Read

That’s the Great Puzzle: Who Am I?

Scroll to content

In November 1966, Mary Jean St Clair, the granddaughter of Alice Liddell, expressed anxiety about Jonathan Miller’s upcoming Alice in Wonderland adaptation for the BBC’s Christmas schedule. The descendant of the girl who inspired Lewis Carroll to write the most influential children’s book in the world was concerned that the film would make her grandmother ‘appear into some sort of strange person’ when ‘[s]he was not’.[1]

Miller’s television play was not intended for child viewers. It was shot on 35mm black-and-white film and, contrary to a well-established tradition in pantomime and film, did not use animal costumes for iconic characters such as the White Rabbit and the Caterpillar, nor any special effects.

The program’s adult orientation meant that it was certified with an X-rating[2] and would be scheduled after the nine o’clock watershed that marked the end of suitable viewing for children. Even before the film had aired, a moral panic erupted about childhood innocence being sullied by ‘adult’ inflections.

Vintage photo of Alice Liddell, a young girl with brown hair

Alice Liddell photographed by Lewis Carroll

Miller intended the film to capture Victorian ideas about childhood, which he described as embodying a tension between discipline and nostalgia:

… they saw childhood as a short, unruly episode set aside with the express purpose of training the sober, responsible adult [...] But for all this, the Victorian looked back to childhood … acknowledging that the innocent child was often closer to wisdom and sensitivity than they in their grown-up gravity could ever hope for.[3]

In addition, Miller wanted to focus on the disturbing, odd and dreamy aspects of the novel, rather than rehearsing the well-worn meanings that it had accumulated through John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations and its playful nonsense humour.

A black and white drawing of Alice at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party

There are many Alices. As a character, she is often regarded as ‘ambiguous’ and ‘an imaginary surface upon whom historically changing desires and fears are projected’.[4] Carroll’s original drawings of seven-year-old Alice in his handwritten manuscript Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (1864) bear little resemblance to Tenniel’s, just as the animated Alice from Disney’s 1951 film is also distinct.

Miller’s Alice is portrayed by fourteen-year-old novice actress Anne-Marie Mallik, who often looks expressionless or bored, with much of her speech occurring in voice-over narration. In this respect, Miller follows the cinematic tendency to cast girl protagonists as much older than in their original literary depiction. (In MGM’s 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is played by sixteen-year-old Judy Garland, making her twice as old as the character in L Frank Baum’s Oz books.)

Behind the scenes footage of Ravi Shankar recording the sitar score in 1966

Consciously rejecting the fantasy and whimsy of Disney’s animated feature, Miller adopts a ‘somber, naturalistic tone’.[5] The glaring realness of the Victorian era in black and white is rendered dreamlike, not least because of Ravi Shankar’s sitar score that connects the film with both the psychedelia of the 1960s and the orientalism of the 19th century.

The reconceptualising of the fantasy elements of the narrative into strange realism is evident from the early scene in which Alice pursues the White Rabbit (Wilfrid Brambell) along a long corridor lined with open windows and billowing white curtains. Shot at the Royal Victoria Military Hospital, the corridor is a substitute for the expected depiction of her physically falling down the rabbit hole and into Wonderland.

In contrast with the inexperience of his lead actress, Miller assembled a remarkable cast including Michael Redgrave (the Caterpillar), Peter Cook (the Mad Hatter), John Gielgud (the Mock Turtle) and Peter Sellers (the King of Hearts), but their comedic talents are largely restrained. The Mad Hatter’s tea party, for instance, is no longer a focal point for chaotic silliness, but is grounded in what Rohan McWilliam describes as the stilted conversations of ‘sad, disappointed, middle-aged men’[6]. Rather than Alice being drawn into a curious world in which adult rules and regulations are comically nonsensical, Miller’s Alice in Wonderland focuses on the distance between adults and children, and the tediousness of the adult world.

Three middle-aged men look glum while Alice, a young girl with long brown hair appears to be bored

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party

CS Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was an advocate for a dual audience for children’s literature: ‘A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story’.[7] Miller’s Alice in Wonderland clearly demonstrated the power of Carroll’s novel to be reoriented for adult viewers. It also tested the extent to which people were willing to accept the subordination of the perceived needs, interests and aesthetic preferences of child viewers when adapting a classic novel designated for children.

The film’s dialogue is almost exclusively derived from Carroll. However, Miller imbues the familiar story with entirely new meanings, situating the implied adult viewer as a spectator upon the youthful Alice, rather than forging an emotional identification with events from her perspective. While the central dilemma throughout most Alice narratives is her confusion about her own identity in the face of her body dramatically shrinking and growing, the question of ‘who am I?’ that she asks herself has a different resonance in Miller’s film. Instead, the question of identity and selfhood is turned back upon us as adult viewers, pressing us to consider whether the tedious, pathetic and frustrating adults that Alice encounters are what we too have become. It is no coincidence that the film’s final line, delivered by Alice’s sister, comes from William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’: ‘The things which I have seen I now can see no more’.

- Michelle J. Smith

 

 

[1] Quoted in R McWilliam, ‘Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland (1966): A Suitable Case for Treatment’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 31.2, 2011, p. 239.

[2] In the United Kingdom at the time, an X-rating was closer to what is understood in contemporary Australia as an R-rating: suitable for viewing by those aged sixteen and over.

[3] Quoted in McWilliam, p. 240.

[4] A Kérchy, Alice in Transmedia Wonderland: Curiouser and Curiouser New Forms of a Children’s Classic, McFarland, Jefferson, 2016, p. 6.

[5] R Cashill, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, Cineaste, 30.1, 2004, p. 56.

[6] McWilliam, p. 234.

[7] CS Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, Harcourt, Brace and World, New York, 1967, p. 24.