Saturday Matinee #102: Alice in Wonderland ' One Story, Three Interpretations (July 28, 1951 / December 9, 1985 / February 28, 1999)
Published December 15, 2012
By Kelvin Cedeno
Prologue: 'How do you get to Wonderland?'
Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass) has been a part of my life in some form as long I can remember. I grew up with both the Disney animated film and the 1985 CBS miniseries (the latter of which still has a Disney connection for me as we had taped it off of The Disney Channel). In Kindergarten, I read Carroll's Nursery Alice, a simplified version of the story for younger children written by Carroll himself. To this day, I still remember my attempts at jumping into holes in our yard hoping to enter that world of fantasy (luckily, any holes to be found near our home were small and shallow). I loved the story and would enjoy other adaptations over the years, but Alice fever didn't actually hit me until I read the original novels in 6th grade and re-discovered the Disney film the summer after. From then on, the madness had stuck.
Carroll's works have so many layers to them that there are endless ways to interpret the text. It's no wonder filmmakers keep dipping back into the well every decade to put their own spin on the tale. Perhaps the three most well-known and best-regarded versions are the aforementioned Disney film from 1951, the CBS miniseries from 1985, and the NBC television film from 1999. All three lend their own unique voices to Carroll's prose while attempting to make his episodic adventures suitable for the cinematic medium.
Act One: 'In my world, everything would be nonsense.'
Looking at these three films is fascinating because they're relatively faithful to the text and yet so strikingly different. Of the three, Disney's plays the loosest with the material. Walt Disney had been trying for years to get an Alice film off the ground to no avail, and by the time he had the chance to, he was reluctant as the various failed attempts showed him that the narrative of the books does not follow a traditional story structure. He proceeded with the production, anyway, due to pressure from peers who felt he should make it. Disney decided, then, that there needed to be an emphasis on comedy and visuals. Of these three Alice features, Disney's is the most hilarious one. It should come as no surprise as his story team was skilled at coming up with gags for previous features and shorts. Carrollians may balk at how much original material the Disney artists inject into Carroll's events, but they work and work well.
The comedy found in the novels is brilliant, but Disney knew that just regurgitating them wouldn't suffice (something other Alice films don't always understand). Film is a visual medium, so to take advantage of such a nonsense world without any rules, the artists pack in all sorts of visual gags that accompany the witty dialogue. The backgrounds in particular, inspired by artist Mary Blair's concept artwork, have a sense of skewed whimsy about them. Nothing is perfectly vertical or horizontal but is instead always slanted to some degree (a stark contrast to the perfectly-composed backgrounds of 1959's Sleeping Beauty). It gives the world an off-kilter feel while still being aesthetically pleasing. Disney's may not be the most literal adaptation, but it's the one that seems to be the most alive, the most free-for-all, and therefore, the most in-tune with the feeling of the books.
The 1985 CBS miniseries is an interesting beast. It's almost slavishly faithful to the books with only a few additions (more on those later). However, while some adaptations that adhere closely to the source material dryly recite it and thus lose the bite in translation, this miniseries presents the material in a goofy, campy manner. This is a Wonderland where everything is silly in a good-natured way. It's not as hyper or peevish as Disney's interpretation. Everything instead is played with more of a wink.
What will stand out most to people familiar with the story is the level of sweetness on display. This is not only a silly Wonderland, it's also a sentimental one, too. A lot of that comes from the original tunes written by Irwin Allen. They sometimes work, but other times they feel shoe-horned in, especially when it's an emotional ballad book ended by trollish behavior from the same character. It makes Wonderland (and Looking Glass Land) seem like a cozy and pleasant place to be that's just a bit kooky. This obviously is in conflict with the books where both settings are unfriendly, exasperating worlds that confuse Alice at best or infuriate her at worst. The visuals help reinforce the cuteness since the furry animal costumes worn by the actors and the warm, non-threatening sets don't exhibit the sense of surrealism and imbalance the Disney film did. It's certainly not everyone's cup of tea (pun unintended), but I can't help but find it charming in its own right.
The 1999 NBC TV film is neither as frantic as Disney's nor as cuddly as CBS'. Instead, it goes for a more whimsical tone that seems more in line with the tone of the novels. Then again, Carroll doesn't spend a great deal of time describing how his characters speak, and he spends even less time describing the surrounding environments, so who's to say how the books should be read? Even so, NBC's at times restrained version seems to be the way most people remember the source. It avoids being either too stiff or too hammy and manages to get across the British sense of humor as opposed to the vaudeville of Disney's or the variety show of CBS'. No doubt this is likely due to director Nick Willing's British roots, himself.
The sense of whimsy extends to the visuals which are clearly influenced from Sir John Tenniel's original illustrations. Instead of the colorfully skewed world of 1951's or the intimate and comfortable world of 1985's, we have rich vistas with lush details. This is a scenic and picturesque Wonderland that feels like a lavish storybook illustration come to life. In fact, one clever bit has the White Rabbit's house emerge from a pop-up book inside a massive library. Determined to avoid as much cutesiness as possible, this version recasts many of the animals as humans with vague personality and costume traits that link them to their animal counterparts. This helps drive home the idea of a great British novel come to life'but not necessarily Carroll's. Keeping only a few of the story's animals as actual animals robs Wonderland of its fantasy and, well, wonder.
While Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are separate novels, most film versions (including these three) take advantage of the episodic nature by cherry picking events from both books. Actually, to be fair, 1951 and 1999 do the cherry picking. 1985 actually covers both books thoroughly with its Wonderland half airing one night and its Looking Glass half airing two nights later. In the case of 1951, it alternates back and forth during its first half between both books (caucus race from Wonderland, Tweedles from Looking Glass, White Rabbit's house from Wonderland, flowers from Looking Glass, Caterpillar from Wonderland). The 1999 one, curiously, follows Wonderland closely until after the Mock Turtle and Gryphon, then it goes off on a Looking Glass tangent with the White Knight, flowers, and Tweedles before rejoining Wonderland for the trial finale.
Act Two: 'Well, my name is Alice, and I'm following a white rabbit''
Just as important as capturing the feel of Wonderland is casting Alice herself. After all, this place is conjuring of her imagination, so you need someone feels both harmonious with the vision you've created while at the same time getting across the idea of an outsider. Here we have three actresses: Kathryn Beaumont in Disney's, Natalie Gregory in CBS', and Tina Majorino in NBC's.
Of the three, Beaumont is perhaps the closest to the Alice of the written page despite the fact that: a) we're only hearing her voice, and b) she's playing a 12 year old as opposed to the book's seven. She approaches the character as someone very prim yet very curious. She's constantly questioning everything around her, not to mention everyone. It's interesting to note how her character progresses. In spite of herself, Beaumont's Alice can't resist finding out more about these strange creatures and this strange land. As her journey goes on, however, her patience runs thin, and she eventually stops caring all together, upset at the predicament she's in. She exhibits both sides of the character marvelously and manages to make Alice's constant talking to herself seem perfectly natural. This is an Alice who does her best to keep a conversation going for the sake of politeness but isn't afraid to get sassy when need be.
Natalie Gregory perfectly fits the type of Wonderland surrounding her. She's a cute and sweet little girl who tries to be friends with everyone to no avail. It's worth noting that Gregory is one of the few age-appropriate Alices on film, and the filmmakers seem aware of that by making her behave at times the way a child of that age would naturally react. She occasionally goes into tantrums and constantly frets about being apart from her mother. Gregory does have that air of child actress about her and is probably not quite as natural as the other two. That said, her precociousness is hard to resist. She's the Alice who will warm your heart with her goodwill and will guilt trip you into helping her find her way home.
Tina Majorino plays the oldest Alice, and this has both its pros and cons. On one hand, her maturity makes some of her behavior (which seemed perfectly suitable for someone like Gregory) look rather childish and na've. Being a teenager when your character is written as younger is a challenge to pull off, and only a few do it convincingly (most notably Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale in MGM's The Wizard of Oz). It's a hard sell for Majorino, but thankfully, the childish moments are few. For the most part, she manages to balance the fine line between being amused at the eccentrics and being perturbed. Majorino does perhaps lean more towards the latter as she frequently purses her lips and puts her hands on her hips, but this low level of patience works considering her maturity. This is an Alice who will find you amusing for the 30 seconds and then will quickly grow tired of you and your shenanigans.
Act Three: 'I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.'
Something in common all three versions have is an attempt at an emotional through line. Carroll's books were written specifically to play against type. They're short, isolated adventures with no real cause-and-effect narrative to tie everything together (though Looking Glass does have a semblance of one in comparison to Wonderland). There's no moral or significance to Alice's adventures. They exist merely for the sake of existing. Filmmakers have found, though, that in film, it's harder to invest in so many little excursions without there being some sort of drive.
In Disney's adaptation, Alice has one goal: to catch the White Rabbit. It's never explained why she's still so preoccupied with the Rabbit even after arriving in Wonderland. In the book, Alice stops caring about him as soon as she falls down the hole. Her goal there is simply to get to the garden on the other side of the door. Disney did away with that and instead had her constantly seeking out and questioning the Rabbit's whereabouts. Towards the third act, though, she finally abandons this and decides she wants to go home. She laments her situation and berates herself for constantly giving herself advice that she never follows. It's an obvious attempt by Disney to add some heart to the film, a film Walt has gone on record as saying he feels is too cold. It comes as too little, too late and probably would've been better served early on. Curiously, despite all this, Alice doesn't seem to take away anything from her adventures. We don't know if she'll ever listen to her own advice or whether she's satisfied enough with the real world to never dream about that world of her own again.
CBS' lays the moral and connective tissue on thick, the only major thing they add to Carroll's work. In this version, Alice wants to join the grown-ups for tea time, but her mother and her sister tell her she's too young. As soon as she takes her tumble down the rabbit hole, Alice wants to get back home, so her character arc is two-fold. She's regularly seeking ways to return, and on top of that, she wants to grow up. Interestingly, the latter aspect only really becomes relevant during part 2's Looking Glass story. To merge the two books together, the miniseries has Alice return home from Wonderland only to find herself on the other side of the mirror, still apart from her family. Her fears conjure up the menacing Jabberwocky creature, and he repeatedly terrorizes both her and the residents of Looking Glass Land. She then has to face her fears and grow up, and as a result, is awakened to find she's been invited to join the adults for tea. The moral is a tried and true one and seems natural for the story despite the story not meaning to have anything of the sort. The filmmakers, however, do oversell the going home aspect and in some ways undersell the growing up until the climax brings it up front.
NBC's likewise has a moral about conquering fear, but this is isn't as dramatic. There's no Jabberwocky for Alice to stand up to. Instead, she must conquer her fear of performing. At the start of the film, she's requested to perform the tune 'Cherry Ripe' at her parents' garden party. Afraid of singing in front of strangers, she takes off and hides in Wonderland. Each of her episodes in some way is linked back to the idea of gathering up the nerve to perform. Upon her return, she chooses to sing 'The Lobster Quadrille' instead of 'Cherry Ripe' to a receptive audience. It's interesting to note that this film borrows an element from MGM's The Wizard of Oz and casts the Wonderland characters as the party attendees. That, coupled with the imagery scattered throughout Alice's bedroom, helps sell the idea that this is a dream. With that said, the morality aspect added in sticks out like a sore thumb. Disney's attempt at one was half-hearted and late enough to might as well not exist, and CBS' may have been hammered repeatedly into the audience's head, but it still managed to feel organic. The attempt at shoe-horning each encounter to be a lesson for Alice doesn't really work, especially since she comes across as petulant at times and is therefore hard to sympathize with.
Act Four: 'Oh, I'm through with rabbits. I want to go home!'
Disney has often used Alice in Wonderland as a sort of guinea pig for new home video formats and collections. The choice makes sense. They don't want to spoil a crowned jewel like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs if the format or collection should fail. At the same time, though, they have to pick a popular enough title to entice people to want to buy, so something like The Black Cauldron wouldn't work. Disney's Alice has had a sort of middle class status in the Disney canon that allows it to be just the right sort of title to debut with.
It was first released to Betamax in 1981 and VHS in 1982 when home video was in its infancy. In 1986, Alice became one of the first titles to kick start the 'Classics' lineup (referred to by most Disney fans as the 'Black Diamond' classics due to the collection's logo). 1994 brought along another series (the 'Walt Disney Masterpiece Collection') and with it, another release. A year later, Disney released the film as part of their 'Exclusive Archive Collection' laserdisc series. The titles in this series are comparable to the DVDs and Blu-rays of today as they strove to present films in the best quality and with a lavish assortments of bonus material. Alice received a new restoration just for this release. In a different move, the film was chosen to close out the 'Masterpiece Collection' with a new cover in 1999.
The next year, Disney came out with the 'Gold Classics Collection' on DVD and the debut of the film in that format. This release, however, didn't port over the supplemental material compiled for the 1995 'Archive' LD. That would have to wait until 2004 with the 'Masterpiece Edition' DVD, a potential collection of Special Edition DVDs that began and ended with that title. For that release, Alice would receive its second home video restoration, a striking contrast to the 1995 one. 2010 brought along the blockbuster live-action/CGI film by Tim Burton, so to cross promote this, Disney essentially re-released the 'Masterpiece Edition' with new artwork and a couple of newly produced features under the moniker 'Un-Anniversary Edition.' By this time, Blu-ray had already been on the market for a while, and Disney fans were wondering when Alice would take its bow on the format. That ended up happening the next year just in time for the film's 60th Anniversary. A slew of new supplemental material was produced for the high-definition debut (along with features from previous editions). Because of the revealing nature of Blu-ray, a third restoration was ordered featuring a pristine image that makes this the strongest home video release of the film to date.
The 1985 CBS miniseries has had a less exhaustive history, but an interesting one, none the less. Despite being produced by Columbia Pictures' television division, it debuted on VHS in 1995 via Warner Home Video as two separate clamshell releases. Part one retained its name of Alice in Wonderland while part two was renamed Alice Through the Looking Glass both on the packaging and in the credits. Because part 1 ends in a cliffhanger, the VHS release ends it as Alice runs back home but before she encounters the Jabberwocky inside. A scrolling text quote from the book is added to help give a bit more closure to this sudden ending. For part 2, the part 1 ending of Alice running back home and finding herself on the other side of the mirror is put as a prologue before the opening credits. To smoothen out this sudden opening, a voiceover narrator was added explaining that Alice had just come back from her adventures in Wonderland. Both tapes were later bundled together in standard cardboard sleeves within an outer box.
For its DVD debut in 2006, the rights returned back to Sony (who owns Columbia). They presented both parts of the miniseries in their original forms sans scrolling text and narration. The DVD is so complete, in fact, that the original Columbia Pictures logo that came at the end of each part's credits is restored to include the final notes of the score and a Coca-Cola subtitle on that card. For comparison, the WB VHS releases replaced the Columbia logos with a modern one that not only lacked the Coca-Cola endorsement, but actually cut off the end credits score with the Columbia television fanfare. Sony would re-release the miniseries in 2010 with a modified cover to include the Hatter, no doubt due to the popularity of Johnny Depp's interpretation in Burton's film of that year.
The 1999 NBC film was released to VHS by Artisan a year after its airing, and then to DVD another year later. Oddly, the master used by Artisan seemed to have been PAL-sourced resulting in a slight speedup of action and higher-pitched voices. To capitalize on the Alice mania of 2010, RHI acquired the rights to the film and released it with a remastering that corrected the speed and pitch.
Epilogue: 'Come along; it's time for tea.'
Every decade brings out a new Alice film and with it, a new vision. These three versions from 1951, 1985, and 1999 reflect the eras they were created and also approach Lewis Carroll's universe and zany characters from a different lens. The brilliant thing about art is there are no right or wrong ways to interpret it. Sure, you may miss what the artist intended, but it's also what you make of it. So if your Wonderland is neither the zany madcap one of Disney's, the wholesome and sweet one of CBS', or the whimsical storybook one of NBC's, it's still yours and is a valid interpretation. I, myself, see Wonderland the way Disney does, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying other adaptations, as well. Alice in Wonderland and its sequel will both live on in their original form as well as through cinema, and in a world where millions of stories tend to come and go, that may be the most wonderful thing of all.