Go ask Alice

Screenwriter John August — who scripted Tim Burton’s Big Fish, Corpse Bride, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, wrote two different treatments for failed Alice in Wonderland adaptations, though not the version hitting theaters Friday. In a recent blog post, August argues, “Alice has become one of our fundamental myths, an Ur-story that thrives through perpetual reinvention.”

He’s definitely half-right, anyway. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and to a lesser extent Through the Looking Glass, has been remade, “reimagined,” and flat-out ripped off enough to put just about any work other than Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, or the gospel of Christ to shame. Practically since the movie camera was invented, directors have been pointing it at guys dressed in White Rabbit costumes. It’s been animated with ink, clay, chicken bones, and computer software. It’s inspired Walt Disney, pornographers, and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. And we’re still remaking the damn thing, for some reason.

Disney’s definitive 1951 version combines the best elements of both Wonderland and Looking Glass, along with Carroll’s most famous poetry, so effectively it’s become what we talk about when we talk about Alice. But that only further confuses things — why do we continue to remake what’s been so obviously perfected? What is it about Alice that continues to lure the creative types? There’s the weird elements implying preadolescent sexualization (more on those later), but is the lure of pedophilic pillow talk filtered through talking animals and Victorian wordplay enough to keep Alice so firmly wedged in our collective craws for the past 145 years? Shudder. To drive that thought from our mind, let’s watch a whole bunch of different versions to find something, anything, that makes a better explanation for why we still care about Cheshire cats and wacky tea parties. Read our review of Disney’s new Burton-directed, three-dimensional extravaganza (which screened Tuesday after press time) at sacurrent.com.

Alice in Wonderland (1903)

Writ. and dir. Cecil M. Hepworth; feat. May Clark, Norman Whitten, Cecil M. Hepworth, Margaret Hepworth

The original film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland comes 25 years after people first paid good money to watch sequential photographs of a running horse hand-cranked to a gallop. In less than 10 minutes, Alice follows the White Rabbit to a tiny door, drinks something to shrink, then eats something to grow, then shrinks again to get back through the door so she can go explore filmmaker Cecil Hepworth’s backyard. It’s a silent film, so the puns and linguistic nonsense (which are often downplayed anyway but seemed to have been the story’s initial raison d’être) are lost. The costumes and sets are pretty decent, considering the film is 107 years old, but there’s only one print in existence and it’s worn and scratched all to shit. Fun fact: Like the new Burton film, this one features the director’s wife (credited as “Mrs. Hepworth” as the Queen. Check it out at sacurrent.com.

Alice in Wonderland (1933)

Dir. Norman Z. McLeod; writ. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, William Cameron Menzies; feat. Charlotte Henry, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields

This film was officially released on DVD for the first time on Tuesday, but wait for it to find its rightful place in the $5 bargain bin. The blur effect used to make Alice grow is bad enough to give you a headache, but some of the other camera trickery is still pretty impressive. The film precedes the Disney version by 18 years, but still hits most of the same points filmmakers have been beating to death for decades. Why does the Mad Hatter always have to ask Alice why a raven’s like a writing desk, for example, or offer her wine when there isn’t any? Still, I always prefer it, for some reason, when Alice enters Wonderland via the looking glass instead of the rabbit hole (keep the Freudian analysis to yourself please), and it’s good to see the “Pig and Pepper” chapter played out. Paramount packed the film with its brightest stars, from W.C. Fields to none other than Baby Le Roy, but the ridiculous community-theater-quality costumes are so cumbersome and distracting, they steal the film. Who thought it would be a good idea to hide Cary Grant inside a giant papier-mâché horse’s head? People bitch about CGI, but imagine if Shrek had featured Eddie Murphy shouting his lines through the ventilation slot of a rented donkey costume.

Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy (1976)

Dir. Bud Townsend; writ. Bucky Searles; feat. Kristine DeBell, Alan Novak, Ron Nelson, Bucky Searles

According to countless boring professor types, the Alice stories represent the confusion of sexual awakening, and according to a probably exaggerated popular belief, if there was one thing Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, enjoyed as much as writing beloved children’s stories, it was taking pictures of little girls without their clothes on. So this Wonderland porn — though it thankfully casts 22-year-old Kristine DeBell (who went on to play A.L. in Meatballs and guest star on episodes of CHiPs and Eight Is Enough) as Alice — should be closest to Carroll’s original vision, right? It does feature more puns per minute than the actual books themselves, but most of them are labored and dick-related. Check out the song “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing on a Knight Like This?” for example. Of course there are songs: “His Ding-a-Ling Up” is about what you’d expect for a late-’70s Wonderland-themed porn musical, but the wistful “Guess I Was Too Busy Growing Up” gets ding-a-ling-deflatingly sentimental, and “If You Haven’t Got Dreams, You Ain’t Got Nothing” sounds like a Barney & Friends reject. That last song, by the way, is sung by several way-too-in-character people dressed as some sort of rodent, complete with painted faces and furry-eared headgear, just before they lick Alice’s naked body dry. And all of the musical numbers (eight total) are choreographed. I like to think this film is the result of a director in desperate need of a script to use as an excuse to film people screwing, and a screenwriter determined to force his failed musical onscreen even if it means adding a few gratuitous blowjobs between songs. The actual porn scenes, incidentally, are virtually unmasturbatable, but not for the reason you’d expect: The players all did an admirable job of trimming their pubic hair, especially by 1970s standards, but Townsend keeps the camera focused unflinchingly on nothing but penetration. No heads, arms, legs, torsos, nothing but not-particularly attractive genitalia mashing together with the occasional squishy sound effect. Skip the sex scenes to get to the musical numbers. I can’t believe I just said that.

Alice (Nieco z Alenky) (1988)

Writ. and dir. Jan Svankmajer; feat. Kristyna Kohoutová

Now we’re getting somewhere. This adaptation by Czech animator Svankmajer is nightmarish and unexpectedly violent, but it’s also more faithful to the story’s spirit than many of the tamer, more straightforward adaptations. Alice (Kohoutov) is actually played by a little girl, for one thing. The other characters are all familiar objects — stuffed dolls, socks, and in one particularly disturbing sequence, the skeletons of small birds. Using household items to illustrate Caroll’s tale, Svankmajer effectively recaptures Wonderland’s domesticity— talking playing cards, animals found in an English garden, etc. The props provide a duller palette than we’ve come to expect, and setting scene after scene inside the same few cramped rooms in what appears to be an abandoned house greatly limits the scope, but these elements also give Alice a claustrophobic atmosphere and the dream feeling of the everyday becomes uncanny and sort of terrifying.

Waking life was like this, too, once, before years of routine wore away our sense of potential for the fantastic. The appeal of Carroll’s Wonderland seems to be that it existed at one time as an actual destination in our own realities, and the power in the retelling, no matter how wacko and dick-filled or lazy and unimaginative it might be, is that it gives us a brief window in which to believe we might remember how to get back there. Either that or it’s an audience-tested excuse for a big cinematic spectacle of trippy images and elaborate sets and costumes, and a story most screenwriters are incapable of topping, even a century-and-a-half later. •

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