot cohesion, and most of the characters and situations are parodies of things that no one knows about anymore. The dreamlike nature of the story is a particular difficulty when it comes to movies, because we expect things we see to make a different sort of sense than things we read. So the directors can’t just try to film the episodes of the book and leave it at that, but attempts to make a more cohesive story wind up muddled because the essential nature of the story rejects it. In addition, the movies always mash up the two Alice books into one story. And I know this goes against what I said about there not being any logic, but the episodes go together the way they do for a reason, and you can’t just jumble them around as you see fit. And if that seems contradictory to you -hey, welcome to Wonderland. (Or the Looking-glass world. Which are distinct locations.)
But as fruitless as this endeavor may seem, there have been more than 20 attempts to bring Alice to the screen. I’m not going to start a whole blog about them, but here’s a little bit on the six I've seen, and what makes each one… special.
(Hey, superimposed titles. That must have been the hight of technological wizardry.)
Why the hell would you make a silent movie of a story known primarily for its witty wordplay? That’s the question that this very early effort aims to answer. It’s available for free online, and if you seek it out, you’ll just about be getting your money’s worth. Actually, you’ll have to spend 8 minutes on it. Don’t expect much of a return on that investment. The worst scene is the tea party, where Alice sits down, the hare and the Hatter waggle their arms about a little, and Alice leaves. The most annoying scene is the Cheshire Cat’s which consists of Alice waving her hankie to get the attention of a regular cat while the director turns the lights around it on and off. This scene takes up a full minute of an 8 minute movie. That’s like going to see a movie today and having to watch 12 straight minutes of Will Smith trying to get a cat’s attention. Wait, actually that sounds pretty cool.
(And not the less famous book by Edmund Wells.)
Well, it’s been 13 years since the last one, and surely people are better at making movies now, right? Well… technically, yes. For one thing, they know how to make them like 7 times longer. In just a few months, America would see D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and realize that they could move their cameras, that they could do cuts and close-ups, and that black people were after our womenfolk. But for now, they just sort of stuck the camera in one spot and let it film as it may. And while they have more time and ability to post title cards, the story still loses a lot of its trademark wordplay. Some excuse these as limitations of the time, but I say bull malarkey. If Griffith could figure out how to make a good movie, so can these jerks. Anyway, after spending a tenth of the movie on exposition, we meet the White Rabbit, who is creepily gesturing for Alice to follow him. Once we get to Wonderland, Alice proceeds to overexplain the jokes, recite poetry, which is fantastically boring in a silent movie, and interact with a lot of people in ill-fitting fursuits. The one truly bright spot is the Mock Turtle scene, which not only has better costumes and was filmed on location at a beach, but features the Lobster Quadrille, where two guys in ungainly lobster suits dance around with two guys in ungainly walrus costumes, and I start checking my food labels to see if I’ve eaten anything expired or containing mescaline.
(Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Cary Grant. Or so I am informed.)
Here we go. Now we get into the kinds of things that affect all the major Alice movies to come. An all-star cast, state of the art effects, and loads pf lines taken verbatim from the book with complete disregard to the other lines they’re supposed to be relating to. Actually, I’m not so sure how all-star the cast is as of 1933. I mean, now we may look at it and say, “Wow! Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle!” But I can’t think of a single thing he’s done before like 1938, and if they were getting him for star power, why would they keep his face completely covered? Same goes for Sterling Holloway, who was much beloved as of the 1950s, but here just plays the Frog with a big rubber head and all of three lines. Edward Everett Horton is the Hatter, but I don’t know if he’s a real star, or if I just think he is because of Rocky and Bullwinkle. At least he avoids the big rubber head. It’s one thing for the animal characters, but most of the humans wear them, too, and it’s terrifying. Plot-wise, there’s an interesting step taken in this one in that she doesn’t fall down the rabbit hole, but rather pushes through the looking glass. The two books are always mashed together, but this is the only time I can think of that they used the second book’s intro. The dialogue is horribly adapted, featuring setups without punch lines and vice versa, but it’s the first major sound version, and as I noted in my Robin Hood blog, script cohesion was sort of a novelty back in the 30s.
I’ve included a video here for your edification, the opening credits. Now, we’re all used to opening credits from old movies being a bit long and draggy, but this sets a new standard for pacing issues. Still, it’s worth a watch to see the cast, and all those nightmare-inducing rubber heads.
The second video I meant to show you was the trailer, but I can‘t remember where I saw it, and my searches have proven fruitless. Sadly, it gave no indication of who was considered a star, since it gushes orgiastically over every actor who happened to wander by the set. I do like that it ended with a song explaining the plot. I think all movie trailers should end like that. And speaking of Sterling Holloway…
DISNEY! Yes, this is the version known by most, and it’s okay. Could be a hell of a lot worse. It has way more cohesion than probably any other version I’ve seen, which is debatably a plus. The voice acting is stellar. Ed Wynn as the Hatter is particularly notable. The color palette is bright, even for a Disney movie, and set against dark backgrounds for a nice contrast. And… there are songs. I’m sorry if I’m courting some kind of controversy by saying this, because I know how passionate musical people can be, but holy crap, these are some of the worst songs Disney’s ever put in a movie. I think the idea was to give them a frantic nature to match the wildness of Wonderland, but they just wind up confused jumbles of rickety rhythms and simplistic rhymes. Considering that the intricate and literate nature of the songs and poems is one of the most enduring aspects of the books, this is doubly annoying. But all in all, it’s fine. A steady plot may sacrifice some of the book’s dreaminess, at least it’s not just a random collection of scenes, which is more than can be said for most of these.
I can’t really say anything about this one, since I’ve only seen a few bits. It’s a videotaped performance of an semi-avant-garde stage version. It tries to play it pretty much straight, and on the level of an adaptation it’s a failure of the standard collection of episodes variety. But I would recommend checking out on Youtube the Tea Party, which stars “My Dinner With” Andre Gregory as the Hatter, scary-ass character actor Zeljko Ivanek as the Hare, and a before-they-were-stars Nathan Lane as the Dormouse. Also, dig the Cheshire Cat scene. It’s… well, it’s kind of rapey. Anyway, check out the cast, featuring Old Alice and her Famous Dad.
This all-star TV adaptation is likely to be remembered vaguely by most of you reading this, which is fine, since I’m remembering it pretty vaguely myself. The mid-late 90s were a fine time for network TV miniseries based on books, both Stephen King and otherwise. Eventually, someone had the bright idea to scrape together all the celebrities that weren’t up to much else, and have them do this movie. Some of them are the kinds you expect to find on a TV movie. Whoopi Goldberg as the Cheshire Cat, George Wendt as Tweedle Dee, etc. Some are a little more unexpected, like Robbie Coltrane as Tweedle Dum or Miranda Richardson as the Queen of Hearts. Some are just bizarre, like Ben Kingsley as the Caterpillar, or Peter Ustinov as the Walrus. In this version, Alice runs away from her parents’ party because she’s afraid to sing a song for all the adults. After her visit to Wonderland, she sings a song she learned from the Mock Turtle (Gene Wilder), after the characters in general teach her to believe in herself and have confidence.
It’s a good adaptation, though not a great one. The effects are nice, and with actors this good, you can’t help but get good performances. The ones that stand out most in my memory are Christopher Lloyd’s melancholy White Knight, Ben Kingsley’s randomly militaristic Caterpillar, and Whoopi Goldberg’s Cheshire Cat, which is generic and not crazy enough to be good, but holy hell, you try and forget a cat with Whoopi’s head. The moments where it really shines are when it abruptly changes style. The Walrus and the Carpenter is done as a puppet show, with Peters Ustinov and Postlethwaite acting inside of a tiny box. The Tea Party takes an extended break to showcase the Hatter (Martin Short) and Hare singing a bizarre little song called “Auntie’s Wooden Leg” as the tea-table becomes a music-hall stage. The effects are good for the TV budget, particularly Short’s digitally embiggened head, and the various Henson Creature Shop puppets. Frankly, this is probably the best a straight up film adaptation can be, due to it’s actually making an attempt to adapt, rather than simply portray. Oh, and Alice is Deb from Napoleon Dynamite.
So there you have it. All the versions I’ve seen. There’s plenty of others, but since I had basically the same complaints about most of them, I doubt you’ll find much better. Too much devotion to the original dialogue, a lack of understanding of why it originally worked, orphaned punch lines and setups, hammy actors, and jumbled scenes in a non-plot are the order of the day. Of course, the movie currently in theaters isn’t a straight adaptation, it’s a twisted take on the original story, which is SUCH an original idea, I’m sure I won’t have four more versions to talk about in my next entry. Stay tuned for part 3.