I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Alice's Adventures in Cinemaland

by Sakunthala Panditharatne
March 8, 2014
How many adaptations are there of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? Three silent movies, three animated films, eleven live-action films, an anime, a Czech ballet, a musical, a TV series and a stop-motion animation -- and those are the well known ones! However, the stop-motion Alice (1998), directed by Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, stands out from the rest. It’s the darkest, strangest, most self-aware interpretation of Alice, and maybe the one that gets closest to the spirit of Lewis Carroll’s story.

Nearly all interpretations of Alice treat it as children’s story -- well, except for the ones that are predominantly about drugs. The most recent, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), dwells on the story’s Victorian setting and fairy-tale qualities. Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is the same; it’s about Alice’s fantastical adventure in a crazy world. Virtually every Alice film says the same thing: that it’s a fairy tale about childhood curiosity and imagination. After all, that’s what Lewis Carroll was writing about, right?

Here’s another view. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland isn’t a kid’s book, it’s a thinly veiled mockery of 19th century mathematics. This was the era when maths was becoming weirder and more abstract, and was causing controversy amongst mathematicians. Lewis Carroll was one of these mathematicians, which sort of explains why Alice’s Adventures is so full of logical contradictions and jumbled calculations. When the Mad Hatter says "Why, you might just as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'I eat what I see'!"? he’s taking about non-commutativity, a counter-intuitive idea related to abstract forms of multiplication.  And the weird distortions of the "drink me" potion? That’s Lewis Carroll insulting the non-Euclidean geometry, which one angry mathematician called “offensive to the very nature of the line.”

Jan Švankmajer’s Alice turns to the camera and says “Alice thought to herself ‘Now you will see a film.’” Alice narrates for every other character and the camera sometimes cuts to her lips moving as she does. It’s an incredibly self-aware film, and not just because it was made at the peak of postmodernism’s popularity. Alice (1988) is subtitled “A World of Symbols That Have Come Alive”, and Jan Švankmajer uses the self-reference to remind us that the characters in his animation are just symbols and nothing more. The stop-motion sequences are full of creaky, malfunctioning machines. There’s no fairy-tale niceness in this adaptation, just the bizarre workings of a system of toys, which sort of resemble the new mathematical theories at which Lewis Carroll was having a good old laugh.

Jan Švankmajer was the first and only filmmaker to adapt Alice as a book about symbols and contradictions, rather than a quirky, slightly drug-addled fairy tale. His adaptation may be dark, but it stays far truer to the real Alice than any other. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Sakunthala Panditharatne is a maths student and pseudo-Bohemian loser. She spends maybe 80-90% of her time programming, writing and starting awesome projects, like her tumblr, theimaginaryhackathon.tumblr.com . The rest of the time she spends watching Malcolm in the Middle. She likes long, complicated novels and believes in the power of self-organization. Dave Eggers used to be her hero, but she’s kind of past that phase now.