141. ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1966)

“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”

–William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (Alice’s first words and last words in this rendition of “Alice in Wonderland”)

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DIRECTED BY: Jonathan Miller

FEATURING: Anne-Marie Mallik, , Leo McKern, Michael Redgrave, Alison Leggatt, Peter Sellers,

PLOT: Young Alice has her hair roughly brushed by a nurse before she heads out to sit by a riverbank with her sister; as her sister reads she falls asleep. She wakes to see a man in formal Victorian dress walking through the woods and follows him into a strange deserted building where she discovers potions that shrink her and cakes that maker her grow larger. As she continues wandering about she meets many odd characters, including a Duchess in drag and three men caught at an endless tea party, and eventually a King and Queen who put her on trial.

Still from Alice in Wonderland (1966)


BACKGROUND:

  • This version of Alice was produced for the BBC and first aired on December 28, 1966.
  • The BBC scheduled Alice in Wonderland to play only after 9 PM, the slot usually slated for “adult” content, leading to some minor public controversy about whether the film was appropriate for children. (There’s nothing inappropriate in Miller’s adaptation of “Alice,” but this treatment is aimed at adults and kids would probably find it boring).
  • 30 minutes of the film that were cut by the producers appear to have been lost permanently.
  • Director Jonathan Miller was a founding member of the stage comedy troupe “Beyond the Fringe,” which also included Dudley Moore, Alan Bennet (who appears in a small role here as the mouse), and Peter Cook (who appears in a large role as the Mad Hatter).
  • Alice in Wonderland was the only film appearance for star Anne-Marie Mallik.
  • This was future Monty Python mainstay Eric Idle’s first appearance on film (he has a small, uncredited part as a guard).
  • Ravi Shankar provided the lovely, meditative sitar score; it has never been released separately.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are many quietly sublime moments in Johnathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland: Alice chasing the White Rabbit through a corridor lined with billowing white curtains, a shot of the overgrown girl dominating the foreground with the bedroom behind her subtly bent by the wide-angle lens, the Mock Turtle and Gryphon capering silhouetted against the sunrise on a rocky beach at low tide. We chose to highlight the instnat when the Cheshire Cat appears in the sky above the croquet game. This is the movie’s only special effect and one of the few moments when something overtly magical actually happens in Wonderland; such a moment sets off the minimalistic strangeness of the rest of the production. (Alice’s indifferent, emotionless reaction to the apparition only adds to the oddness).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Jonathan Miller exhumes a Wonderland without magical beings: the White Rabbit is just a stuffed shirt in a waistcoat, the Cheshire Cat is an ordinary house cat, the drowned animals by the pool of tears are a soggy band of Victorian citizens. By unmasking the story’s anthropomorphic animals, he de-cutifies the fairy tale; the result is, unexpectedly, one of the weirdest and most dreamlike Alices ever put on film.

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Short clip from Alice in Wonderland

COMMENTS: There are layers and layers to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”: the original book was simultaneously a children’s fantasia, a compendium of clever wordplay, a parody of Victorian rationality, and a proto-Surrealist dream adventure. It’s light entertainment on the surface, but there is a strata of fear underneath (if there wasn’t, children wouldn’t be mesmerized by it). Alice is lost in a weird world, harried by brash strangers who can barely contain their contempt for her (“explain yourself!” demands the Caterpillar; “you don’t know much, that’s a fact” sneers the Duchess). The 1951 Disney version of the tale focused on the story’s lighter elements; a perfectly valid choice that honored Carroll’s primary intent to tell a tale to delight children. But adults have also been fascinated by the picaresque possibilities of the illogical world reached via the rabbit hole, however, and grown-up adaptations (most notably, Jan Svankmajer’s grotesque version) tease out the darkness and disorientation inherent in the tale.

Jonathan Miller’s Wonderland is in the latter tradition, and he has a unique take: he sees “Alice in Wonderland” simultaneously as a child’s nightmare and as a satire of adulthood (particularly of Victorian adulthood). Unlike the Disney character, Miller’s Alice is a petulant child who, judging by her bored expression, might as well be trapped in an interminable drawing-room conversation as a dream world. Anne-Marie Mallik, who was chosen for the part because she looked “Victorian,” shows no expression throughout the film, and has almost no inflection. She sometimes tosses her head in defiant frustration at the nonsensical ramblings of the Hatter and Hare, and that is about as far as she can be bothered to care. In the opening scene we see her training as a Victorian child: to stand perfectly still and quiet while a maid brushes her hair, yanking out tangles and muttering to herself. Adult society, which marginalizes her and her interests, is scarcely less bizarre to this Alice than Wonderland; and indeed, many of the scenes she encounters there are parodies of adult rituals. The Caucus Race, a chaotic affair run in the novel by tiny animals as a way to dry themselves after being drowned in Alice’s tears, is here staged with ladies and gentlemen in formal dress in a Church.  An Anglican hymn plays as the assembly prances up and down in front of stained glass windows, twirling about, waving their hats, and making strange hand gestures before filing into the pews. Alice sits by apathetically (like any normal child at a Church service). Alice skewers other adult rituals, like afternoon tea (where the adults can’t even play a simple game like exchanging riddles the right way) and courtroom deliberations (in this version, the Queen’s enraged verdict is drowned out by the sounds of a chicken cackling). Even when faced with decapitation, Alice’s reaction to the absurd grown-ups pestering her never rises above subdued irritation.

Alice’s detachment represents her unimpressed view of adulthood—a world of irritating nonsense to her—but it also reflects the disconnection and dislocation of dreams. Although some versions of Alice (Carrol’s original included) attempt to obscure the fact that Wonderland is Alice’s dreamworld, Miller immediately draws our attention to the oneiric character of her journey. We see Alice lie down in a field, her eyes close, Ravi Shankar’s sitar drones as buzzing insects join him on the soundtrack, and we pass through a series of dissolves of the girl’s sleeping face. Suddenly tablas start beating and Alice’s huge face rises in the foreground; in the meadow behind her, an old man in a suit and tophat appears, seeming to step out of her head. He fences at her back with his wand-like miniature walking stick, then skips off into an open field; though Alice’s gaze was turned away, she sees and follows him. Throughout the film, Alice, who doesn’t know she is dreaming, accepts the bizarre events as commonplaces: we don’t wonder in dreams, only afterwards. Considering the dialectical wranglings and sparkling conversations of Carroll’s book, this is an extremely quiet, dreamy and sedate fairyland. Carroll’s rapid-fire wordplay exchanges appear, verbatim, in bursts. But in between these dizzy dialogues Alice wanders Wonderland in a daze. Ellipses are common technique; Miller assumes a familiarity with the episodes that will frustrate anyone who doesn’t know the book well. The teardrop drowning scene is condensed so that it would appear utterly random to anyone who didn’t know the story. Alice cries, without motivation, and next we see a shot of gentleman and ladies up to their waists in churning water, and then suddenly Alice is walking into a chamber where a crowd of (not particularly damp) dandies are wondering how they will get dry. And there are moments in the film that feel peculiarly stoned: during a slow moment at the tea party Alice and the March Hare each stare blankly into the distance, while the Doormouse lies passed out with his forehead on the table and the fidgety Hatter smiles and nods to himself at some private joke. The sitar plucks on the soundtrack and flies buzz, and we have to wonder if it’s tea the quartet has been partaking in.

Carroll’s work was certainly dreamlike, but it was a pretty, child-friendly version of a dream, full of talking animals who, though rude, were silly and toothless. Taking away the animal masks is one way in which Miller brings out the darker tones in the story. He also grounds the settings in reality—these things happen to Alice in real locations, not in forests of lollipop trees, and bringing the sets closer to reality makes the events seem more horrific. It’s the real world that’s gone mad. He also highlights the moments of alienation Carroll put into the narrative: Alice’s first monologue in Wonderland has her complaining of feeling “different” and wondering “who am I?” She will continue to whisper that question to herself throughout her journey. Besides these shifts of focus, Miller makes alterations that make his little corner of Wonderland unique. The soundscapes—particularly Shankar’s sitar and the accompanying oboes, but also Alice’s blasé existential voiceovers and the animal sounds that intrude on the action—are one key to the film’s otherworldly sensibilities. Then there are Miller’s absurd amendments to the original: his decision to cast a man as the Duchess. The man Alice passes who is lounging in a bathtub, scrubbing his back, underneath a stone bridge. Things get their weirdest at the trial finale: it’s introduced with a hymn, people occupy boxes along the walls where they can be seen shaving, eating meals or sleeping in poster beds, a chicken clucks incessantly while the evidence is read, and the judge calls for a song in the middle of the testimony (everyone in the hall sings a different tune). It’s strange that the accused should have a full length mirror set by her, and even stranger that her reflection moves independently. None of those surreal touches came from Carroll, but they all fit into Miller’s twisted version of Wonderland.

Miller’s Wonderland wasn’t seen much outside of Britain, but it seems to be an influence on—or at least in the spirit of—the then-nascent psychedelic movement. There’s the presence of Ravi Shankar, whose artistry had been recently popularized by the Beatles George Harrison, and there’s the fact that Alice herself would soon be adopted as a hallucinogenic pioneer and poster child by the LSD crowd (“one pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small,” Grace Slick would croon one year later in the hit “White Rabbit”). By earnestly mixing Lewis Carroll with touches of Surrealism, and focusing on the book as a piece of satire of the Victorian era, Miller was much more involved with high culture than he was promoting the burgeoning counterculture which would soon seize many of these elements as its own. Still, the mid to late 1960s were a time when surreal cinema briefly became trendy, as consciousnesses expanded across the globe. What success this stately but weird production might have had at the time was partly due to the growing weird zeitgeist. Despite the absence of clearly objectionable content, it’s hard to imagine an Alice this subtly distressing making it to TV screens in the straitlaced 1950s. Now, of course, Miller’s Alice has outgrown her psychedelic trappings, and seems almost as quaint and timeless to us as Carroll’s Victorian Alice did to the Mods of 1966. Alice has proven infinitely adaptable: she can represent the wonderment of an innocent child or the melancholy of a girl doomed to grow up. Wonderland can be a carnival, or a nightmare. You can never go down the same rabbit hole twice.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Miller’s excellent rendering of Alice’s long, strange trip into the world of adults, made even stranger by Ravi Shankar’s trance-inducing sitar soundtracking, takes that psychosis — what Miller called that Kafkaesque ‘illogicality of dreaming’ — and magnifies its estranged human component, laying the groundwork (directly or indirectly, it’s up to you) for David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and onward.”–Scott Thill, Bright Lights Film Journal (DVD)

“…emphasizes the dread and dislocation of Carroll’s tale, a corrective to the Disney version that is more sophisticated, if no less one-sided, in its approach.”–Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper (DVD)

“Miller does succeed in capturing the dreamlike quality of Carroll’s work … but at the pace he sets you may well find yourself drifting off into a dreamworld of your own.”–Amber Wilkinson, Eye For Film (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Alice in Wonderland (TV, 1966)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

BFI Screenonline: Alice in Wonderland (1966) – The British Film Institute’s Alice in Wonderland page includes the usual cast and crew information along with a short essay by Michael Brooke (registered users may also watch five video clips)

DVD Review: Alice in Wonderland – Review of the film by Markus Lång for “The Lewis Carrol Review,” Issue 31 or 32, Jan. 2006.

DVD INFO: BBC Worldwide released a deluxe Region 1 Alice disc in 2010 (buy); it’s already out of print, but it’s widely available and worth tracking down. The scintillating black and white cinematography (by Dick Bush, who later worked with ) is perfectly preserved in a print that looks like it was struck yesterday. Director Jonathan Miller provides an erudite (some might say pompous) commentary. The bonus features are most impressive: a gallery of behind-the-scenes photos, footage of Ravi Shankar composing the soundtrack, and two complete bonus movies. The first is the surviving eight minutes of the 12 minute silent version of Alice from 1903, the earliest version of the story ever filmed. As expected, the print is in awful condition (the BBC has since restored it), but the commentary by film historian Simon Brown is a treasure for those interested in early film. The second bonus feature is Dennis (“The Singing Detective”) Potter’s seventy-minute BBC “Wednesday Play” Alice, which explores the eyebrow-raising relationship between stuttering, neurotic Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired the literary Alice. Not much happens in Potter’s melancholy play, but it’s full of delightful allusions to Alice, and George Baker is wonderfully charming and creepy as Dodgson, a decent, bookish man tormented by (it’s hinted) pedophiliac impulses. Potter’s Alice is such a substantial extra that the disc is essentially a double-feature.

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