Some of these insert shots have an Argentoesque intensity

TV director William Sterling’s one feature film, ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (1972) assembles lots of great people and looks nice. It’s not my idea of wonderland, though.

As you can see, the copy I scraped up isn’t very good, so I may not be doing the film justice. It’s a lot better than most adaptations — fairly true to the text. It doesn’t become an incoherent mishmash of Wonderland and Looking Glass, as so many do. But being true to the story and characters isn’t the same as capturing the spirit. On the other hand, you can legitimately aim to capture a DIFFERENT spirit. I’m not sure if that’s what happens here.

I remember some piece that discussed the film, and spoke very critically of Michael Jayston’s visible panty line. He plays Charles Dodgson, and the film begins with a boat outing with the Liddell sisters, but does NOT have these characters reappear in Wonderland, disguised, as Lewis Carroll does: he, the stammering Do-do-dodgson, becomes the Dodo. But Jayston doesn’t stutter, he speaks beautifully. Seductively, in fact. He also neglects historical accuracy in his choice of Y-fronts, which show through his white trousers in a way sure to inspire disapproval in a Von Stroheim undie perfectionist.

Fiona Fullerton, a perky Alice, has been told to smile a lot, and does. Her perplexing adventures seem to amuse her greatly. This strikes me as wrong, but given what she’s been asked to do, she does it charmingly, though she’s too old. But if the film is about anything, which isn’t certain, it may be about coming of age — indeed, the soft-focus boat ride looks very much like what I imagine a David Hamilton adolescent smut film must be like (haven’t seen one).

Wonderland is all sets. Quite big ones, but things still get to seem a little airless. The transition occurs when the dream begins, rather than when Alice goes done the rabbit hole, which is a distortion, but an acceptable one. The budget allows for some very interesting visuals. A well decorated rabbithole, a Dali-meets-Geiger sky, an infinite corridor for the key business.

One blunder is carried over directly from the Paramount version: there’s a terrific cast, and most of them are rendered unrecognisable under Stuart Freeborn’s makeups. As usual, the humanoid characters come off best in such circumstances: this may be the only adaptation of the book where the most amusing character is the Duchess’s cook, played in a maelstrom of fury by Patsy Rowlands. Robert Helpmann is a perfect Mad Hatter (though I don’t understand why Kenneth Williams never did it). Peter Bull is a pretty unbeatable Duchess, Flora Robson slightly out of her element as the Queen of Hearts, Dennis Price very much IN his as the King (he does nothing but recite Lewis Carroll in the same year’s PULP). Tiny playing card parts are stuffed with familiar faces like Rodney Bewes, Dennis Waterman, Ray Brooks and Richard Warwick.

Smothered under prosthetics, Peter Sellers still does well as the March Hare, Dudley Moore copes as the Dormouse, Spike Milligan capers and goons as the Griffin, but it’s all schtick and no character. The only bit of Michael Hordern you can see in his Mock Turtle outfit is his lower face, but the rest of the makeup gives him some kind of jowl-lift, so even that part doesn’t look like it’s his. Michael Crawford’s stylish White Rabbit ears and whiskers allow him to do his thing relatively unimpeded (as with Sellers, it’s all in the eyes and voice) but Roy Kinnear has lost most of the Cheshire Cat’s lines AND business, and barely registers, an astonishing fate for such a great scene-stealer. Ralph Richardson has quite wisely refused to don a caterpillar’s head, and can be seen and enjoyed.

There are fewer laughs, I’d say, than in Jonathan Miller’s BBC version, which only had a few. Miller, however, had decided that this was a Victorian child’s dream, and his choices were mainly consistent with that. I’m just not sure what Sterling has decided on. A panto, perhaps. We have songs by John Barry with lyrics by Stanley Black, which edge out many of Carroll’s own superior words. Barry has gone fully into soupy strings mode, with a bit of the pizzicato guff he did in the early sixties. His main theme is almost identical to the one he foist onto ROBIN AND MARIAN.

Not as alienating as TALES OF BEATRIX POTTER, another children’s film from this period (it looks amazing but positively declines to deliver any tales, or any entertainment at all), it still feels like it would have baffled me as a kid. The Disney version made me feel stoned, as I recall, though I didn’t know what that was. I may have made some suggestions in the past for how the books should be treated, but if I did I’ve forgotten, so here goes —

Get good actors, and I don’t know that they have to be comedians. Give them some signifiers — the White Rabbit can have ears, for instance. Otherwise, dress them like the Tenniel illustrations and leave their faces on display and let them act. I hate hate hate the Tim Burton version but the idea of using CG to turn actors into live-action cartoons (giving Bonham-Carter a huge(r) head) was decent.

I would tend to favour locations over sets, even though Michael Stringer’s were very good here.

I think, controversially I know, that Alice should be a child. Get one who can act (which Miller inexplicably failed to do).

I think it should be a bit like Welles’ THE TRIAL, really, just slightly funnier, slightly less sinister. But A BIT sinister. (And the Welles is already pretty funny, funnier than this anyway).

When I read the book I was struck by how funny it was, which the films rarely seemed to be. I wonder if Richard Lester would have wanted to do this: it has eleven of his actors and numerous crew. And there’s the Goons connection. Carroll isn’t as rambunctious as The Goon Show, but he has his moments. It’s a funny thing: the book has almost never been filmed by a comedy specialist.

20 Responses to “Curioser”

  1. While Lewis Carroll seems eminently cinematic n the surface he’s really quite difficult to translate from thepage to the screen. I adore the Disney version — which Uncle Walt wasn’t all that crazy about in the end. It didn’t make as much money as “Show White and Seven Peter Dinklages” and he felt that was because Alice was British and therefore “colder” and less sympatico to U.S. viewers. The live action renditions you cite all have their moments but the oly film I feel that truly reflects the spirit of the “Alice” books is Richard Lester’s “The Bed-Sitting Room.”

  2. The 1966 Hanna-Barbera version has Sammy Davis Jr as a beatnik Cheshire Cat as well as celebrity cameos by Fred Flintstone, Barney Rubble, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. I have to admit Sammy’s tune is pretty cool, but in all other respects this is a total SITNOG*.

    (* Stench In The Nostrils of God)

  3. Spike Milligan is miscast as a Griffon but had the right sensibility — they should have had him as screenwriter. In Miller’s version, Peter Sellers gets to improvise a few lines and they match perfectly with the Carroll style, a unique case of that happening.

    I think Welles comes to mind also because the trial in Lady from Shanghai is very Carrollian…

  4. What really bugged Disney was the lack of a clear movie plot: Alice pursues the White Rabbit out of simple curiosity and has no goal, no peril, no ticking clock. She just moves from episode to episode, never changing or making a difference. The studio story men tried to impose a standard story, even a romantic lead, but nothing worked.

    Compare to Peter Pan, who has a violent adversary in Captain Hook and a philosophical one in Wendy, the latter threatening his eternal childhood with responsibility and everything else that goes with growing up. Disney departs from the play by suggesting it was all Wendy’s fairy tale, perhaps her last one (the opening sets up that Wendy is to be moved from the nursery into her own room, like a proper young lady). Kiddie fancies are to be outgrown, but cherished in memory (Mr. Darling’s closing moment). But still there are pirate schemes and the conflict over going home to drive the action.

    Interesting touch in the Disney’s take. Tinkerbell, Tiger Lily and the mermaids are comically hot for him, and Wendy certainly has a polite schoolgirl crush. But while Peter loves showing off for the ladies and basking in their admiration, he emphatically never reciprocates their interest — aside from one wild moment in the notorious Red Man number, when Tiger Lily dances seductively and kisses him, causing a Tex Avery reaction. The moment is instantly forgotten, a character-breaking gag that slipped by. Or you can read Peter’s seeming obliviousness to sex as a deliberate pose, being the price of eternal youth and freedom. Since the Disney version defines him as a creature of Wendy’s imagination, he remains an idealized vision of harmless boyhood — a Tom Sawyer before he succumbed to Becky Thatcher — rather than very young man who might be seriously rattled by complicated feelings.

    Anyway, the price of eternal childhood is addressed by Barrie: The original play ends with a slightly older Wendy visiting Peter. With maturity comes a loss of magical innocence, so she needs a broom to fly. She makes one last attempt to lure Peter into the real world, and face the adventure of growing up. He rejects her — coldly, as a child would. Curtain on Peter, now totally alone, playing his pan pipes and not really caring about anything.

    The Broadway musical with Mary Martin took yet another angle: Peter finally keeps his promise to return, but finds Wendy is now a grownup with a family of her own, and Peter is exactly what he was, mentally and emotionally as well as physically. There is no place for him in her life. For the first time, Peter weeps. He meets Wendy’s daughter and she flies off with him, suggesting this is going to be a cycle.

  5. I still dig Svankmajer’s Alice.

  6. The Svankmajer is great. His shorts are better than his features, but that’s maybe his best feature. It’s more Svankmajer than Carroll, but the mixture works. More than most adaptations, it feels like one artist *responding* to another.

    P Pan strikes me as quite an adaptable work, one that can bend a bit without breaking, though the most recent versions snap it in multiple places, needlessly.

    Alice works on the page, but it’s not obvious why, causing a lot of people adapting it to have a lot of trouble. If you don’t understand something, at least try to be faithful to it.

    The Tim Burton Alice, made by Disney the corporation rather than the company, goes all in and turns her into a proactive princess. It’s horrible. An almost 100% betrayal of the original, and visually a paint-by-numbers exercise for the increasingly stale TB.

  7. I agree about Sjankmajer.
    After reading Martin Gardner’s “The Annotated Alice”, I’m inclined to think a philosopher should film the books – Terence Mallick perhaps!

    Apropos of Pan, in the last act of the play Barrie remarks in a stage direction in the very last lines “The curtain rises to show PETER a very Napoleon on his ship. It must not rise again lest we see him on the poop in Hook’s hat and cigars snd with a small iron claw.”
    and Saki’s “The Unbearable Bassington” contains this critique: “With all reverence for the author of that masterpiece I should say he had a wonderful and tender insight into the child mind and knew nothing whatever about boys. To make only one criticism on that particular work, can you imagine a lot of British boys, or boys of any country that one knows of, who would stay contentedly playing children’s games in an underground cave when there were wolves and pirates and Red Indians to be had for the asking on the other side of the trap door?”

    The form-master laughed. “You evidently think that the ‘Boy who would not grow up’ must have been written by a ‘grown-up who could never have been a boy.’ Perhaps that is the meaning of the ‘Never-never Land.’ “”

  8. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    There’s a thesis! The best “adaptations” aren’t necessarily adaptations at all, but one case after another of the filmic artist responding to the artist of letters. I’ve taken your thought about Svank too far, perhaps?

  9. No, I think it might be valid. There are definitely variations: Resnais is faithful to the letter but sort of ignores the spirit, somehow. Welles tries to preserve the literary aspects of Ambersons but turns The Trial into a hallucinatory thrill-ride.

    Great thoughts, Roger! The playing house with Wendy is odd, certainly, but can probably be put down to Barrie having been an ATYPICAL boy. I don’t know what he was like at that age, but his grown-up attitudes suggest it.

  10. Some of the best adaptations are arguments with the original source. Philip K Dick’s androids are machines that look like humans; Scott’s replicants are trying to learn how to be human.

    I.m a bit surprised no-one has ever adapted “The Unbearable Bassington” as a kind of anti-Merchant-Ivory Edwardiana.

  11. Re Saki: In the original play there is that scene when Peter, Wendy, and the boys play at being a proper family. As the designated father Peter returns from a busy day. He carries a bag containing the head of a pirate, and mother Wendy is quietly impressed. He’s certainly not giving up the adventures outside the trap door, even as the Lost Boys embrace the novelty of being coddled by parents.

    Peter’s concept of a proper British pater would appear to be one who behaves respectably at home but cuts loose everywhere else.

  12. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    DC: Which Resnais adaptation were you referring to?

  13. Saki seems eminently adaptable, and his rich young men stories have been neglected (oddly). They’d probably be easier to get right than Wodehouse, who has defeated so many.

    Resnais’ Wild Grass was one example, I think, where he admitted the ending seems very different onscreen from in the book, but he copied it straight over. I think his approach to original screenplays was similar: film exactly what’s on the page, but ignore anything the writer tells you. Jules Feiffer was a bit perturbed by this.

  14. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    You mean “ignore the writer if they advise anything beyond what’s already on the page”? I’m curious. Was Feiffer saying: “Hey, you’re not capturing the spirit of…” Like that?

  15. Something like that. Feiffer I think just wanted to provide input.

  16. The important thing about Saki’s young men (and some young women too) is that they aren’t rich. They’re living on their wits and their luck. I think in film they’d look a lot tougher and more selfish than the Merchant-Ivory-Forster young men and reveal charm as a weapon which isn’t always effective and doesn’t last.

  17. The most startling and disturbing of those stories has to be The Unrest-Cure…

  18. there’s a lot of competition – Tobermory, Gabriel-Ernest, Morlvera, The Open Window…
    A Touch of Realism is another where there’s antisemitism in the air. Neither story depicts Jewish characters in a hostile way; they both seem to accept that a Saki young man will include it in his malevolent wit.

  19. Mark Fuller Says:

    I did see it as a kid on first release. I was indeed baffled and actually bored if I remember correctly. Having Robert Helpmann in the cast would not have helped as I remembered him as The Childcatcher from 3 years previously. The same memory still infects my enjoyment of The Red Shoes etc……

  20. My favourite Helpmann story is from a friend of the actor whose kids were terrified by Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He tried to reassure them: “But it’s not real! That’s Bobby! You know Bobby, he’s not like that!”

    So he phone Helpmann. “Tell them you’re not like that.” He handed over the phone.

    “But I *aaaaaaam* like that,” pronounced Helpmann with great relish.

    The kids screamed, laughed, and were thereafter unafraid.

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