Wonderland

April 12, 2018
The Mad Hatter's Tea Party. The John Tenniel illustration of 1865

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the very definition of a classic. On first publication in 1865 it did for children’s books what Don Quixote had done for romances of chivalry: making a mockery of their pompous, moralising tone; using wilful nonsense to expose the unwitting variety.

The author, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-98) was an Oxford don with a stammer; a 30-year-old professor of mathematics who felt more comfortable with children than with adults. The stories came together almost spontaneously, in installments told to the Liddell children on outings. Alice, aged seven, encouraged the story-teller to write them down, and he did, publishing under the pseudonym, Lewis Carroll. We can believe Dodgson’s claim that the greatest pleasure he took from the success of the books was the delight they brought to his youthful audience.

Lines and phrases from Alice’s Adventures’ and the sequel, Through the Looking Glass (1872), have become proverbial. Invented words such as “chortle” – something between a laugh and a snort – have made their way into the Dictionary.

The book has been rediscovered and reinvented by each successive generation, providing inspiration for writers, artists and fimmakers.

In Wonderland, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image has concentrated on film adaptations, starting with a 1903 version by pioneering English director, Cecil Hepworth. All that remains is an 8-minute fragment but even in this primitive bit of cinema one can see how Hepworth explored the capabilities of the medium, being able to make Alice shrink or grow in a way no stage play could match.

There are notable versions by Edwin S. Porter in 1910 and W.W. Young in 1915, both given some prominence in this show. Alice received the Hollywood treatment in 1933, in a film directed by Norman Z. McLeod, best known for his work with the Marx Brothers. The script was co-written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

Mad Hatter's Tea Party, Disney-style, (1951)

Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, Disney-style, (1951)

The most familiar Alice appears in Disney’s 1951 animation, with drawings by Mary Blair. The film was not a massive hit but it has defined Alice’s image ever since. Most movies that have followed have found it difficult to break away from the idea of the heroine as a blonde girl with a blue dress and a pinafore.

Jonathan Miller's take on the Mad Hatter's Tea Party (1966)

Jonathan Miller’s take on the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (1966)

The two most radical reinterpretations are probably Jonathan Miller’s BBC telemovie of 1966, which dispensed with the animal costumes and disguises; and Jan Svankmajer’s surreal puppet show of 1988. Where Miller’s Alice is a teenage girl adrift in a world of boring, uptight adults, Svankmajer submerges the tale into dark parts of the psyche where Lewis Carroll never ventured.

Jan Svankmajer's reinvention of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party (1988)

Jan Svankmajer’s reinvention of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (1988)

The ACMI selection concludes with Tim Burton’s Alice’ of 2010, which takes severe liberties with the story, making Alice into a Lara Croft-style action hero. In theory this should be a triumph of female empowerment but it’s no more than a triumph of CGI over substance. Where Miller and Svankmajer teased new dimensions out of the tale, Burton simply trashed it.

ACMI has shown tremendous ingenuity with the design of this show. The Carroll memorabilia is displayed in a series of small rooms, echoing Alice’s first entry into Wonderland. There’s a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party that invites visitors to sit around a table for an audio-visual feast, and an interactive room that allows us to scan our faces onto animated playing cards. A montage of images in the final gallery hints at a creative legacy too vast to be incorporated into one exhibition, with flashes of Jefferson Airplane, Japanese anime and cos play, cartoons and film clips.

ACMI's version of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party

ACMI’s version of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

The catalogue looks at a much broader range of Alice films, from an X-rated musical to an arthouse production by Claude Chabrol, to two anti-drug movies of the 1960s.

No-one can read Carroll’s books without being struck by Alice’s stubborn, assertive character. She refuses to be lectured and ordered about by the creatures she meets in Wonderland. She is brave and impulsive, full of childish desires tempered by a streak of common sense that chafes at the nonsense she encounters. She is ingenuous, but not passive. To make Alice into a sword-wielding warrior, as Burton does, is to destroy the viewer’s ability to identify with her, rendering her just another figure of fantasy.

Carroll’s background in mathematics and logic is evident everywhere in the Alice books. Conversations are full of word games, with characters criticising each other for imprecise statements. Through the Looking Glass is played out on a landscape that is also a chess board, suggesting a set of unseen rules.

The artful nonsense of the stories alerts us to the nonsense of everyday life that goes largely unnoticed. When the Dodo says a “caucus race” is the driest thing he knows, it conjures up visions of politicians running around in circles trying to get a decisive vote on some pet issue. Closer to home the NSW government has just announced it will release the business plan for moving the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta three months after the decision has been made, even though an official Inquiry is currently underway. One thinks of the trial of the Jack of Hearts, where the Queen pronounces: “Sentence first – verdict afterwards.”

It’s worth noting Alice’s reply: “Stuff and nonsense!”

She is equally unmoved when the Queen yells: “Off with her head!” – aiming to silence dissent rather than engage with her critics. It’s a lesson for us not to be bullied by those in authority when they are patently out-of-line.

What sets Carroll apart from most Victorian children’s authors is that he expects us to use our minds, not simply absorb a set of moral imperatives. If Carroll’s nonsense is less pure than that of Edward Lear it’s because he is a teacher who knows that a lesson learned with pleasure will remain long after crammed information has been forgotten. Lear amused his readers but Carroll in his Alice stories is teaching us a set of techniques for thought.

The real (and mysterious) Lewis Carroll

The real (and mysterious) Lewis Carroll

Oddly, the wit and fantasy of Lewis Carroll was not echoed by Professor Charles Dodgson, whose lectures were fantastically boring. This is part of the mystery of a strange, introverted genius whose life, thoughts and sexuality have become a source of perpetual speculation. One of the most convincing accounts is Katie Riophe’s exceptional novel, Still She Haunts Me (2001), but I’m not convinced that any of the film adaptations have ever captured any sense of the author.

We see Alice as part of a brilliant pantomime but always feel there is more than meets the eye. As with any classic we come back again and again, each time finding something new. After all, it would be difficult to live in the world today without a taste for fabulous nonsense.

Wonderland
Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne
Until 5 April – 7 October, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 14 April, 2018