When Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland opens on Friday, March 5, the film will join many others that have sought to bring Lewis Carroll’s tales to the screen. “In terms of adapting [these books], it’s tricky,” says Andrew Sellon, President, Lewis Carroll Society of North America. “As written, they are not right for the medium.” Sellon explains that Carroll’s characters don’t encounter enough conflict to create the action necessary for a production on stage or in a film.
Burton himself realized the limitations of Carroll’s stories. “There have been so many versions, and for me, I’d never seen a version that I really liked, so I didn’t feel like there was a definitive version to me that we were fighting against,” he said in an interview. “Also, I liked what Linda (Woolverton) did with the script. She treated this story [from the perspective of] how the Alice material has affected us. For me, it’s a story about somebody using this kind of imagery and this kind of world to figure out problems in their own life. It’s about what’s fantasy and reality and dreams and reality, how they are not separate things, that they’re one thing. It’s how we use those things to deal with our issues in life.”
Burton’s film was made under the Disney label, and that company’s animated version remains the most popular version of Alice to date. But there are other productions of Alice in Wonderland, one dating back to 1933 with, believe it or not, Cary Grant. Most are available on DVD and portions may be viewed on YouTube. So if you would like to spend a day viewing Alice and Wonderland in many forms, here’s a guide.
Alice in Wonderland, 1933
The original Paramount film was in black and white, but a DVD has been released in color with Dolby sound. Charlotte Henry, whose claim to fame was fighting a large snake in the 1937 film, Jungle Menace, was 20 years-old when she played Alice.
Many A-list actors of the time signed on for this romp, although you might have trouble identifying some of them under their heavy makeup and masks. They include: Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen; the comedian W. C. Fields portraying Humpty Dumpty; Sterling Holloway portraying a footman Frog; Roscoe Ates as a footman Fish; Jack Oakie as Tweedledum; Roscoe Karns as Tweedledee; Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter; Charles Ruggles as the March Hare; Jackie Searl as the Dormouse; Richard Arlen portraying the Cheshire Cat; and Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle.
The film also shows up from time to time on Turner Classic Movies because, all things considered, it is a classic. Watch it in black and white to get the full effect. If Burton’s film is high tech, this one is on the lower end of the scale.
Alice in Wonderland, animated, 1951
Walt Disney’s cartoon Alice in Wonderland was released in 1951, thirteenth in Disney’s Animated Classic Series. Kathryn Beaumont provided the voice for Alice (if she sounds familiar that’s because she was also the voice of Wendy in Disney’s Peter Pan). Other famous voices include: Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter; Richard Haydn as the Caterpillar; Sterling Holloway as the Cheshire Cat; and Jerry Colonna as the March Hare. The film produced a soundtrack (“I’m late! I’m late for a very important date. No time to say hello, goodbye, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!”) that remains a children’s favorite even today.
Although this film has had enormous staying power, critics were merciless when it opened in London. (Initial reviews out of London also have given Burton’s film lukewarm reviews). Today, the film is praised for its brilliant animation and for introducing legions of children to Carroll’s books.
Alice in Wonderland, 1966
Originally produced for BBC1 in 1966 by Jonathan Miller, this version is considered original and stylish, drawing its inspiration from Victorian photography and pre-Raphaelite paintings. Miller’s vision was a picture of upper-middle-class society as it may have appeared through the eyes of Alice, a small girl with a wild imagination. A stellar cast includes Peter Cook, Peter Sellers (above), Alan Bennett, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Michael Redgrave, Wilfrid Brambell, John Bird and Leo McKern, and the music score is by Ravi Shankar.
Alice in Wonderland, 1983
Kate Burton was 26 years-old when she appeared as a lovely, flaxen-haired Alice playing opposite her father, Richard Burton, as the White Knight.
The film, a Great Performance’s production directed by Kirk Browning, pulled together an impressive group of actors. (Although one assumes once Burton signed on, it was easy to get others to come onboard). In a delightful scene, Burton sings “A-Sitting On A Gate” to his daughter (above), while a decorated horse (obviously two humans in costume) prances nearby.
Geoffrey Holder (above) plays a somewhat frightening Cheshire Cat. His face first appears atop a drawing of the Cat, but he soon appears in a black suit with a white tie, filing his long nails. “I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice tells him. “You can’t help it,” the Cat replies. “We’re all mad. You must have been mad to come here.”
Andre Gregory (who starred in My Dinner With Andre) plays the Mad Hatter, dancers André De Shields and Alan Weeks play Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Kaye Ballard plays the Duchess, and Donald O’Connor appears as the Mock Turtle and sings about soup.
Alice In Wonderland/Alice Through The Looking Glass, 1985
Two years later, another Alice appeared on TV, this production in two parts starring ten year-old Natalie Gregory.
This version featured more than two dozen actors, including Telly Savalas as the Cheshire Cat, Carol Channing as the White Queen, Sammy Davis Jr. (above), as the Caterpillar, and Ringo Starr as the Mock Turtle. Alice had her citizenship changed, from British to American.
Jan Svankmajer’s Alice is a surreal fantasy. Here, a crying baby changes into a pig and the Queen’s executions are carried out by the White Rabbit armed with a scissors. The movie begins when Alice’s stuffed rabbit in a display cage comes to life and escapes. The movie ends with Alice back in her room, unsure whether she was dreaming or the events she experienced were real. But the White Rabbit is still missing and she finds his secret compartment where he hides his scissors. As one online reviewer wrote. “This is freakydeaky stuff!”
Mark Richards, Chairman of the Lewis Carroll Society, says that the films by Svankmajer and Miller are his personal favorites. “Those two are often seen as taking liberties with the books, yet somehow they both capture the spirit of the books. Some of the more literal versions are less enjoyable for adults, of course.”
We aren’t surprised to learn that Burton has been inspired by Svankmajer. No doubt some of that influence will turn up in Burton’s version. “From what I have seen, I think the new film will be more `Tim Burton’ than `Lewis Carroll,’ which is good because Carroll wrote a book not a film,” says Richards. “I think to be fair to the film, one must judge it as a work by Tim Burton and his associates rather than as an adaptation of Carroll’s work. I suspect, if looked at in that way, it will be universally praised as I think Burton sees this as the one when he really managed to achieve what he wanted. And, I suspect all devoted Alice readers will enjoy it.”