Go Ask the Alices

With Tim Burton’s wildly successful “reimagining” of the Alice in Wonderland story coming to home video on 1 June, it’s interesting to look back at some of the more noted adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s timeless tomes. One source estimates that nearly 80 film and or TV versions of the famous storylines exist, everything from straight forward interpretations to kid vid series, outside reinventions/extrapolations to deranged allegories and allusions. Seems as far back as the beginning of cinema, filmmakers were finding a way to bring the story of a little girl lost down a magical rabbit hole to life. The following are 15 of the more noted attempts, including a few entries that straddle the line between Carroll and crap, beginning with:

Alice in Wonderland (1903)

Recently discovered by the British Film Institute, this take on Carroll’s seminal work is considered the first ever version of the oft remade story. Directors Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow do an amazing job with the medium’s turn of the century technological limits, and for their time, the special effects are excellent. Like many, they try to mimic John Tenniel’s famous illustrations – and succeed fairly well.

Alice in Wonderland (1915)

Proving that the silent medium was perhaps best suited to bringing this material to life director W. W. Young and his F/X team also mimic the Victorian vitriol of John Tenniel and come up with a weird, winning combination. The movie magic employed here is just amazing, and though definitely ancient in technique and modern equivalent, it really delivers here (especially in the mesmerizing “animal convention” sequence).

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1933)

Originally running near 90 minutes, this star-studded Tinseltown adaptation offers some intriguing make-up work, and a cast which includes W. C. Fields, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and Edward Everett Horton. Sadly, nearly 15 minutes were edited out by television distributors in the ’50s, and that’s the only version available today. While it would be nice to see the restored print, what’s available here is silly, surreal, and quite satisfying.

Alice in Wonderland (1949)

Thanks to pressure (and a lawsuit) from a certain Uncle Walt and his world of lawyers, few got to see this unusual British version of Alice’s trip to Wonderland. Combining live actors with a George Pal-like use of puppetry, the results were often quite inventive – and a little creepy. Indeed, when you see the Wonderland material, you question what Disney was so worried about. Compared to this, their cartoon cavalcade is pure pixie dust.

Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Considered by many to be the “definitive” Alice, even if it fudges with Carroll’s narrative and combines both books into one wonky masterwork. There is no denying the pop art polish here with colors that pop off the screen. Many of Disney’s decisions about the characters have carried over into the cultural consciousness. In fact, since its release, many updates on the material seem to follow the House of Mouse designs almost religiously.

Alice in Wonderland, or What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This (1966)

During the ’60s, the big three networks were always looking for counter/complementary programming in response to the massive ratings return of annual Wizard of Oz airings. Alice was seen as a splendid alternative, with efforts like this ABC oddity making an appearance. Featuring Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, and offering our heroine’s adventures as she falls through a TV set, it was more hip than homage – and suffers because of same.

Alice of Wonderland in Paris (1966)

Perhaps the most problematic of all the adaptations. There is a meta quality to the material (Alice, famous for her travels to Wonderland, is now a star strutting around France) and our heroine is pushed aside so that five other short stories – Ludwig Bemelmans’ “Madeline and the Bad Hat” and “Madeline and the Gypsies”, Eve Titus’ “Anatole”, Crockett Johnson’s “The Frowning Prince,” and James Thurber’s “Many Moons” – can be interpreted and presented. Barely Carroll at all.

Alice in Wonderland (1966)

This UK TV version on the story is unusual for a couple of reasons. First, it was filmed in black and white, which is always problematic for Carroll’s often “colorful” concepts. Next, while featuring several famous British thespians – Michael Redgrave, Peter Sellers, John Gielgud – none of them were costumed, meaning you had to know the characters to recognize their significance to the story. Finally, Indian maestro Ravi Shankar provided a sitar score. Together, they create a compelling if eccentric experience.

Alice Through the Looking Glass (1966)

As mentioned before, this was NBC’s response to the growing popularity of Dorothy and her yearly broadcast journey to the Emerald City. Unfortunately, the makers tossed aside almost anything to do with Carroll’s original story and concocted their own bizzaro-world musical where the Jabberwock (sp) is now a singing, dancing musical menace. Even with a competent cast and perky teenage Alice, this half-baked hokum gives Carroll’s creation a bad name.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1972)

In a true musical marvel, British luminaries such as Michael Crawford (White Rabbit) Sir Ralph Richardson (The Caterpillar) Roy Kinnear (The Cheshire Cat) and the amazing Sir Robert Helpman (as a remarkable Mad Hatter) illustrate how to update the Alice storyline without totally scuttling its creative classicism. The songs are excellent, doing a nice job of fleshing out the film’s psychological components, while the costume and art design reinterpret Tenniel without going overboard.

Alice in Wonderland (1976)

As with most “adult” movies made in the mid ’70s, this adaptation of Alice was riding the wave of mainstream appreciation for XXX material. Perhaps this is why the production quality is so high and the hardcore imagery is so tame (though massive edits helped in the latter category). With the typical porn star acting prowess and a weird juvenilia sense of humor, what could have been an insult is actually kind of fun – kind of.

Alice in Wonderland (1985)

It was his last small screen production, and Master of Disaster Irwin Allen wanted to make it his best. So he loaded up his cast with then A-list celebrities and greenlit a three hour miniseries made from both Carroll volumes. The time allowed the update to deal more specifically with the complicated storylines and subtle social commentary found in the books. While far from perfect, the overall effect is closer to Carroll than one might expect.

Dreamchild (1985)

This is not your typical Wonderland take. Told from several perspectives, we first meet an aging Alice (not the character from the book, but the little girl who inspired it). Then, we flashback to Rev. Charles Dodgson (Carroll’s real name) and how his surreal story about rabbits, caterpillars, and jabberwockys actually harbored his hidden psychological desires. Switching between them and a grimy, disturbing vision of the book, author Dennis Potter revels in his subject’s complex motives – and creates a masterpiece.

Alice (1988)

If David Lynch or the Quay Brothers ever collaborated to make a stop motion version of the Carroll classic, it might come close to looking like this mesmerizing masterpiece from Czech director Jan Svankmajer. Like Burton, he retells the Alice adventures in a new and inventive way, using the format to further question the character’s reality…and sanity. Far more brutal and aggressive than previous versions, this is one of the most ingenious takes on the tale ever.

Alice in Wonderland (1999)

With the rampant advances in CG and special effects, it was only a matter of time before TV – in this case, Hallmark Entertainment – would decide to revisit the certified family favorite. Gathering together a decent cast – Miranda Richardson, Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Short – and taking on both books, what should have been eye-popping and spectacular was actually dull and rather derivative. Even with the advances in technology, this production brought little novelty to the century old saga.