The evolution of Alice
Stories & Ideas

Fri 09 Mar 2018

The evolution of Alice

Film History Retrospective
ACMI X colourful wall

Jessica Kemp


Meet the most fascinating cinematic incarnations of the 153 year old Wonderland heroine

"But I’m not a serpent, I tell you!" said Alice. "I’m a—I’m a—"

"Well! What are you?" said the Pigeon. "I can see you’re trying to invent something!"

"I—I’m a little girl," said Alice, rather doubtfully, as she remembered the number of changes she had gone through that day.

It’s fitting that a novel about a little girl's identity crisis has been re-imagined so many times on screen. From the first screen adaptation of Alice in Wonderland to the omnipotent animated versions, there's arguably no story more appropriate to trace the evolution of film craft. We went beyond the well-known Alices to find the earliest, strangest and most iconic versions of her story.

The first Alice

The very first cinematic Alice appeared in 1903, and it speaks volumes to the cultural love for her story that it appeared so early in the life of the new technology. 38 years after Lewis Carroll's story was published, British 18-year-old Mary Clarke stepped into the role of Alice in a 10 minute silent short. Director Cecil Hepworth took inspiration from the French stage magician and special effects innovator George Méliès, who had been experimenting with film illusions (check out A Trip to the Moon's famous dissolve from 1902), and used these techniques to manifest the madness of Wonderland on celluloid for the first time.

This Alice doesn't say anything, but she's noteworthy as one of the first female film protagonists, and it has also been reported that Mary worked behind the scenes on carpentry, set design, costume design and special FX, making her one of the many unacknowledged women who contributed to the development of the technology. A fitting film start for our heroine.

You can see the BFI-restored version of the film here.

Alice speaks for the first time

Around the centennial anniversary of Lewis Carroll's birth, Alice fever jumped the Atlantic and two Pre-Code American versions of her story were produced. The first was an energetic, low budget 1931 indie production, made in New Jersey and featuring amateur American actors feigning British accents. It's got a real pantomime quality about it, which almost seems like a subtle skewering of the fetishised innocence of girlhood, something which was explored further in the Betty Boop short, Betty in Blunderland, which came out two years later.

The second Pre-Code sound film was also the first major studio attempt at falling down the rabbit hole. In 1933, Paramount assembled an all-star cast, including Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle and Gary Cooper as the White Night, but the film was ultimately a box office failure, prompting the studio to wonder if a world populated by talking animals and creatures would ever work on screen. This question was answered six years later by the resounding success of The Wizard of Oz, and the inspirational threads of that film are clear in Paramount's Alice.

The anti-drug Alice

“Everything’s different! I’m not somebody else… but I don’t feel like I’m really me either!”

We love a wacky government public service campaign as much as the next film museum, and 1971's Curious Alice is an exemplar of the form. From the King of Hearts waving a hypodermic needle full of heroin, to the March Hare offering Alice barbiturate sleeping pills at the Mad Hatter’s table, the 1971 film by the National Institute of Mental Health cooks up a clear moral tale about some of the oft-inferred inspiration for Wonderland’s wackier elements.

In a review by the NIMH, the production was classified "restricted" due to fears that young viewers might be less deterred than intrigued by the fantasy world of drugs, and advised only for use by a "skilled educator".

You can see the whole 12 minutes of Curious Alice here.

The uncanny Alice

Earlier Alices hinted at the dark surrealism of Carroll's text, but in 1988 Czech auteur Jan Svankmajer really doubled down with Neco z Alenky. Jan, who Cinefantastique called "Puppetry's Dark Poet", was known for his Gothic sensibility and particular taste for "horror, madness, monstrosity, death, disease, terror, evil and weird sexuality", and this film has that aesthetic in spades.

Things get off to a terrible start when the taxidermy White Rabbit comes to life, chews off the nails in its feet, then creates a bloody fiasco in its escape. In a 2013 analysis, William Verrone argues that this film is best reproduces the tone and atmosphere of a child's dream, especially because she narrates the madness (in the consistent, unsettling close-ups of her mouth seen above). It’s all very unheimlich, but it’s also extremely compelling viewing at the more avant-garde end of Alice imaginings.

The surreal Alice

Continuing in the vein of Svankmajer is the 2007 stop-motion short from the infamous Brothers Quay. Academic Ron Magliozzi describes the Brothers Quay as alchemists, with "the mystifying ability to turn the 'degraded reality' of discarded doll parts, screws, string, and metal filings into profoundly expressive characters" and Surrealists, "who stage playful, perplexing, life-and-death scenarios within wonderous, handmade sets and across dreamlike landscapes". Their monochrome Wonderland is set to a Prokofiev score which pitches to a wailing kettle crescendo as Alice falls beyond the looking glass.

The feminist Alice

“What if it was agreed that what was proper is wearing a codfish on your head? To me, a corset is a codfish.”

From the opening scene of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Mia Wasikowska's Alice takes her rightful place in the canon as the first decisively feminist protagonist. Rejecting stockings, corsets and an unappealing marriage proposal, she flees to Wonderland where she becomes embroiled in a battle between the Red and White Queens. This version is particularly noteworthy because it’s the only time Alice’s lines were primarily written by a woman: Linda Woolverton (whose modest credits include the screenplays for Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Maleficent) delivers an Alice for whom Wonderland is less mad than the incongruencies and limitations of the real world.

It's clear that Alice's journey has ignited cinematic imaginations consistently throughout the history of film. But if you really want to experience Wonderland for yourself, you'll have to fall down the rabbit hole with us in the immersive world-premiere exhibition, Wonderland.