“It wasn’t as good as the book!” That’s the usual refrain you’ll hear from people who watch adaptations and then scowl at them later. Luckily, you won’t have to do that since Disney’s upcoming, Tim Burton-directed Alice in Wonderland is meant to be a sequel to the book. That’s all well and good, but what if you’ve never read the book? What if you’ve missed the countless other adaptations and are worried about going in without the benefit of knowledge? We’d never do that to you, dear readers. So press on, arm yourself with an education in Alice in Wonderland and go in forewarned. You’ll be able to chuckle knowingly at the obscure characters, and tip your hat to the small nods to Lewis Carroll. You know, if you were the kind of person who wore a hat and tipped it.
Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson made up a story to entertain three young sisters (one of whom was named Alice) while on a rowing trip in 1862. The real-life Alice (10 years old at the time) asked Dodgson to write the story down for her, which he finally did two years later. He presented her with a handwritten manuscript entitled “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground”, complete with his own illustrations. However, he had also decided to nearly double the story in size and publish it on his own, and in 1865 “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” first appeared, with new illustrations by John Tenniel. Dodgson also used his pen name Lewis Carroll for this publication, which was explained in Moron Cohen’s “Lewis Carroll: A Biography” as this: Lewis was the anglicised form of Ludovicus, which was the Latin for Lutwidge, and Carroll an Irish surname similar to the Latin name Carolus, from which the name Charles comes.
The initial print run of 2,000 books sold out quickly, and it has been in print ever since and translated into more than 125 languages. Pretty impressive for a goofy story that Dodgson / Carroll based loosely on his friends and the locations around Oxford. It also spawned a sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There” in 1872, and since then there have been numerous other Alice-inspired creations, including books, movies, television shows, songs, comics books, and more.
If you haven’t read the book by now, shame on you. It’s a completely fun and perfect example of literary nonsense. It’s about a young girl named Alice (shocker, right?) who is sitting in a garden one day when she sees a White Rabbit wearing a vest scoot by. He’s checking his watch and complaining about being late, so what would you do if you saw an animal doing this? Naturally, you’d follow it. Alice does, right into his rabbit-hole, and this sends her tumbling end over end in an impossibly long fall. When she lands, she’s in a corridor full of doors, all of them locked. There’s one small key on a table, and she finds out that it opens a tiny door in the room, but it’s much too small for her to fit through. She soon finds a drink labeled “Drink Me,” which causes her to drink, and soon afterwards a cake that says “Eat Me” on it, and that causes her to grow.
However, when she’s huge she cries because of her predicament, and when she’s small again she soon finds herself swimming in a pool full of her tears. Before long she’s on a shore somewhere, and she runs into the White Rabbit again, while small-sized. In fact, there’s a lot of growing and shrinking in this book as Alice also drinks a potion she gets from the White Rabbit which makes her huge, and two halves of a mushroom that she gets from a Caterpillar smoking a hookah, which makes her larger and smaller as she wishes. Very psychedelic. Soon she returns to normal size, and is off through a forest where she meets a Duchess and a Cook who receive invitations to play croquet with the Queen of Hearts from a Footman who looks like a fish, and a Footman who looks like a Frog.
Despite this interruption, the Duchess and the Cook are fighting with each other, without much regard for the baby that the Duchess is nursing, and when things get crazy the Duchess throws the baby at Alice, who escapes with it. However, back in the woods, the baby turns into a pig and runs away. I swear to you, I’m not making this stuff up. Afterward, Alice officially meets the enigmatic Cheshire Cat who talks and can vanish at will, and who will also be at the Queen’s croquet match. From here she heads on to the Mad Hatter’s tea party, after being warned by the Cat that both the Hatter and the March Hare are both mad. In fact, everyone there is mad, according to the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
Alice soon finds the Hatter’s tea party, which is attended by the Hatter, the March Hare, and a Dormouse. Time has stopped for the Hatter, since the Queen accused him of murdering it, so it’s always six o’clock teatime at the table. Alice endures a lot of buffoonery, and is asked by the Hatter “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” She doesn’t have a very enjoyable time, and she soon leaves in a huff. She spots a tree with a door in the trunk, and heads through it and finds herself back in the corridor of doors. This time, she gets her sizes right, snatches up the key, shrinks down, and heads through the tiny door and into a beautiful garden. Unfortunately it’s also the garden belonging to the Queen of Hearts, who is fond of ordering beheadings.
In the Queen’s garden, Alice comes across three gardeners who look like playing cards, and they are busy painting white roses with red paint, because they’d planted the wrong kind. However, the Queen comes across the entire group and yells “Off with their heads!” to just about everyone when she discovers what they’ve done. However, Alice hides the gardeners in a flower pot, and the Queen invites her to play croquet with her. It’s a bizarre game, with flamingos for mallets, hedgehogs for balls, and playing card soldiers serving as the arches. She endures this for awhile before running into the Cheshire Cat again, and he immediately pisses off the King of Hearts, and his execution is ordered. But he makes his body disappear, and everything devolves into a debate over whether or not it’s possible to behead someone who has a head that’s not connected to anything.
Good lord, this is almost as long as the book. So, to sum it all up quickly, Alice then goes to meet a Mock Turtle, hears his story, meets a Gryphon, watches a bunch of lobsters dance, attends a trial about the Queen’s stolen tarts, is chased by the Queen’s soldiers, and when they begin attacking her, she wakes up next to her sister. It was all a dream. OR WAS IT?!
The Important Characters
- Alice: She’s impertinent, abides no nonsense, and is fond of saying things like “Curiouser and curiouser!” She is fairly well-mannered, but se talks to herself throughout the story, and doesn’t come away with a huge life lesson at the end. She’s just had a wacky adventure.
- The White Rabbit: A bit of a nervous nelly who acts lofty towards his peers, and grovels in his job as a herald to the King and Queen of Hearts. He’s constantly worried about being late.
- The Caterpillar: He’s slow, methodical, three inches tall, smokes a hookah and speaks in riddles. He’s probably the coolest character in the entire book.
- The Cheshire Cat: He’s sassy, likes to wax philosophic, and can dematerialize. Granted, he’s pretty cool too, but in my opinion he has nothing on the Caterpillar.
- The Mad Hatter: While he’s only referred to as “The Hatter” in the book, he’s definitely mad. Completely off his rocker, goofy, and bizarre. There are no moments of lucidity, he’s all bonkers.
- The March Hare: Likewise, the Hatter’s buddy The March Hare is wiggity wack as well. He’s constantly confused, offering Alice tea then pulling it away at the last second. Sort of a jerk.
- The Dormouse: A drowsy little mouse who keeps falling asleep at the table. She wakes up to join in the conversation from time to time, but is mostly catatonic.
- The Queen of Hearts: A bitter card of a woman who continually orders beheadings as a way of settling anything.
- The Knave of Hearts: He’s a card (literally) and a bit of a scoundrel, having allegedly stolen the Queen’s tarts for which he is put on trial.
*Note: although they appear in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, The White Queen, and The Jabberwock are all characters in Carrol’s sequel, “Through The Looking Glass.” I’m including the book versions of those characters in this section, just for completion. Note that The Red Queen and The Queen of Hearts are often mistaken for the same person … they’re not. They are two entirely different people, although over the years they’ve been combined into one character in several adaptations, including Burton’s.
- The Red Queen: Alice’s first meeting with her is cordial, but when they play a game chess with themselves as the pieces (Alice is a pawn who gets promoted to Queen), she turns mischievous.
- The White Queen: A flighty woman who experiences time backwards, and shies away from enemies. She encourages Alice to believe “six impossible things before breakfast”.
- Tweedledee and Tweedledum: two identical (according to Tenniel’s illustrations, not Carroll’s writing) brothers who speak in nursery rhyme, and then act it out. Their words always complement each other.
- The Jabberwock: Simply a character in a poem entitled “The Jabberwocky” that Alice reads in a book she finds. The print is backwards, but she discovers she can read it when holding it up in a mirror.
Other Notable Adaptations
The Animated Disney Version (1951)
While there have been numerous adaptations of Carroll’s book, the most famous is Disney’s 1951 animated version. Disney himself had been fascinated with Alice in Wonderland for a long time, and in 1923 he produced a short film called Alice’s Wonderland which featured a live-action Alice interacting with animated characters. He went on to produce 50 silent Alice short comedies, which were successful and gave him the freedom to develop some characters of his own, including Mickey Mouse. He planned on releasing a feature film version of Alice in Wonderland, again using a combination of live-action and animated characters, but Paramount released their own version in 1933 starring Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and W.C. Fields. Disney registered the title with the MPAA in 1938, but World War II, disagreements over the production, and other factors put the film on hold until 1951 when a version heavy on songs and very loosely based on the two books came to theaters. Over 30 songs were created for the movie, but some are only heard for a few brief seconds.
The Live-Action British Version (1972)
You’ve probably never seen this one, although it’s worth seeking out. It stars Fiona Fullerton as Alice (best known as the KGB spy Pola Ivanova in the James Bond flick A View To A Kill), Dudley Moore, Peter Sellers, Michael Crawford (Basil Exposition!), Sir Ralph Richardson (The Supreme Being from Time Bandits), Hywel Bennett (Mr. Croup from the BBC version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere), Roy Kinnear (Veruca Salt’s father in the Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka, and the hapless man in the Mike + The Mechanics music videos), and a slew of others. While it hasn’t been widely seen, it’s one of the more faithful adaptations of the book. It has a full soundtrack, complete with songs and arrangements by John Barry. The same John Barry who composed the James Bond theme, and soundtracks for many of the Bond films.
The X-Rated Musical Version (1976)
This is the version you’ve definitely never seen, and Disney probably wishes it never existed. But yes, it’s real. It’s made over $90 million dollars, making it one of the most successful pornographic movies of all time, and Roger Ebert even reviewed it in 1976. Check out the trailer on the website for the film, which will brainwash you with it’s “Where Are You Going Girl?” song that loops over and over.
The CBS TV Movie Version (1985)
When I was 14 years old I fastidiously recorded this on two videotapes back in 1985, and I absolutely loved it. Looking back, it definitely doesn’t hold up well, but the thing had a cavalcade of stars in it including: Sid Ceasar, Telly Savalas, Sammy Davis, Jr., Red Buttons, Donald O’Connor, Carol Channing, Roddy McDowall, Jayne Meadows, Arte Johnson, Scott Baio, Sherman Hemsley, Ernest Borgnine and a ton of other stars of yesteryear. It’s slightly over three hours long, and is divided into two parts that are loosely based on the two books. If you like the old school comedy of Your Show of Shows, this is a gem.
The Stop-Motion Version (1988)
Technically this is a mixture of live-action and stop-motion, but who’s counting? This is from Czech surrealist filmmaking Jan Švankmajer, and is completely genius. If there’s one version of Alice that you need to seek out, it’s this one. Don’t go running off in search of the porno, pick up this version on DVD. Young Alice provides all the voices for the different characters, and you have to see the wonderful things Švankmajer has done with them. It’s dark, mysterious, and well worth your time.
The NBC TV Movie Version (1999)
NBC put together a version of Alice that starred Ben Kingsley, Martin Short, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Ustinov, Christopher Lloyd, Gene Wilder, and Miranda Richardson. Alice was played by Tina Majorino (Deb from Napoleon Dynamite … did you know she’s also the little girl in Waterworld? Wow, the things you learn on the internet), and Jason Flemying (Tom from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) is even in this thing as the Knave of Hearts. The film largely follows the plot of the first book, while adding in several scenes and characters from Through the Looking Glass. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop produced many of the puppet effects in this, and there was a fair amount of CG work done, especially for a TV movie in 1999.
The Sci-Fi Channel Version (2009)
I have to confess, I haven’t seen this one. Although I’ll admit I’m intrigued. RHI Entertainment produced the very successful Tin Man movie for Sci-Fi back in 2007, which was a retelling of The Wizard of Oz, and they decide to do the same thing with Alice in Wonderland, although they kept this in continuity. It’s set 150 years after the events of the first book, takes places in a bizarre, futuristic version of Wonderland, and stars Kathy Bates, Tim Curry, Colm Meaney, Matt Frewer, and Harry Dean Stanton amongst others. The reviews for it are all over the place, but I’d be willing to give it a chance. I’d give it even more of a chance if Sci-Fi reverts to that and drops the ridiculous SyFy name.
So, there you have it. You’re either ready to go watch Tim Burton’s incarnation … or listen to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Heck, by now you should be able to watch The Matrix again and pick out all the allusions to Alice in Wonderland. If you’re really feeling gutsy, go find a copy of the America McGee’s Alice video game for a real trip. If they end up making a sequel to this, we’ll be back to tell you the secret history of Dodgson, his alleged relationship with the real Alice (ew), and the codes he supposedly hid in the books. But for now, we hope you’ve learned something.