Wednesday, 2 June 2010
Thanks to Tim Burton’s now $1 billion grossing version of Alice in Wonderland, there has been a surge of interest in the first cinematic adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s literary classic. The one remaining print has been restored by the BFI and was made available to view online this March. Directed by two of the founders of British cinema, Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow, its original running time of twelve minutes made it the longest running British film to date.
Alice in Wonderland was clearly made for cinema goers who had already read the book, hence describing this version of Alice in Wonderland as a literary adaptation in the modern understanding of the term may be misleading (without prior knowledge of the books, deciphering the events of the film would be quite difficult). Given the film’s length, it would be better to describe it as a series of vignettes from the book. It is perhaps this aspect of the film’s organisation that gives it a peculiar and slightly disjointed feel.
Despite the BFI’s best efforts, the original reel of Alice in Wonderland was damaged to such an extent that the deterioration is quite clearly visible on the restored print. This however, only heightens the dreamlike atmosphere of the film. Combined with the fact that the film is not a ‘conventional narrative’, Alice in Wonderland can be seen as a forerunner for the works of surrealist filmmakers such as René Clair, Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau.
The opening scene where Alice follows the rabbit down the hole (see above) is simple yet powerful. As more and more people flocked to the cinema during its formative years, they too would have felt an affinity with Alice as they wandered down the rabbit hole of this new and vibrant art form.
Alice in Wonderland is an enjoyable, charming but lightweight example of early cinema. There is a question mark as to whether the film would have preserved its legacy if it had not been the first adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. However, the film does stand on its own merits. For example, the penultimate scene with the procession of cards is light-hearted and amusing (see below).
The influence of the Lumiere Brothers’ family ‘actualities’ (The Mad Hatter’s tea party) and Méliès visual trickery (when Alice is stuck in the hallway) are apparent on this film. It will be interesting to note how much of an effect their works had on directors in the noughties and teens of the 20th Century.
Alice in Wonderland has a unique cinematic history – it has been ‘remade’ in eight different decades and will serve as a useful barometer of film’ progress over the years. Therefore many of these adaptations will be added to the Film: Ab Initio list.