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 Through the Camera Lens

by Cory Gross
April 1, 2018

Though it seems like the current rash of remakes, reboots, reimagining and re-whatevers is a wholly new phenomenon, cinema has always relied on established properties. From its very infancy it looked to render already popular books and stage plays in celluloid. The more dramatic they were, and the more opportunity they afforded to pioneering special effects artists, the better.

In 1902, French filmmaker Georges Méliès pulled from Jules Verne, Jacques Offenbach and H.G. Wells to create the silent screens first great Science Fiction epic, A Trip to the Moon. This effects laden fantasy was phenomenally popular and demonstrated the viability of trick photography for convincing audiences of the impossible and making a nice profit doing so. British filmmaker Cecil Hepworth combed his native land's own literary heritage for a suitable franchise and found it in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

Released to theatres in 1903, Hepworth's Alice is noteworthy for being the first screen adaptation of the children's classic. Subsequent silent film adaptations were made in 1910 and 1915, followed by two talkies and a television program in the Thirties, another film in 1949, Disney's definitive animated version in 1951, several more TV versions and, most recently, Tim Burton's reinterpretation starring Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter in a Wonderland gone dark in Alice's adulthood. The 1903 version also demonstrates one of the problems of Alice in Wonderland that has plagued filmmakers ever since.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There are notoriously difficult to transcribe into film for the very same qualities that have made it a beloved classic. An exercise in lunacy and nonsense to outdo Edward Lear (whose Book of Nonsense was published some 20 years prior), Alice in Wonderland is not a narratively coherent "Hero's Journey." Rather, it is a series of episodic absurdities full of cultural references and philosophical metaphors. Observations on the March madness of wild hares goes back to the Middle Ages. Hatmakers being driven insane by Mercury poisoning was a byproduct of the beaver fur trade. Commentary on royal prerogative is inescapable, as are the tabletop game references, and the white roses being painted red may be a reference to the War of the Roses. As Lewis Carroll was a mathematician, there are countless satires on 19th century "new math" that relied on more abstract ideas.

The net result, of which Walt Disney complained in retrospect, is that Alice is not an entirely sympathetic character. She floats from one scene to the next in a futile struggle to make some sense out of irrational surroundings, regularly using the skewed logic of a child that seems to work far better than a mature approach would. For movie viewers, this equates to a series of disjointed vignettes visualizing scenes from the novel but not connected or coherent in the same sense as a regular plot. A Variety review of the 1933 film said it best: "A viewing of this feature brings to the fore the fact that a screen story, as one of its first essentials, has to have a definite progress - a parade of events that dovetail and carry the interest along. A series of scattered, unrelated incidents definitely won't do to hold interest for an hour and a quarter."

Hepworth's adaptation is only about eight minutes long and unabashedly a series of scattered, unrelated incidents. There is no narrative flow and there is no question that it is an attempt to visualize the book's most technically promising scenes. Photographic effects grow and shrink Alice, double exposures liberate her from the White Rabbit's house, a quick-change turns the Duchess' baby into a pig, the Cheshire Cat fades in and out of existence, and a regiment of costumed children act as the Queen of Hearts' army. The only truly iconic scenes represented are her tumble down the rabbit hole and the Mad Tea Party.

What remains of the first cinematic Alice is in poor condition and some minutes are lost, but not many. Méliès was pushing the patience of audiences by making A Trip to the Moon a whole 14 minutes. The Great Train Robbery, also released in 1903 by Edwin S. Porter, (who would go on to do the 1910 version of Alice) was a mere 12 minutes. This Alice's scant few minutes was about all the audiences of the time were prepared for. Today it makes for a brief, interesting historical curiousity.  

For Cory Gross, the past is a lifestyle choice. Native to the ranchlands of Western Canada, he works as a museums and heritage professional in Calgary, Alberta, teaching science, nature, history and art. He also volunteers with a number of science and history organizations in the city, holds a graduate degree in theology, and enjoys travelling at home and abroad. His love of Victorian science fiction and antiquated adventure stories is on display at his blog Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age