Alice in WonderlandLewis Carroll
Alice in Wonderland
Medium: short film
Year: 1903
Director: Cecil M. Hepworth, Percy Stow
Writer: Cecil M. Hepworth, Lewis Carroll
Keywords: Alice in Wonderland, fantasy, silent
Country: UK
Actor: May Clark, Cecil M. Hepworth, Geoffrey Faithfull, Stanley Faithfull, Mrs. Hepworth, Norman Whitten
Format: 8 minutes
On the same DVD as: Alice, Alice in Label Land
Website category: Fantasy
Review date: 30 December 2011
It's good. Not just "good for its time", but properly good. It works. It's entertaining. It gets through the entire book in eight minutes and yet feels like a decent representation of Lewis Carroll's original.
It's on the BFI DVD of Svankmajer's Alice, in case you were wondering where I found it, but it's apparently available from various sources. We're going back to the dawn of cinema, when narrative in cinema was a novelty and distributors might choose not to buy and show the entire film but instead individual scenes from it (e.g. the Mad Hatter's tea party). By those standards, this 1903 Alice in Wonderland was a mega-blockbuster. It was the longest film ever produced in Britain until then, at 800 feet of film and a twelve-minute running time, although not all of that has survived today and what we do have is often splotched with damage.
Both of its directors are important figures in the early days of British cinema, especially Hepworth. He directed more than a hundred films over three decades from 1896, not to mention also being an actor, writer, producer and cinematographer.
As an adaptation, it feels right. The nearest thing it has to a problem in that regard is that Alice isn't blonde and looks thirty (despite being fourteen according to imdb... hmmm). Everything else though looks spot on, which is important for something with such iconic characters and imagery. They shot it in the gardens of a country estate and they're adhering to the original John Tenniel illustrations. In particular the costumes are excellent. The Washerwoman is perfect, for instance, while the King and Queen of Hearts look like living playing cards.
The animals were clearly a challenge, though. The Cheshire Cat is a real and rather disinterested cat, which is a triumph of special effects but still funny in all the wrong ways. However the men in animal suits (e.g. the White Rabbit, the Frog Footman) look pretty good.
The story progresses in vignettes. There's no dialogue, so intertitles are only used for scene-setting. This is good. "Alice dreams that she sees the White Rabbit and follows him down the Rabbit-hole, into the Hall of Many Doors." Individual scenes often contain narrative, e.g. Alice eating and drinking as per hilariously large labels saying "Eat Me" or "Drink Me". Briefer scenes though feel no less significant because you can tell immediately what's going on by recognising which Tenniel illustrations they're reproducing in live-action. (This is easy even if you've never seen the original pictures, because they're the default visual incarnations of the characters and so long ago escaped into popular culture.) There's an odd bit towards the end where Alice just watches a royal procession walk past, with all the film's characters and an army of playing card children, but this is cool too because it's going to end with the King and Queen of Hearts calling for their executioner.
All this is perfect for the silent medium. It's entirely visual and never stops giving you cool stuff to look at, whether it's the action, the special effects or the authentic reproductions of Tenniel's characters. Those special effects are unbelievable for 1903, by the way. The rabbit hole works visually, Alice grows and shrinks on-screen and there's even a weird bit I don't remember in the original where she fades away like a ghost.
Technically, the only problems are probably due to damaged negatives. I don't mind the micro-cuts within individual scenes, since one accepts those as a product of films of this era, but occasionally a scene will be cut short before you've had time to process what's in front of you. The dog, for instance. They promise us a dog, then cut away before we've had a chance to look at it properly.
Incidentally one person on this film (Geoffrey Faithfull) would keep working in the movie industry as a cinematographer until 1971. He shot Down Among the Z Men for the Goons and Village of the Damned.
Overall, I liked this a lot. Seriously, I'd put it forward as one of the more successful Alice screen adapations you're likely to find, since Alice is a deceptively difficult property and likely to struggle at feature length. (It's better suited to the stage, I think.) This eight-minute version though blasts through like the wind and yet never feels rushed. It made me laugh. It looks great, being clearly a big-budget production by contemporary standards. It has a cool chase scene with playing cards. It works really well.
"Alice enters the White Rabbit's tiny House, but, having suddenly resumed her normal size, she is unable to get out until she remembers the magic fan."