ce399 | research archive (esoterica)

In So Many Wonderlands (WSJ 18/3/10)

Posted in Uncategorized by ce399 on 29/06/2010

Paramount’s 1933 production of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ starring Charlotte Henry, with Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle and William Austin as the Gryphon.

There’s nothing curious—or curiouser—about the broad appeal of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) and its sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass” (1872). They are rare works, appealing equally to children and adults. As such, the books (almost always fused when adapted) have been regularly turned into films and television programs. Viewers never seem to tire of the Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the Queen of Hearts and the rest.

Now another version, the first in 3-D, is upon us—this one, from Disney, directed by Tim Burton, whose affinity for dark dreams would seem to mesh well with Carroll’s rich imagination. Mr. Burton borrows freely from the sources, which for him means augmenting the role of the Hatter, played by Johnny Depp, and eliminating the White Knight and the Queen of Hearts. But he is merely the latest to tinker with Carroll’s texts.

Because “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass” together contain so many memorable episodes, it is practically impossible to distill them all in a couple of hours. That makes viewing multiple versions of the story something of a sport, one made far easier thanks to the prevalence of DVDs. Part of the fun lies in comparing portrayals of the recurring characters. Viewers may, for example, favor John Gielgud’s Mock Turtle in Jonathan Miller’s 1966 BBC adaptation over Cary Grant’s in Paramount’s 1933 version, yet prefer Gary Cooper’s White Knight in the Paramount movie to Richard Burton’s in a 1983 telling on PBS’s “Great Performances” (available on DVD from Image). Or they might debate the relative merits of various Hatters, contrasting, say, Mr. Depp’s low-key performance with spry Edward Everett Horton (Paramount again) and the bundle of nervous energy voiced by Ed Wynn in Disney’s famous animated version (1951).

Nor is there much consistency in depictions of Wonderland. Though some adaptations hew admirably close to the now-iconic illustrations drawn by John Tenniel for the books’ first editions, others bear the stamp of their era to an almost distracting degree. Mr. Burton’s picture falls into the latter category, as does Mr. Miller’s virtually psychedelic account (on BBC DVD), which imagines Alice as something of a flower child trapped in a happening—an effect only furthered by Ravi Shankar’s hypnotic score.

Even Alice’s arrival in Wonderland eludes consensus. Carroll’s books have her falling down a rabbit hole initially and then, in “Through the Looking-Glass,” re-entering it via a mirror. But Mr. Miller makes the rabbit hole first a tunnel, then a many-windowed corridor, and finally a series of staircases worthy of M.C. Escher. And in “Alice” (1988), the Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer goes beyond that. His take (on DVD from First Run Features) combines live action and stop-motion animation to have Alice watch the White Rabbit escape from a taxidermy display, scamper up a heap of rubble, and then dive into the drawer of a writing desk (a joke Carroll aficionados will savor).

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Paramount’s 1933 production of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ starring Charlotte Henry, with Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle and William Austin as the Gryphon.

Alice’s age, too, seems subject to interpretation. She is 7 in the books, yet only Irwin Allen’s cloying TV version, first broadcast on CBS in 1985 (and now on DVD from Sony), gets that right. Mr. Švankmajer makes her about 5, but most adaptations age Alice. She’s adolescent in the Paramount and BBC tellings, a late teen rejecting a marriage proposal in Mr. Burton’s movie, and a full-fledged woman when played by Kate Burton for “Great Performances.” She’s even been a young mother, portrayed by Kate Beckinsale in a sly British TV version from 1998 (on DVD from Lions Gate).

One constant in “Alice” adaptations is star power. Paramount’s early 1930s version (just issued on DVD by Universal) was the first to exploit this approach. Along with Grant, Cooper and W.C. Fields (as Humpty-Dumpty), the film features a panoply of once-familiar, now largely forgotten faces, including Jack Oakie as Tweedledum, Charlie Ruggles as the March Hare, and Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen.

The BBC’s “Alice” is nearly as star-packed, though not all the players fulfill expectations. Gielgud certainly does—his droll delivery of lines like “We called him Tortoise because he taught us” is unmatched. And nearly as impressive are Michael Redgrave’s haughty Caterpillar, Malcolm Muggeridge’s superannuated Gryphon, and Leo McKern’s coarse Duchess (talk about creative casting!). But it’s a pity to find Peter Sellers wasted as the King of Hearts.

* ‘Alice’: Half a Wonderland
* Speakeasy: ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Review Revue
* Speakeasy: Selling ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ One Eyeshadow at a Time

Indeed, the least successful adaptations are those beholden to celebrity casting. Allen’s mid-1980s production is a good example, with a host of past-their-prime performers stuffing the proceedings. Anthony Newley plays the Hatter; Red Buttons, the White Rabbit; and—of all people—Telly Savalas, the Cheshire Cat. Another TV version, this one originally broadcast on NBC in 1999 (and now on a Vivendi DVD), is just as bad, with Martin Short insufferable as the Hatter and Whoopi Goldberg an ill-chosen Cheshire Cat—though at least Ben Kingsley pleases as a martinet-like Caterpillar.

If stars are de rigueur, then special effects are essential. Carroll’s Wonderland is inherently phantasmagoric, and since “Alice” was first filmed, in 1903, trick photography has been part of the equation. One sees it used to great effect in the Paramount film, which incorporates an animated Walrus-and-Carpenter sequence among its varied charms. Mr. Burton’s new version, of course, approaches technology’s cutting edge. But those partial to Carroll’s stories must be mindful that what matters most in any “Alice” adaptation is the ability to link wonder and whimsy. Anything less is an affront to the inspiration.

Mr. Mermelstein writes for the Journal on film and classical music.



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