Which dreamed it?

Alice was a real person.  Her name was Alice Lidell, and the Alice in Wonderland stories are littered with genuine biographical details.  Lewis Carroll, however, was not a real person—that was just a pen name for Charles Dodgson, a complicated genius.  Dodgson was trained as a clergyman but was never ordained; he taught mathematics but resisted the most interesting mathematical discoveries of his era; he was a logician who turned his paradoxes and logic puzzles into children’s stories and absurdist poems.  He told Alice these fantastical tales as a way of entertaining her, and on her insistence he composed them into book form, a single private copy he gave to her in 1864.  Upon further prodding he expanded the text into the form we know it today, and published it for all to enjoy.  The final binding of Alice in Wonderland in 1897 combined Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with its sequel Through The Looking-Glass.  By that point, the thing had evolved into a ripe tangle of puns and non-sequiters, parodies of other children’s literature, Lidell-family in-jokes, and ridiculous situations.

During her travels, Alice is told that she is merely a figment of someone else’s dream.  It’s a wild and wonderful idea, equal measures disturbing and intriguing, that may be a bit outré for a children’s book.   In a way, it was true: Alice was merely “a sort of a thing” in someone else’s dream, and as such she could continue her adventures indefinitely, rummaging around the unconscious minds of generations of artists to come.

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The first attempt to export Alice into a new medium came quite early, with a stage musical version in London in 1886.  Mind you, this was eleven years before the definitive 1897 publication of the book.  Even then there were disagreements between the dramatists and the author about how to translate his visions.  For the most part, the many theater and film adaptations that have appeared over the last century or so have followed a basic pattern: stunt casting of famous faces in crazy outfits, running through the familiar situations, everybody goes home happy.  For producers, an Alice in Wonderland can be a tempting cash-in, and for actors it can be a fun lark.  Over the years we’ve had Sammy Davis Jr. as the Caterpillar, Harvey Korman as the Mad Hatter, Doctor Who’s Elisabeth Sladen as the Dormouse, Elsa Lanchester as the Red Queen, Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, Whoopi Goldberg as the Cheshire Cat…

An obvious drawback to such an approach, though, is that each guest star is relegated to just a scene or maybe two, before being shoved off-stage by the next crazy character.  You’ll have a hard time getting Johnny Depp to play just a single scene, and if you do manage that you can’t then honestly peg the entire marketing campaign to a cameo.

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For all the big names attracted to taking prominent roles in Wonderland on screen or stage, it is rarely the case that the big names find themselves compelled to anything behind the scenes.  On those rare occasions that a significant artist has paid tribute to Carroll’s stories, it has not been a straight-up adaptation but rather in the form of other works—Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, for example, or Claude Chabrol’s Alice, or The Last Escapade.  Which brings us to the exception that proves our rule—Walt Disney.

The Disney Company today still repeats Walt’s assertion, “it all began with a mouse,” but this is a convenient fiction that elides Walt’s earlier, leaner years.  Long before Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney struggled to pay the bills and toiled in obscurity.  This was a time when he had to miss a crucial meeting with potential backers because his only pair of shoes had worn out and he couldn’t leave the office in sock feet.  This was a time when he bartered cartoon sketches to local merchants in exchange for haircuts.  During this tough stretch, Walt summoned all his resources to make a test film, a promo reel to show to distributors in the hopes of securing a contract.  It was called Alice’s Wonderland.

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He filmed live action plates of a real girl, cavorting around with cartoon comrades he added later.  Let’s be clear—he stole the idea from Max Fleischer’s Out Of The Inkwell series, and didn’t do it half as well.  But the very notion was clever enough that despite its derivative qualities and crude execution, it was enough to get started—and until 1927, the Alice in Cartoonland series was the cornerstone of the nascent Disney empire.

Eventually, of course, that empire was reorganized around a mischievous mouse, and in 1936 Walt sent Mickey into Wonderland in a delightful cartoon entitled Thru The Mirror.  In my opinion, this is the finest and most delicious of all the Mickey Mouse shorts, yet it is unlikely to be a coincidence that it appeared just after the Fleischers sent Betty Boop to Wonderland in the strikingly similar 1934 ‘toon Betty in Blunderland.

Despite the obvious thrall that Alice had over Disney’s imagination, and the self-evident allure such a source text would have for a company whose business plan was turning children’s fables into blockbuster cartoons, Walt didn’t put an Alice adaptation into production until surprisingly late.  And when he did, the critical drubbing that his 1951 version took perhaps provided some insight into why he had dragged his feet.  Alice in Wonderland was not a popular hit in its day, and reviewers seemed to resent that he had even tried to put his stamp on such a beloved classic.

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“There was something arrogant about the way the studio took over these works,” wrote Richard Schickel in 1968, “Grist for a mighty mill, they were, in the ineffable Hollywood term, ‘properties’ to do with as the proprietor of the machine would.  You could throw jarring popular songs into the brew, you could gag them up, you could sentimentalize them.  You had, in short, no obligation to the originals or to the cultural tradition they represented… Lewis Carroll’s Alice became Walt Disney’s Alice.”

Schickel felt insulted that Disney felt “no obligation to the original.”

The irony is, Disney did, and this was precisely the problem that kept a Disneyfied Alice from surfacing earlier.  When Walt looked back at Alice’s dismal box office performance, he felt it was due to his team’s having felt too constrained by the literary reputation of the book to effectively turn the story into a compelling movie.  As far as Walt Disney was concerned, the storybook Alice was a passive character who drifted aimlessly through weird events with no coherent goal, and thereby failed to initiate enough audience identification.  He tried to compensate for that by having the movie Alice want to go home, and her travels through Wonderland are driven by her desire to leave (Evidently Walt did not consider the more subversive possibility that Alice’s motivation is to flee her conventional home, that she gets into danger because she seeks fantasy escapism for its own sake, and that the story is meant to endorse this creative recklessness).

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But it must be noted that there actually is a pre-existing emotional relationship already present in the original text that grounds Alice’s adventures and facilitates her growth as a character.  In Through The Looking-Glass, Alice meets a Don Quixote-like White Knight who offers her support and advice at crucial junctures.  The Knight was Dodgson’s literary version of himself—replete with character traits that unambiguously identified Dodgson’s own persona.  In a story about Alice’s transformation from child to adult, Dodgson cast himself as her guide.

Of course, therein lies a problem.  Direct reference to the real-life Dodgson-Lidell relationship has some… uncomfortable aspects.  In recent years, some fairly slanderous accusations have been leveled against Dodgson and his romantic attraction to a pre-pubescent girl.  But you don’t even have to accept the most extreme speculations to find his behavior troubling.  Even his most conservative and indulgent biographers agree on the following facts: he preferred the company of children to adults, and he preferred the company of little girls to little boys.  He liked to photograph little girls in the nude (but if they demurred out of religious modesty, he let them keep their nightdresses on).   Alice was not his first child friend, but the most significant.  His love of her was such that outsiders mistook it for an affair with Alice’s guardian, Miss Prickett—an idea that made Dodgson shudder with disgust.

I’ve never in my life seen any proof that Dodgson’s love for Alice Lidell was anything but platonic, but even so you’re still describing behavior that would today be almost certainly illegal, or at the very least profoundly unnerving and creepy.

Chicago’s Lookinglass Theater, named for the Alice books, is known for a stage version of Alice that is in my opinion the finest and most successful translation of the storybook to another medium.  In a show full of slapstick comedy and circus acrobatics, the Lookinglass Alice does many things—including brazenly confronting the Dodgson-Lidell relationship head-on.  The same actor plays Dodgson (in a frame story) as plays the White Knight—and both sides of the same man are at once wistful and proud of this young girl becoming a young woman, a transition that the real-life Dodgson recognized as equally magical and traumatic.

Even movies that never strived to make the White Knight an emotional anchor found him naturally fulfilling that role.  Just try to tell me that Gary Cooper’s performance as the White Knight in Norman McLeod and William Cameron Menzies’s endearingly idiosyncratic 1933 version doesn’t make the hairs on your neck stand up.  W.C. Fields plays Humpty Dumpty, Cary Grant sings “Glorious Soup,” and Gary Cooper nails his scene as the White Knight, in one of the few movie adaptations I’ve seen that even remotely tried.

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And so what if diminishing or deleting the White Knight from most adaptations mutes the extent to which the story serves as a metaphor for puberty?  What self-respecting teen wants to see such a story anyway?

To quote the Red Queen from the original book: “You may call it ’nonsense’ if you like, but I’ve heard nonsense, compared with which that would be a sensible as a dictionary!”

20 Responses Which dreamed it?
Posted By changeling69 : March 16, 2013 8:42 am

One thing is for sure. Lidell might have been a true girl and LC a pseudonym, BUT AIW IS NOT and WAS NOT merely a book for children! It’s a book for grown ups who have forgotten the innocence of being a child and it’s for people who want to see the entire world as it REALLY is and not how it is presented to us by the media, TV in primis! I read AIW for the 1st time in school, later on in life, I read it thru adult eyes and it told me to be myself always, it conveyed to me never to be a yesman in life…..AGAINST ALL ODDS….it told me that we can all “come out and play” whenever we want even though there will always be people who will try to put you down in any way they can. I will always cherish AIW and will always prefer it to other “modern” books “for children” like Harry Potter and the like; there is a BIG diff between diamonds and rust and between AIW and Harry Pooter, the latter is downright RUST:):):)!!!!

Posted By changeling69 : March 16, 2013 8:42 am

One thing is for sure. Lidell might have been a true girl and LC a pseudonym, BUT AIW IS NOT and WAS NOT merely a book for children! It’s a book for grown ups who have forgotten the innocence of being a child and it’s for people who want to see the entire world as it REALLY is and not how it is presented to us by the media, TV in primis! I read AIW for the 1st time in school, later on in life, I read it thru adult eyes and it told me to be myself always, it conveyed to me never to be a yesman in life…..AGAINST ALL ODDS….it told me that we can all “come out and play” whenever we want even though there will always be people who will try to put you down in any way they can. I will always cherish AIW and will always prefer it to other “modern” books “for children” like Harry Potter and the like; there is a BIG diff between diamonds and rust and between AIW and Harry Pooter, the latter is downright RUST:):):)!!!!

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 16, 2013 10:04 am

Your quote by Schickel could have also come from one of my husband’s great-grandmothers. She was a career librarian and she complained mightily when Disney came out with Pinnochio, according to family lore. She lamented his adaptation of the book because she said it wouldn’t follow the book and it could possibly convince children that since they’d seen the cartoon/movie, they didn’t need to read the book. She was not a Disney fan for that reason. I enjoyed your post very much.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 16, 2013 10:04 am

Your quote by Schickel could have also come from one of my husband’s great-grandmothers. She was a career librarian and she complained mightily when Disney came out with Pinnochio, according to family lore. She lamented his adaptation of the book because she said it wouldn’t follow the book and it could possibly convince children that since they’d seen the cartoon/movie, they didn’t need to read the book. She was not a Disney fan for that reason. I enjoyed your post very much.

Posted By Doug : March 16, 2013 11:42 am

Another example-Carl Sandburg’s “Rootabaga Tales” began as night-time stories for his children. I think I identified more
with Sandburg as the tales were American and filled with wistful dreaming rather than epigrams and quips.
Alice-somehow I have the 1966 BBC version DVD with Peter Sellers, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Michael Redgrave which has, as an extra, the first recorded Alice in 1903. It is very rough and in poor condition, running about ten minutes.
No matter Dodgson’s dogy personal issues, everyone has their own interpretation of his works. Robert Heinlein and Roger Zelazny each found a way to visit Wonderland in their speculative fiction. It draws people because the story can mean whatever you want it to mean-go ask Alice.

Posted By Doug : March 16, 2013 11:42 am

Another example-Carl Sandburg’s “Rootabaga Tales” began as night-time stories for his children. I think I identified more
with Sandburg as the tales were American and filled with wistful dreaming rather than epigrams and quips.
Alice-somehow I have the 1966 BBC version DVD with Peter Sellers, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Michael Redgrave which has, as an extra, the first recorded Alice in 1903. It is very rough and in poor condition, running about ten minutes.
No matter Dodgson’s dogy personal issues, everyone has their own interpretation of his works. Robert Heinlein and Roger Zelazny each found a way to visit Wonderland in their speculative fiction. It draws people because the story can mean whatever you want it to mean-go ask Alice.

Posted By James : March 16, 2013 4:58 pm

Further on the subject of Dodgson and Lidell, there is a terrific but little-seen 1985 film titled Dreamchild that is very much worth watching. The premise has an elderly Lidell visiting New York City for the centennial celebration of Dodgson’s birthday. She is fighting dementia (possibly – the script is deliberately ambiguous on this point) and recalls her relationship with Dodgson when she was a child, which are intertwined with interpretations of some passages of the two books (animated wonderfully by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop).
Dennis Potter wrote the script, and he delicately touches on the inappropriateness of the relationship, through one of those childhood memories, before resolving the story with Lidell deciding that Dodgson gave her a wonderful gift in writing the Alice books. He doesn’t avoid the subject, but provides a degree of empathy for both Dodgson and Lidell while also noting the uncomfortable aspects of the relationship.
It was difficult to see for years (in spite of a rave review from Pauline Kael) until MGM released a MOD disc recently. Having seen it once when I was much younger, I wanted to watch it again to see if it held up well. It did. Among other virtues, it made me wonder how good a full adaptation of either book by Henson’s workshop might have been, because the parts that are adapted are done wonderfully (and aren’t slavishly devoted to the John Tenniell illustrations).

Posted By James : March 16, 2013 4:58 pm

Further on the subject of Dodgson and Lidell, there is a terrific but little-seen 1985 film titled Dreamchild that is very much worth watching. The premise has an elderly Lidell visiting New York City for the centennial celebration of Dodgson’s birthday. She is fighting dementia (possibly – the script is deliberately ambiguous on this point) and recalls her relationship with Dodgson when she was a child, which are intertwined with interpretations of some passages of the two books (animated wonderfully by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop).
Dennis Potter wrote the script, and he delicately touches on the inappropriateness of the relationship, through one of those childhood memories, before resolving the story with Lidell deciding that Dodgson gave her a wonderful gift in writing the Alice books. He doesn’t avoid the subject, but provides a degree of empathy for both Dodgson and Lidell while also noting the uncomfortable aspects of the relationship.
It was difficult to see for years (in spite of a rave review from Pauline Kael) until MGM released a MOD disc recently. Having seen it once when I was much younger, I wanted to watch it again to see if it held up well. It did. Among other virtues, it made me wonder how good a full adaptation of either book by Henson’s workshop might have been, because the parts that are adapted are done wonderfully (and aren’t slavishly devoted to the John Tenniell illustrations).

Posted By tdraicer : March 16, 2013 11:07 pm

>Chicago’s Lookinglass Theater, named for the Alice books, is known for a stage version of Alice that is in my opinion the finest and most successful translation of the storybook to another medium.

I wrote and directed an adaption (for my local community theater when I lived in the Bronx) called Alice in Wonderland: The Reading, which combined my favorite parts of both books. Though a “reading” (98% of the words spoken were directly from the books), we had a full cast in costume along with a narrator and projections of the orginal drawings on a large screen.

I’ve yet to see the Disney version, which is odd because I’ve known many of the songs in it since childhood.

Posted By tdraicer : March 16, 2013 11:07 pm

>Chicago’s Lookinglass Theater, named for the Alice books, is known for a stage version of Alice that is in my opinion the finest and most successful translation of the storybook to another medium.

I wrote and directed an adaption (for my local community theater when I lived in the Bronx) called Alice in Wonderland: The Reading, which combined my favorite parts of both books. Though a “reading” (98% of the words spoken were directly from the books), we had a full cast in costume along with a narrator and projections of the orginal drawings on a large screen.

I’ve yet to see the Disney version, which is odd because I’ve known many of the songs in it since childhood.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 17, 2013 8:34 am

I did some more reading about Dodgson yesterday afternoon. He did photography as a hobby, was quite good at it. An uncle introduced him to it when he was a boy. Dodgson took photos of children but always had their parent with them at the photo shoots. Also, one article I read explained that in Victorian England, it was considered quite artistic and popular to take nude photos of children. I don’t get that, but evidently it was. He also took photos of women, buildings, animals,and various other subjects.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 17, 2013 8:34 am

I did some more reading about Dodgson yesterday afternoon. He did photography as a hobby, was quite good at it. An uncle introduced him to it when he was a boy. Dodgson took photos of children but always had their parent with them at the photo shoots. Also, one article I read explained that in Victorian England, it was considered quite artistic and popular to take nude photos of children. I don’t get that, but evidently it was. He also took photos of women, buildings, animals,and various other subjects.

Posted By robbushblog : March 17, 2013 2:01 pm

I love the Disney adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. The animated one, that is. The live action, Johny Depp vanity-fest was deplorable and horrible. It’s design was quite good, but “lipstick on a pig…” and all that.

I also know that in translating a book to the big screen, some changes must often be made. I usually prefer to watch a movie based on a book before I read the book. That somehow helps me compartmentalize them easier than the reverse. The times that I have read the book first I found myself being one of those nit-pickers. I’m constantly that way with movies based on comic books. Thank you for the historical journey “Through the Looking-Glass”, David!

Posted By robbushblog : March 17, 2013 2:01 pm

I love the Disney adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. The animated one, that is. The live action, Johny Depp vanity-fest was deplorable and horrible. It’s design was quite good, but “lipstick on a pig…” and all that.

I also know that in translating a book to the big screen, some changes must often be made. I usually prefer to watch a movie based on a book before I read the book. That somehow helps me compartmentalize them easier than the reverse. The times that I have read the book first I found myself being one of those nit-pickers. I’m constantly that way with movies based on comic books. Thank you for the historical journey “Through the Looking-Glass”, David!

Posted By Doug : March 17, 2013 4:48 pm

In defense of the Depp “Alice”, I thought that it was the most creative Burton had been since “Mars Attacks!”. Depp shouldn’t have been in it, and Hathaway’s ‘The White Queen’ seemed cobbled in from a different fantasy film, maybe LOTR.
jennifromrollamo makes good points-we can’t know Dodgson’s true story; I think it’s human nature that makes us always suspect the worst of people. We can’t know if he was attracted to young girls any more than we can know for certain if J.M. Barrie ever visited Downton Abbey.
(aside to jenni:I lived in Branson for a year and a half, and was quite taken with the area. If I win a million dollars someday I might be able to afford a weekend stay there.)

Posted By Doug : March 17, 2013 4:48 pm

In defense of the Depp “Alice”, I thought that it was the most creative Burton had been since “Mars Attacks!”. Depp shouldn’t have been in it, and Hathaway’s ‘The White Queen’ seemed cobbled in from a different fantasy film, maybe LOTR.
jennifromrollamo makes good points-we can’t know Dodgson’s true story; I think it’s human nature that makes us always suspect the worst of people. We can’t know if he was attracted to young girls any more than we can know for certain if J.M. Barrie ever visited Downton Abbey.
(aside to jenni:I lived in Branson for a year and a half, and was quite taken with the area. If I win a million dollars someday I might be able to afford a weekend stay there.)

Posted By Nim Kovak : March 18, 2013 12:15 am

I’ve never seen any version of the story which captures the magic of the original volumes — although I’d be interested to see the Looking glass version (live in Chicago but missed it) someday…

To me the closest in heart is one of the most out-there superficially — the Svankmajer film, which I don’t think has been mentioned yet above … Certainly in no way a substitute for the books — but Svankmajer has a natural affinity for Lewis’ quality of absurdism I thought — at least compared with other versions …

Disney versions are always different from their sources, but their quality varies immensely … A film like Pinocchio may stray from the Collodi — but it proved to be a great masterpiece in its own right … But the Disney Alice film always seemed like more of a missed opportunity than much else… (And after what I’ve heard, you couldn’t pay me to see the Burton …)

Posted By Nim Kovak : March 18, 2013 12:15 am

I’ve never seen any version of the story which captures the magic of the original volumes — although I’d be interested to see the Looking glass version (live in Chicago but missed it) someday…

To me the closest in heart is one of the most out-there superficially — the Svankmajer film, which I don’t think has been mentioned yet above … Certainly in no way a substitute for the books — but Svankmajer has a natural affinity for Lewis’ quality of absurdism I thought — at least compared with other versions …

Disney versions are always different from their sources, but their quality varies immensely … A film like Pinocchio may stray from the Collodi — but it proved to be a great masterpiece in its own right … But the Disney Alice film always seemed like more of a missed opportunity than much else… (And after what I’ve heard, you couldn’t pay me to see the Burton …)

Posted By swac44 : March 25, 2013 11:39 pm

Another endorsement here for Dreamchild a fascinating look at a life that influenced one of our greatest works of arts, with fine performances Coral Brown as the aged Alice and Ian Holm as Dodgson. Hard to believe that film is almost 30 years old now, maybe another look at Dodgson’s life is in order. (Wouldn’t mind another film about L. Frank Baum while we’re at it…)

And I agree that a Muppet-y version of the Alice tales could really work if done properly. The brief visions in Dreamchild of what it could be like got my hopes up that Henson or his successors might get around to it one day, but nothing so far.

Posted By swac44 : March 25, 2013 11:39 pm

Another endorsement here for Dreamchild a fascinating look at a life that influenced one of our greatest works of arts, with fine performances Coral Brown as the aged Alice and Ian Holm as Dodgson. Hard to believe that film is almost 30 years old now, maybe another look at Dodgson’s life is in order. (Wouldn’t mind another film about L. Frank Baum while we’re at it…)

And I agree that a Muppet-y version of the Alice tales could really work if done properly. The brief visions in Dreamchild of what it could be like got my hopes up that Henson or his successors might get around to it one day, but nothing so far.

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