What Alice Found

I’m going to go ahead and post a short paper I wrote for class last week because I hate working on projects and having only one person read them. I really like attention.

alice in wonderland

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a story that has been told countless times in many ways. Originally written for one of Carroll’s child friends, Alice Liddell, the story is an example of literary nonsense, flowing and darting around this surreal setting of Wonderland as though a dream. And, indeed, the story is meant to be a dream, as Alice wakes in the final chapter to find herself back in the real world without a physical trace of her past adventures. Written for children, the story has a very carnivalesque feel to it. Alice meets various creatures in Wonderland that seem to be grotesquely put together and not right in the head. Thus, Alice tries to teach each of these characters lessons on manners and recitation. This serves to make the child’s lessons in the real world boring, but necessary. They give her power over even adults, who seem to be less educated than she. This reverses the hierarchy of the typical child-adult relationship. In typical carnivalesque fashion, Alice attempts to solve adult puzzles using childlike solutions (for example, the “caucus race” where wet characters run in various directions for a half hour to get dry. This seems perfectly acceptable to a child who does not know the meaning of “caucus!”). Carroll even inverts the position of royalty, mocking the King and Queen of Hearts who are emotional and ineffectual.

            Many different films have incorporated elements of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into their narratives. In animation there have been such diverse retellings as Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001), which borrows from the source material very loosely, and Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (1988), which seems to follow original narrative very closely, but with a much darker twist. Possibly the most prominent in the popular cultural scope of the story is Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951), which follows original story quite closely and seems to stay true to the original tone of the piece. In the following essay I will compare the Walt Disney version to the Svankmajer version in an effort to reveal the creators’ intent and purpose in tone, uncovering the different forms of carnivalesque humor and terror that can be manipulated.

Disney’s version of the Alice in Wonderland tale stays relatively true to the source material. The film borrows from both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. The decisions on what to borrow from the latter seems to relate to the visual puns the book offers that the animators at Disney seem to have a lot of fun with. An example of this borrowing would be the flower scene in the film when Alice encounters such creations as a Rocking Horse Fly. The film also splices the chapter from Through the Looking Glass called “Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee” into Alice’s adventures, with the poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” drawn out on screen. This combining of Carroll’s two novels is natural because of the intended audience. Despite inclusions of some adult humor and an appeal to adult sensibilities towards children, the story remains geared towards children. All pieces borrowed from both stories are used for the purpose of keeping the film interesting for small children. The characters of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are especially silly and visually exciting for kids. The two little men perform various physical gags meant for humor. Therefore, although Disney’s Alice in Wonderland strays from the original narrative occasionally, the tone remains the same. It is clearly a story meant for children.

alice in wonderland disney

alice in wonderland original illustrations

(Here you can see the similarities between the Disney version of the film and the original illustrations drawn by John Tenniel.)

Jan Svankmajer’s Alice, on the other hand, offers a more loose interpretation of the story. While the plot devices remain largely the same as Carroll’s original narrative, the tone of the film is completely different, changing the story from a children’s story into one clearly meant for adults. Alice’s romp in Wonderland is not a fun dream-like trip here, but one filled with real danger towards a child. Even from the first images of the film we are introduced to the drastically different tone of the piece. The room that Alice lives in is full of skulls, dead and mounted bugs, witch-like jars of strange fruit, mousetraps, and deterioration. These images are then introduced into Alice’s dream world, where the danger of her curiosity is immediately apparent as she runs across a rocky terrain towards the animated taxidermied white rabbit. The close ups of her feet illustrate that at any moment Alice might fall and seriously injure herself on the sharp rocks. In fact, Alice actually does injure herself in the very next segment, cutting her finger on a protractor. The danger continues throughout the narrative as Alice crawls on glass, has a fire made on her head, and is drawn and quartered behind running horses. Instead of being a curious little girl, as Alice might have been in the Disney version of the story, Alice here is curious to the point of self-destruction. She has very little regard for manners or safety as she wreaks havoc on Wonderland and it fights back. Clearly this nightmare rendition of a strange and creepy world is not meant for children. The film seems to ironically acknowledge this at the beginning with a child voiceover stating that this is “a movie…made for children…perhaps…” In this statement the film becomes self-aware of its horrific qualities. Made in 1988, perhaps Alice is aware of previous representations of Carroll’s world and saw the opportunity to interpret it a much different way.

jan svankmajer alice

While Disney’s Alice in Wonderland uses carnivalesque humor in order to empower children and show them that their thoughts and ideas are indeed necessary, Alice seems to use its carnivalesque nature in a much more monstrous fashion. Characters such as the white rabbit are initially merely grotesque (eating the sawdust that falls out of its own stomach), but as the film goes on, we come to find the white rabbit as more of a threat towards Alice. He becomes almost monstrous, as he is eager to burn her out of his house and cut off her head. The combination of different parts that are not meant to be put together (a frog with wings, for example) creates an uneasy feeling – a feeling that is increased with the sound design of the film: creaking limbs, ticking clocks, beating hearts, etc. By animating these grotesque figures and making them appear alive, Alice is thrown into more of a nightmare where reality and dreams are mixed together to create something truly horrific.

jan svankmajer alice

In conclusion, both Disney’s Alice in Wonderland and Svankmajer’s Alice have interpreted Carroll’s original story using various animation techniques. By choosing what aspects of the narrative to include and exclude the films have vastly different tones and are clearly meant for different audiences. When analyzing adaptations it is never helpful to make wide claims on which version of the story is better or more appropriate, but by looking at tone, we can see which films stay true to Carroll’s original intent and which break off into different sorts of, equally valuable, narratives.

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4 Comments

Filed under Whitney

4 responses to “What Alice Found

  1. Amy

    so glad bakhtin got a holla in you paper! i recently impressed someone with a discussion of terry’s cartoons and the carnivalesque. i got a gold star and a cookie (pretty big deal). thanks monty python class, thanks from the depths of my heart.

  2. brian

    i watched alice last summer and really liked it. i want to show it to my niece. she’s six. do you think she’s too young for it?

  3. I don’t know…I don’t think I’d show it to a kid, but maybe if she wasn’t very sensitive. It’s just really dark and presents a lot of danger for a child. The child is also kind of dangerous herself. Remember when she cuts off the heads at the end? Have you shown her Spirited Away, though? That’s a good Alice in Wonderland story for a kid.

  4. brian

    yeah. she loved spirited away. i also showed her and her brothers robot monster. they loved that one.

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