Thursday, July 5, 2012

Books on Film: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is one of the best-known children's stories ever written, and almost 150 years later it still delights children and adults today. This book has been put on film many, many times since film was first invented, but today we're only going to discuss a single adaptation: the best one.


The Book

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is one of the most enduring and beloved stories of all time, and it was written by a very boring math professor. Commonly shortened to Alice in Wonderland, the book was written in 1865 by Lewis Carroll, a pen name used by a professor who also published several ponderous volumes about math. Because of all the strangeness depicted in Wonderland, Carroll is credited with vastly influencing the entire fantasy genre. 

You probably know how the story goes: a little girl named Alice is sitting outside with her sister, and she's terribly bored until a white rabbit hops past. Alice chases the creature and follows him all the way through the rabbit hole, where she finds a strange refreshment table waiting for her. She drinks -- she shrinks. She eats, she grows big again. Things are dire. Alice begins to cry, because there's nothing else to do, and creates an ocean of tears. She fans herself and ends up shrinking again, only to be swept up in the sea.

This is her entrance into Wonderland, where things get "curiouser and curiouser" as she meets a strange cast of characters that include the smoking caterpillar and the mad hatter. 

Carroll's depth of creativity is fully on display in the famous novel. Alice in Wonderland is packed with amazing poems and intriguing characters, even a trial. It just doesn't get any better than this...unless you also watch the best film adaptation of the story.

The Film

The first film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland was made in 1903. It's been re-made in just about every decade since, but the very best version of the story ever put on film was released by Disney in 1951 (sorry, Tim Burton).

In this version, Alice has blonde hair and wears the blue dress that has been synonymous with the story ever since. Because it's animated, Disney isn't bound by physical laws or human ability: the Cheshire cat really does appear as just a smile, Alice really does shrink down and blow up in moments, mice actually talk and the Queen of Hearts doesn't look nearly as insane as she does in Tim Burton's much stranger live-action version.

It was made 60 years ago, but Disney's Alice is still the most iconic rendering of the heroine, and the animated movie is still the most popular and beloved re-telling of the tale. But if you just watch this film and don't read the book, you don't actually know the real story. 

I've said it before, I'll say it again: somehow, Disney always disappoints me. We all love Disney, but when it comes to changing stories (or history, or facts, or anything else that suits their fancy) Disney stands second to none.

What Got Adapted? 

Disney, in their inimitable manner, decided not to adapt just one book with their Alice film: they went ahead and changed two. Carroll's original Alice's Adventures in Wonderland actually has a sequel called Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. It's an amazing story involving a life-sized chess board, the red and white queen and all sorts of other fun stuff...including stuff that shouldn't have ever been adapted into the Alice in Wonderland movie.

In the film, Alice meets the memorable Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, who tell her all about the Walrus and the Carpenter. This didn't happen in Wonderland; it happened after Alice went Through the Looking Glass. The garden of talking flowers also did not appear until the second book, and the caterpillar never changes into a butterfly in front of Alice. 

You'll completely miss the story of the pig and the pepper, truly an entertaining little vignette, and nearly all of the dormouse's story at the tea party. The incident with the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon are also left out of the film adaptation. Because of this, the entire meaning of the trial ("who stole the tarts?") changes in the Disney version. In the book, Alice isn't on trial -- she is only called as a witness for the Knave (Jack) of Hearts. The book's Wikipedia page has a surprisingly good summary of the entire book, but it's much more enjoyable if you read Carroll's original work. He was so outside-the-box with his writing, he actually invented his own words that we still use today. Among them are chortle, galumphing and sluggard

In any version (except Tim Burton's), Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are frightening, exciting, strange and just as wonderful as the title promises.

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