Read

The omnipresent Alice

Scroll to content

From the very outset, the Alice tales seemed destined for a life beyond the page.

Indeed, the stories themselves speak with passion and eloquence about expanding our familiar imaginative frames of reference. Alice enchants in all her guises and through all the strange, captivating scenarios she encounters, which are constructed anew in every cross-media adaptation. The challenge, seemingly built into the original texts themselves, is for artists from different fields (painters, filmmakers, musicians and others) to not just imagine but also reimagine – time and time again – the infinite possible worlds for the girl-hero to inhabit. If Alice’s challenge is to learn new ways to successfully negotiate the nonsensical, then the test for the myriad artists and audiences that have followed has been to push the limits of our own imaginations in the creation of worlds grand, fantastic and strange enough to accommodate her; to find new ways of inspiring, provoking and expanding what Stephanie Lovett Stoffel so eloquently identified as ‘the emotional recognition of Alice’s truth’.[1]

Charles Dodgson was a mathematician and logician by trade, and puzzles, riddles and games were also a source of fascination for his alter ego, Lewis Carroll. In each scenario that Alice finds herself in, she is presented with what appear at first to be unsolvable problems. The narrative action is propelled as much by her getting a handle on what conceptual leaps of faith are needed as by the actions she takes. If Carroll’s tales seek to consciously break through the presumed order of our own banal reality, their adaptation to moving image formats – film, television, video games, music videos or other modes – is one that evolved hand-in-hand with technology.

In 1903, Cecil M Hepworth used the story as a forum to experiment with early moving image special effects. While the technology may have changed, the spirit that the Alice tales champion – the desire to experiment and to think outside the box – has not dwindled. When hiring John Tenniel to illustrate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll – widely known to have an interest in photography – acknowledged the importance of the visual in the telling of his story. So central is visual art to Carroll’s work that Kara M Manning suggests that the original books play out like still photographs in an album, brought to life by the actions that take place in them:

Conversing both with herself and with the denizens of Wonderland, Alice works her way from one pictorial frame to another, in a sequence that quite resembles a photographic album of individual – and often unrelated – still images. In Wonderland, Alice becomes a composite element of precisely what she feels is lacking in her sister’s boring book: pictures and conversations. [2]

Early special effects of the Cheshire Cat in Cecil M Hepworth's 1903 adaptation

Alongside Victorian early optical toys like magic lanterns, kaleidoscopes, still cameras and zoetropes, elements of the Alice books are also, for Manning, visual treats for the eye. It is precisely this spirit of optical toys – regardless of their technological complexity – that both fuels and unites on-screen adaptations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. In the more mainstream instances of the tales this manifests as special-effects-driven spectacle, typical of the early silent Alices – Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland (1903), the Thomas Edison–produced Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Edwin S Porter, 1910) and WW Young’s Alice in Wonderland (1915) – as much as Bud Pollard’s Alice in Wonderland (1931), Norman Z McLeod’s Alice in Wonderland (1933), Lou Bunin’s Alice au Pays des Merveilles (Lou Bunin, Dallas Bower and Marc Maurette, 1949), Jonathan Miller’s television adaptation Alice in Wonderland (1966), Disney’s Alice in Wonderland(1951) and more contemporary adaptations such as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland(2010) and the Burton-produced Alice Through the Looking Glass (James Bobin, 2016). While the latter two were created using CGI-driven special effects to spectacularly breathe life into Carroll’s famous range of curious and often strange cast of characters, other films opt for different artistic methods.

Of these, the painstaking stop-motion animation of Lou Bunin, and iconic Czech animator Jan Švankmajer – in arguably his most internationally famous film Něco z Alenky (Alice) (1988) – grants an almost uncanny quality to the material. In the Švankmajer film, this is heightened even further by the particular manner in which he contrasts his animated models and puppets with live-action footage of his extraordinarily talented Alice, Kristýna Kohoutová, one of the most memorable Alices ever seen on screen.

For others, however, the spectacular potential of Carroll’s Alice tales comes from their invitation to expand ways of imaginative thinking – adapting and sometimes outright contorting the original stories into new and often consciously perverse contexts. Most immediately, this conjures the post-Disney rise of Alice as a symbol of 1960s psychedelia, à la Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 freak-out anthem ‘White Rabbit’. This association with counterculture also drives anti-drug movies of the period such as Alice in Acidland (John Donne, 1969) and Curious Alice (1971). ‘White Rabbit’ was written by 1960s legend Grace Slick, who often recounted that having Carroll’s stories read to her as a child left a lasting impact on her as an adult artist.

The darker aspects of the stories are expanded and reimagined in a range of films including the Italian giallo film The Perfume of the Lady in Black (Francesco Barilli, 1974), Alice in the Underworld: The Dark Marchen Show!! (Mari Terashima, 2009) and the trailer for what was to be Marilyn Manson’s feature film directorial debut, the abandoned Phantasmagoria: The Visions of Lewis Carroll. With its topless female Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Manson trailer also fed into another line of cinematic experimentation with Carroll’s Alice stories: the erotic and, at times, outright pornographic. Key examples here are the cult film Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Comedy (Bud Townsend, 1976) and French director Claude Chabrol’s 1977 dabbling with Carroll’s iconography in Alice or the Last Escapade, starring Sylvia Krystal of Just Jaeckin’s cult softcore masterpiece Emmanuelle (1974).

Mimsy Farmer in The Perfume of the Lady in Black

As these examples indicate, in film history the ‘Aliceverse’ is a broad, rich and predominantly tantalising terrain. For filmmakers from cinema’s earliest days, Alice is not just a text to adapt, but a state of mind; a creative switch that triggers a seemingly infinite possibility of interpretations, methods and modes.

But the influence of Carroll’s Alice manifests in cinema in more subtle or structural ways, too. The notion of a ‘rabbit hole’-like vortex to another more fantastic realm that so famously structures Alice’s Wonderland experiences – be they literal or metaphoric – can be identified in a number of arthouse films including Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), Celine and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau, Jacques Rivette, 1974), Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967), Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967), What? (Che?, Roman Polanski, 1972), Black Moon (Louis Malle, 1975), Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977) and Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012). This legacy can also be felt across more mainstream films, in examples as diverse as After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985), The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999) and even The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939). In the case of the latter, L Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, on which the film was based, was explicitly inspired by Carroll and Alice.

Catherine Devenue in Belle Du Jour looking through a peep hole

Through the looking glass? Catherine Devenue in Belle de Jour

As many of these examples indicate, adapting Alice is far from a purely English-language fascination. Films like Alice in the Underworld: The Dark Marchen Show!! and celebrated artist Takashi Murakami’s 2009 short Superflat Monogram for Louis Vuitton show how Alice can not only incorporate a range of visual media under the umbrella of film, but also transcend cultural boundaries. In Japan in particular, as Masafumi Monden has suggested, Alice ‘embodies the idealised image of the shojo (girl), who is situated between child and adult and is largely detached from the heterosexual economy’[3]. Alice features in music videos by Japanese pop stars including Alisa Mizuki, Tomoko Kawase and Kaela Kimura. In fact, the symbolic power of Alice has been a source of interest for a range of women musicians around the world – a list that includes performers such as Tori Amos, P!nk, Lindsey Stirling, K-pop legend Son Dam-bi and Gwen Stefani. The Alice tales are also an endless source of inspiration for music video directors, and have been used in videos for artists as diverse as Die Antwoord to Tom Petty to Aerosmith to XTC to Seungri to Boyfriend. Likewise, from the celebrated American McGee’s Alice (2000) to the Commodore 64 game Alice in Wonderland in 1985 to Japanese games like Alice in the Country of Hearts (2007) and Märchen Maze (1988), video game creators have found the puzzle-like scenario of Carroll’s original stories and their potential for visual experimentation a source of profound inspiration.

Gwen Stefani's music video for What You Waiting For?

The moving-image history of Alice adaptations spans media, cultural and generic contexts; as such, the history of Alice on screen has much to tell us about the history of screen culture itself. From cinema’s earliest days, filmmakers have embraced the imaginative – as well as technological – challenge of bringing Carroll’s stories to life. The clichéd description of Hollywood as a ‘dream factory’ finds no more perfect embodiment than in the iconic image of Alice; her presence throughout film history echoing the lines from the exquisite poem that closes Through the Looking-Glass, ‘A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky’:

Still she haunts me, phantomwise
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes

Alice flourishes, burning eternal, in that half-awake, half-asleep Wonderland to which we surrender in our most precious, cherished film experiences. Haunted phantomwise, we move not only through fantastic spaces with Alice, but across time and throughout cinema history; from its earliest days, through live action, animation and combinations of both, to the spectacular 3D visions of Tim Burton, each inspired not only by Carroll’s stories alone but also by the wealth of Alice-inspired moving-image history that preceded it. These films and games and music videos remind us how, in creating his Wonderland, Carroll has inspired endless, infinite new cinematic Wonderlands. Like cinema itself, the only limit to the worlds Alice can inhabit are those enforced by the boundaries of our imagination.

- Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

This is an essay from the Wonderland exhibition catalogue, published by Thames & Hudson. Buy it here.


[1] SL Stoffel, The Art of Alice in Wonderland, The Wonderland Press, New York, 1998, p. 10.

[2] KM Manning, ‘That’s the Effect of Living Backwards: Technological Change, Lewis Carroll’s Alice Books, and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland’, Neo-Victorian Studies, vol. 4.2, 2011, pp. 164.

[3] M Monden, ‘Being Alice in Japan: Performing a Cute, “Girlish” Revolt’, Japan Forum, 26:2, June 2014, pp. 265–285.