At some point recently I realized that, with no intentional effort of my own, I’d seen more versions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland than any other work, including Sherlock Holmes, the Bible, or any Shakespeare play. Many of these were direct title-sharing adaptations, but just as often I’ll unsuspectingly dive into a book or movie and discover it’s packed with allusions and parallels to Carroll’s books. Alice is everywhere – films, books, comics, video games, music, even pornography.
Which raises the question: why Alice? How has a children’s book, less than 100 pages long, scorned by critics upon its initial release, become one of the most popular and recognizable works in English literature? How have its numerous adaptations used the same story to deliver light and whimsical tales just as often as dark and horrific ones, often in the same work? And out of the dozens and dozens of versions available, are any of them actually any good? Let’s go down the proverbial rabbit hole and find out.
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
64 years later, Disney’s version of Alice remains the definitive one, to the extent that many of the other adaptations on this list seem to be more based on this film than Carroll’s novel. Like the novel, the film was critically panned and financially unsuccessful upon its initial release, and Walt himself considered the film a failure. It’s only thanks to the drug culture of the 1960s that the film underwent a significant revival and became the classic we know it as today.
And it deserves the praise. Disney’s Alice overflows with character; the numerous quirks in the varied animation fill the scenes with life, and while the film leans less heavily on Carroll’s pun and logic-fueled humor, it supplements with numerous creative jokes in its own style. More importantly, many modern adaptations seem relatively disenchanted with Wonderland as a place, instead focusing on trumping previous depictions or adding their own twist. Disney’s version keeps the magical and bizarre nature of the place in the forefront, which is why it sets the standard for future Alice stories.
Carroll Connection: 3/5. Most of the film’s departures from Carroll’s original novel – cutting the Mock Turtle, adding Tweedledee and Tweedledum from Through The Looking Glass – were wise decisions, and would be copied by numerous other takes.
Watchability: 5/5. This is a charming and lighthearted Alice for adults and children alike.
Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Comedy (1976)
Kids, porn used to be different back in the day. Rather than 10 minute videos to be browser freely online, pornography had to be sold as full-length DVDs, meaning it had to come with legitimate plot, pacing, and characters. Hence numerous porn parodies of existing works, including this off-color Alice. In it, a sexually-conservative teenage Alice follows a rabbit through a mirror into a world of sexual fantasy. Oh, and the “Musical” part of the title isn’t kidding; the film is punctuated with full-blown original musical numbers throughout, often mid-coitus.
It’s one of the funniest versions of Alice you can find, both for it’s intentional comedy – such as the White Rabbit exclaiming “The Queen’s a bitch!” – and for it’s unintentional – the costumes and sets suggest that the whole thing was made on a budget of about $20. Honestly, it’s even a legitimately good idea to use the premise of Wonderland as a parallel for a young woman exploring her developing sexuality. But the metaphor gets tangled when the film combines the theme with that of Alice bringing out her inner child, and the acting is as bad as you would guess, though props to the straight-faced commitment shown by the White Rabbit and the King of Hearts (I could also use this film to make a variety of points on the changing nature of American pornography over time, but, well, this probably isn’t the article for that).
Carroll Connection: 2/5. Clearly this version wasn’t overly concerned with accurately adapting the original story.
Watchability: 3/5. It’s mainly just hilarious that this version of Alice exists, but it’s a surprisingly good time for what it is.
Něco z Alenky (1988)
These days it’s become fashionable to twist Alice into a horror story, but let the record show: Czech surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer did it first. His take, which blends stop motion animation and puppetry with a live action star, is easily the most claustrophobic, nightmarish version of the story you’ll find on film. When Alice shrinks, she transforms into a porcelain doll; the White Rabbit is an actual taxedermied rabbit who eats sawdust to survive and interacts with a group of animal skeletons; the caterpillar is a holey sock with glass eyes and a pair of dentures.
Thankfully, Něco z Alenky isn’t just weird for the sake of weirdness. The whole idea behind Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is that everything takes place within Alice’s dream, and this film delivers on that premise more wholly than any other adaptation. Whereas most adaptations attempt to detach themselves from reality as much as possible, Švankmajer explores the twisted, illogical amorality of a nightmare and brings out the ghastly nature of everyday objects. It’s definitely not for everyone, but of all the alternate worlds delivered in the various Alice adaptations, Švankmajer’s is the most inventive and alluring.
Carroll Connection: 3/5. There’s no Cheshire Cat or Caucus Race, but for all it changes, this remains a surprisingly faithful adaptation.
Watchability: 5/5. This version of Alice remains perhaps the most creative, fascinating and terrifying available. It succeeds because, rather than attempting to be yet another definitive version of the story that fails to beat Disney’s standard, it delivers on a unique aesthetic and experience.
Alice in Wonderland (1999)
In one leap, we’ve transitioned from the most inventive version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the least. This live-action version, produced by Hallmark, is most notable for its variety of stars that fill in the supporting roles. Whoopi Goldberg plays a Cheshire Cat that explores previously uncharted territory in the Uncanny Valley; Martin Short appears as a lisping, Martin Short-y Mad Hatter; Ben Kingsley’s take on the Caterpillar remains somewhat impossible to pin down; Christopher Lloyd’s White Knight comes across more like a senile old man than a Wonderlandian; and Gene Wilder delivers a surprisingly earnest performance as the Mock Turtle.
What’s missing from this version is any real sense of personality, as the film hits recognizable setpiece after recognizable setpiece from Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass without adding hardly anything. Most of the jokes that didn’t appear in Carroll’s books are cheap puns, and it all comes through the filter of overly saturated colors and special effects that were bad even by 1990s standards. At no point in this version does it appear the filmmakers delivered anything more than the absolute minimum effort.
Carroll Connection: 4/5. While the spirit of the original works is absent, this version of Alice hits more plotpoints from the book than any other film.
Watchability: 2/5. This version of Alice isn’t unbearable, but it’s entirely expendable. It’s only good enough that little kids won’t notice it’s bad.
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
There’s not much to say about this “adaptation” that hasn’t already been said, but it’s still baffling 5 years later that once-visionary director Tim Burton managed to make a film this intensely out of line with the original and what people love about the story and still make so much goddamn money. This sequel (of sorts) focuses not on the nonsensical adventures of Alice’s first trip to Wonderland, but instead on a return years later, where she’s planted into a Hero’s Journey Chosen One story to save Underland (Underland?) from the now-dominant Red Queen.
What’s remarkable is how such an atypical, imaginative source material could be transformed into a story so generic and formulaic, and how while the original embraced its logical fallacies, this one simply has plot holes and character inconsistencies. At every stage, through the performances, the costumes, the set design, the intense over-reliance on CG visuals, the film tries to both recapture the fun, fantastical style of the first Disney movie and bring out the dark, grizzly potential for the story. What results is a bland, lifeless, directionless slog that does neither.
Carroll Connection: 1/5. I actually applaud the movie for trying to tell an entirely different story from the one in the books; we’ve seen that one plenty of times already. If only they’d put together a decent one to replace it….
Watchability: 2/5. This one just barely squeaks past a 1 because I remember not completely hating it when I first saw it in theaters. But whatever you like about Alice in Wonderland, you won’t find it here, guaranteed.
There are more Alice movies out there, but here are the big landmarks. Next time, we delve into Alice’s appearances in Batman comics, psychedelic music, Salvador Dali’s paintings, and more. Stay tuned.