The Screen History of Wonderland

wonderland

Haven't seen Tim Burton's latest trip-out costume party yet? Don't feel like going, either from opening day fatigue or a lack of the supplemental fungi enhancement? Don't feel too bad. The beauty of Lewis Carroll's creation is that it's so seemingly random and outlandish that, over the years, many-a filmmakers have tried to re-imagine the story into their version of the bizarre. Alice always stays Alice, but with each film, we get a vision of Wonderland that becomes as weird or as cheerful as the filmmakers allow them to be.

And so, here are ten of the notable Wonderlands to seek, either for cultural relevancy or plain good entertainment.

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Alice in Wonderland (1951)

We shall start, naturally, with what is obviously the most famous adaptation of them all, courtesy of Walt Disney animation. Much of the misconception of what characters are in which books come from this trippy gem, which loosely combines the two into a colorful, nonsensical madcap that takes liberty with Lewis Carroll's prose, yet greatly exemplifies why Wonderland is called what it's called. Its greatness partially lies in how boisterous it's willing to be.

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"Alice" music video by Pogo

 

Alice in Wonderland (1903)

Directed by Cecil M. Hepworth and Percy Stow, not only was this the first ever screen adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, it was also Britain's longest film at the time—a whopping 12 minutes. This is probably one of the more faithful adaptations of this story, as Hepworth insisted that all the costumes and sets were built exactly as the novel's illustrations drawn by Sir John Tenniel. The video below is not the complete film, as the only surviving print is heavily damaged and only 8.5 minutes of it could be restored by the British Film Institute.

The whole film, or what's left of it

 

Dreamchild (1985)

There's a movie to be made about Alice at the age of 80 falling back down the rabbit hole, but this isn't it. As written by The Singing Detective's Dennis Potter, it's the fictionalized life story of Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired Wonderland's famous visitor, from the disquietingly inappropriate relationship she had as a child with the adult Lewis Carroll aka Reverend Charles Dodgson (played in the film by Ian Holm) to her life as an 80-year-old celebrity in Depression era New York. The film is most notable for the incredibly grotesque creature effects by the Jim Henson company, bringing characters like the Mad Hatter, the Mock Turtle and Gryphon to life in twilight Alice's hallucinations.

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Tea party scene

 

Alice (2009)

After gaining some kind of success with their Wizard of Oz re-imagining called Tin Man, SyFy immediately got to working on a sci-fi action-adventure version of this story. 150 years after Carroll's Alice, another Alice of our time, this time a twenty-something Judo sensei (no, really), jumps into Wonderland after her boyfriend is kidnapped by White Rabbit, a secret organization working for the Queen of Hearts, who keeps the kidnapped trapped in her casino (get it?). Like Tin Man—and actually they're a little too similar, though the former is clearly superior—Alice is a nifty diversion just to see the differences between the familiar version's whimsy and this version's gritty skirmishes, but not much else.

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Promo trailer

 

Alice in Wonderland (1933)

Most big adaptations of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass like to use the simple formula of casting famous faces as Wonderland residents, hoping the draw would be enough. The trend started with this Paramount Pictures movie, the first big budget, star-studded Hollywood production of this story. It boasts the likes of W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Edna May Oliver and Richard Arlen, among others—most of them unrecognizable in full-body costumes. Its approach to Wonderland is pretty straightforward, making it the least interesting of this bunch.

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W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty

 

Alice in Wonderland (1985)

This made-for-television musical adaptation originally aired in two parts, each covering one of the two Alice books. Though it also has its share of famous faces of the 80's (Ringo Starr, Scott Baio, Beau Bridges, Lloyd Bridges, Patrick Duffy, Sammy Davis Jr., Pat Morita, John Stamos, Merv Griffin, Carol Channing, etc.), there are two weird changes from the books that made it memorable: 1) Alice is American instead of British, and 2) The Jabberwocky appears as a black vicious dragon and chases Alice throughout Wonderland, and even back into the real world, in the second episode. What? Yes.

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The Jabberwocky's AWESOME entrance

 

Batman: The Animated Series - "Mad as a Hatter" (1992)

The Mad Hatter is such a distinguished character, he works just as well as a Batman villain. This episode of Batman: The Animated Series marks his origin story on the show, how Lewis Carroll-obsessed scientist Jarvis Tetch is driven to madness after rejected by his object of pining, a blonde secretary named Alice. Becoming the Hatter, he creates a Wonderland of his own to make Alice his. Though not as poignant as his next appearance, "Perchance to Dream," this episode still shows Mad Hatter in that tragic light the series does so well with Batman villains, via his singing of the Mock Turtle song to express his feelings towards Alice. "Would not, could not, would not join the dance..."

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Last 2 minutes of the episode

 

Alice in Wonderland, or What's a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1966)

Hanna-Barbera joined in on the fun by making this hip one-hour TV movie, which is partly inspired by Wizard of Oz. A girl named Alice (voiced by Janet Waldo, aka the original Judy Jetson and Josie of the Pussycats) hits her head and, together with her dog, fall into her television set. Inside, she meets Wonderland residents rendered through Hanna-Barbera's eyes, with that wonderful 60's beatnik tint. Mad Hatter, for example, gets a female counterpart named Hedda Hatter, voiced by famous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Also, for some reason Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble appear as the Caterpillar.

The title song sung by Chesire Cat (Sammy Davis, Jr)

 

Alice (1988)

If Wonderland is to be a strange foreign land, then there hasn't been one stranger-looking than the one assembled by surrealist animator Jan Švankmajer. This film is purposely hideous, with Wonderland characters and places made of scrapped metal, strewn garbage and dead animals. It's the most original take on the story, but also the most impenetrable. In Carroll's original story, it always seems like the Wonderland experience is vaguely torturous for the confused Alice, and that's never been more apparent here.

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Alice falling down the "rabbit hole"

 

Alice in Wonderland (1966)

Arguably the best version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland ever filmed, if you look at Lewis Carroll's tale as a long stretch of unease rather than a magical journey. It's a masterful adaptation because it's both remarkably faithful (keeping the same events and dialogue) and inventive on its own. It deliberately doesn't use any costumes—all the characters are humans in Victorian garb—and turns the Wonderland dynamic into a social critique of the British bourgeois: the madness of the customs and its toll on the lower rank. It's for this purpose that the King and Queen of Hearts are dressed as English royalty, while Alice is perpetually in walking catatonia as she floats through an increasingly aloof environment that keeps her at a distance.

In his director's commentary, director Jonathan Miller states his dislike for previous adaptations, particularly the Disney cartoon he calls "absurd." Of course, his version is absurd in its own right, but his dreamy take on Wonderland's madness is closer to mental illness than cheery fantasy (Alice follows the White Rabbit through not a rabbit hole but an abandoned hospital). He's also the only director to successfully transpose Carroll's insane prose into film techniques, by use of an hypnotic editing style, dislodged camera angles and the creepy swarming use of ambient sound. In doing so, this is probably the only Alice in Wonderland to truly preserve that puzzling non-narrative displayed in the books, and just as challenging to map out.

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Alice follows the White Rabbit

 

Not as worth mentioning, but we'll give them a namecheck anyway: the 1999 version with Whoopi Goldberg as the Chesire Cat and Martin Short as Mad Hatter, because it's kind of awful; a 1998 Through the Looking Glass adaptation with Kate Beckinsale as Alice, notable for an appearance by Steve Coogan; and Alice in Wonderland: An X-rated Musical Comedy, the 1976 porn version that's pretty much what you'd want it to be.

Mar
06
2010
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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