Alice in Wonderland

[10 March 2010]

By Aaron Wee

See! Through a Looking Glass, Darkly.

The long history of Alice in Wonderland adaptations have rarely been faithful to Lewis Carroll’s text, saturating screens with garish depictions of the manic and an insistence to cater to the whimsical imaginations of the under-15 set. With, at best, a casual relation to Carroll’s authorial intention, what is produced is, undoubtedly, entertaining stuff – the sort of cinema one could pleasantly sink into.

However, Alice in Wonderland film adaptations had not, until Jonathan Miller’s 1966 version, really managed to capture the disorienting, sometimes dark, sometimes manic, wonder that Carroll was so good at weaving. What Miller did, more so than any other director had done previously, was to lead you down the rabbit hole – the crazy thing was that the audience happily let him.

It is difficult to adapt Alice in Wonderland for the screen. Carroll’s original text held so much. His densely-packed language and references, his biting social critique, his lucid dream-like sequences, are all tremendously difficult to capture, in any definitive way, on film. The majority of Alice in Wonderland adaptations (including the famous Disney 1951 animated version) are very good at delivering on the entertainment and creating a compelling world populated with spectacle but seldom manage to come close to the illusory quality of Alice’s adventures.

Miller’s adaptation does not rely on all those commonly used tropes and cinematic backdoors to distract unwary audiences. A great believer in simplicity (previously know, chiefly, for the musical revue Beyond the Fringe), Miller wove a compelling Alice in Wonderland adaptation without overly elaborate costumes or garish special effects. Yet, there is a distinct eccentric charm to it made all the more palatable because the viewer gets the impression that the director is not trying to distract one from the viewing experience, is not being talked down to, and is not being fooled into watching yet another adaptation that seems geared strictly to pleasing the little ones.

Equally, it would be deceitful to call this a “gritty” imagining of Alice in Wonderland. What Miller’s film is, however, is a tale about a dream that dares to imagine what may be.

The film begins with a very clear idea of what it was going to be: something just a little bit… different. Miller loves crafting a deliberate sequence of shots composed through still-time in an effort to capture, and allow the audience to as well, a scene’s various meanings. In the opening scene, we find an incomprehensible, chattering nanny fussing over Alice’s hair. For a few, long, strangled minutes, the film is mute (a brief Ravi Shankar solo wafting in the background, but more on that later) and it slowly. Falls. Into. A. Dead. Crawl. Mind you, this was Miller’s opening gambit and would doubtlessly frustrate a viewer expecting, well, narrative.

Yet it’s a trick. It’s always a (clever) trick. Miller uses cinematic expression – and its vocabulary of editing techniques, mise en scene, and whathaveyous – to weave a surreal world full of dreamy sequences to not so much enchant, but bewitch the audience. The dislocating fades and jumpy cuts suggest the none-too-logical “logic” of dreaming. Things occur or don’t; time passes or it doesn’t. As a viewer, we get confused, occasionally frustrated, but ultimately beguiled just enough to feel, and I mean really feel, empathy for the brave wanderer, Alice.

Miller had an extravagant cast to work with: Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud, Peter Sellers and others all take turns in portraying this-or-that denizen of Wonderland to great effect. Nearly unique to Alice in Wonderland adaptations, none of them are encumbered with costumes too fanciful, or makeup too distracting to hide their senses of performance or style. A viewer might be forgiven for wondering just what makes Redgrave the Caterpillar at all. The effect is compelling, however; where others might go for the smoke and mirrors, Miller really captures the confusion and theatricality of Wonderland’s characters by coaxing his cast to really fill them out through their performances.

Some might take issue, however, with the choice of casting the 13-year-old Anne-Marie Malik as the eponymous Alice. Malik portrays Alice with dull passivity, moving dispassionately from scene to scene, as if merely to carry the narrative forward. However, in that listlessness, I find an endearing charm: Malik’s Alice drifts into and out of Wonderland’s curious illogicality with a resigned acceptance. She is the essential dreamer, flitting innocently through events both larger and smaller than herself, filling the space between thoughts and punctuating the barriers of illusion.

It also helps a little that Malik bears more than just a little resemblance to the Alice that John Tenniel sketched out way back when in 1865. Malik’s unconventional performance – airy, detached, perhaps an ethereal passer-by – is both one of the most confusing and evocative highlights of the film.

It’s rare that a film adaptation of Carroll’s work manages to capture the essential charm and humor that was so redolent in his text. With Miller’s use of (slightly out-of-place) voiceovers and mise en scene framing, the audience is brought to feel uniquely close to Alice, suggesting an unearthly proximity, both physically and mentally, with the eponymous “heroine”. We are forced, by Miller’s hand, to adopt Alice’s dream-state as our own, discovering Wonderland as it presents itself to us. I couldn’t help but annoy the thin-walled neighbors with my rather obnoxious laughter at the Frog Footman (played with relish by John Bird) or at Carroll’s puns (to dry the wet crowds, Mouse offers to recount some dry history).

That being said, this is not the easiest Alice in Wonderland adaptation to watch or follow. (It will almost certainly be more inaccessible to another Lewis Carroll adaptation released this month.) The script is, at times, a mess of set-pieces cobbled together. This is how it appears in the book – and it felt disjointed in text – but when structured in the language of cinema, the imperfect storytelling method is perversely disorienting. It does contribute (greatly) to the overwhelming sense of “dreaming” the film but on this occasion, I think I would prefer some boundaries to be respected – at least in terms of narrative coherence. Miller’s film demands more than a casual understanding of the source material to follow the film; I labored with a tatty old copy and frequent pauses of the disc to keep up, relying, as I was, on an equally imperfect memory.

Of course, one of the other unique aspects of Miller’s film has to come in Ravi Shankar’s trance-inducing soundtrack. Produced in the psychedelic haze of the ‘60s, Shankar’s haunting music provides the perfect backdrop for a film that compels you to get lost within its celluloid embrace. Never rising above more than a languid hum, Shankar’s musical embrace is an intoxicating match to Miller’s gauzy imagery.

Miller’s film is a work of sumptuous majesty that demands a patient consideration from more than just blasé film school grad students. The fractured story-telling, its defiance of convention, and absorbing photography bring to fresh relief Lewis Carroll’s otherworldly social criticism of the absurd life of bourgeois England. While remaining immensely faithful to the source material, Miller manages to bring the real into the surreal, fashioning an Alice in Wonderland story that is both haunting and spectacular.

The DVD comes with the usual sorts of accoutrement we have come to expect: the director’s commentary, some music, a photo gallery – you know, standard stuff. The little accompanying biopic on real-life Alice inspiration, Alice Liddell, is a nice extra touch.

What really takes the cake, though, is a rare copy of the first Alice adaptation ever filmed: the 1903 Cecil Hepworth Alice in Wonderland. In a period when most films were either newsreels or adaptations of biblical stories, the 1903 version was the longest British film of its day – over 800 feet! (or just about 12-minutes when projected) The commentary provided is illuminating if a little dry, meant to be a sort of scholarly guide to a lost film more than anything else.

More than 100 years old, the film already displays some of the difficulty modern directors face when adapting Lewis Carroll’s work. While in a clearly bad condition (most of the edges have been ravaged by time), the film is still passably watchable but the novelty comes from the fact that, on the screen, flickers a century-old work of film.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/121712-alice-in-wonderland/