Originally written in 1865 by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, the tales of Alice in Wonderland have become one of the most famous and influential fantasy stories ever published. It has inspired countless writers and become a magnificent cultural force to be reckoned with. But it has also been a magnificent inspiration to the world of cinema. To date, there have been 20 film adaptations, four of which were animated, three silent, three made for television, and two musicals. The most famous is the 1951 animated Disney film, whose versions of the characters have become so ingrained in the mind of the public that they have become the default interpretations. But in some ways, it isn’t the best. It is probably the most approachable to both children and adults, but it seems watered down to those familiar with the original story. The countless riddles and social commentary that popularized the original stories were replaced by happy-go-lucky song sequences. There is never a real stranger in a strange land vibe as Alice is more than happy to dive right into the bizarre aspects of Wonderland. That is why the best film adaptation of the Alice in Wonderland stories was done by Jan Švankmajer, a Czech surrealist. His film, who’s translated title is simply Alice, does the best job of interpreting the story and bringing Wonderland to life with all of its bizarre and terrible occupants.
Švankmajer is known throughout the film world as one of the true pioneers of animation. His work has inspired people from Tim Burton to Terry Gilliam. But how, and why? The key to this answer can be found by exploring Alice, which was also his first full length film. In it, he combines real life actors with stop motion animation. Alice, played by Kristýna Kohoutová, is an ordinary, if not bored, little girl living in the countryside. She sits in her room one day throwing stones into a little cup of tea to pass the time. But this stops when a stuffed rabbit in a glass case comes to life, pulling the nails out of his feet and breaking out of his enclosure. He pulls a watch out of a long cut in his stomach where he had previously been stuffed. Wiping the sawdust off the watch, he utters the infamous words, “Oh no! I shall be late!” But he doesn’t say it. A large pair of lips and white teeth appears on the screen and narrates his dialogue. In fact, whenever there is any dialogue, even from Alice, the same mouth appears and speaks the lines.
But we have barely entered the surrealist rabbit hole. Or, in the case of Alice, we have a bottomless cabinet in the middle of a desert that functions as an elevator. That’s right. The rabbit runs off-screen from Alice’s room to appear in a desert. He dives into the shelf in the cabinet. Alice runs into the same desert and crawls into the tiny shelf only to be deposited in a cramped space that begins to go down into the ground. She sees glances of other floors littered with oddities from the mid Nineteenth century like old bug collections, jars of eyes, and dusty wooden toys. She finally stops only to be dropped off in a smaller room with a plate of cookies on a table.
From here, those familiar with the story of Alice in Wonderland will know what happens next. She goes about meeting strange characters and personalities. She rendezvous with the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Caterpillar, and the Red Queen. The Cheshire Cat appears to be missing, but we don’t really notice. Alice consumes different things and shrinks/grows. And we, as the audience, feel completely disoriented with the proceedings. But there is something different in Švankmajer’s approach to the story and characters.
It establishes its own rules and then breaks them. The tarts which in one scene make her bigger make her shrink in another. Spatial relationships are developed and ignored, such as the scene where her tears fill a room, spill out, and then become a river. Laying in the water, we notice that the room has disappeared. Where did it go? Where does the water keep coming from?
But the key element that makes Švankmajer’s interpretation of Alice in Wonderland so unique are the characters. None of them look anything like how we have come to expect them. Well, the White Rabbit does, but there isn’t a lot of room for interpretation concerning a white rabbit. But Švankmajer goes about with glee, twisting and distorting the popular characters until they seem like lurid dreams or nightmares. Most of Wonderland’s inhabitants are small creatures comprised of junk and dead animals. There are birds with bird legs, creatures with stuffed bodies but pearly animal skulls, and raw chunks of sentient meat. Startled yet? Well I haven’t even begun to describe the regular characters.
The White Rabbit and Friends
The March Hare is a wind-up toy that constantly must be rewound. The Mad Hatter is a garish wooden puppet that doesn’t so much drink his tea as he spills it all over his beard. The Caterpillar is a sock with glass eyes that chews holes into wooden floors and convinces Alice’s socks to try and escape. And I leave you to discover how Švankmajer interprets the Queen of Hearts and her servants.
So why is this version of Alice in Wonderland so superior to all other adaptations? It is probably because it does its source material justice. The original stories were shocking and intriguing. When they are simply adapted to the screen, those familiar with the stories will know what is coming, and therefore not be as terrified. But Švankmajer doesn’t give his audience, especially those who know the story, any such comfort. Alice is as shocking and hallucinatory as the first novel. Is it for children? Probably not. Is it for adults? Maybe. That is, if they want to see how far down into Švankmajer’s mind they are ready to go. Just don’t expect it to be a comfortable, or relaxing, trip.