“Alice in Wonderland”: All the Versions

louisa_4_children_w_lewis_carroll_1862[1] Cheery author and happy, happy children

January 27 is the birthday of Charles Dodgson (1832-1898) better known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Through the Looking Glass (1871), “Jabberwocky” (1871) and “The Hunting of the Snark (1876).

The extent to which Carroll’s nonsensical writing was important to me as a child will come as no surprise to anyone who knows my songs, sketches, verse or short humor pieces, but I didn’t really realize the extent that was true until I was introducing the “Alice” books (with their vivid Tenniel illustrations) to my young children. I realized that, while The Wizard of Oz had been my favorite book as a kid, something I had read innumerable times….Carroll’s works (not just Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass but poems like “Jabberwocky” and “The Hunting of the Snark”), were IN MY BONES. In other words, it wasn’t only the frequent reading, but the fact that they are simply in the culture, you bump into it every day, it permeates the atmosphere. Besides the countless film versions, there are references in pop songs (especially psychedelic ones by the likes of The Beatles and The Jefferson Airplane), and rock videos (Tom Petty, “Don’t Come Around Here No More”), as well as literature, comics etc, even the Marx Brothers. Not surprisingly for writing so dream-like, Carroll’s books have seeped into our subconscious. In fact, most of the very few poems I can recite from memory are Carroll’s — I think that’s probably true of most people.

The other realization I had was that the Alice books are kind of like the epic poem one would make out of the myths drawn from English nursery rhymes. Not just characters like the Queen of Hearts, but the TONE of them, it is like the full, ultimate literary flowering of nursery rhyme culture. Nursery rhymes, in addition to being funny and nonsensical, are generally cruel and perverse, full of beheadings and bludgeonings, and kidnappings. “Jack” of “Jack and Jill” breaks his skull; Humpty Dumpty cracks to pieces; the baby in the treetop falls out of the tree; the three blind mice have their tails cut off, etc, etc, etc. All this, while couched in an outer production (“bedtime”) designed to make us feel safe and sound and loved. In short, ironically, it is just like life. This twisted, tortured, upside down nightmare is REALISM of a kind.

A story this popular has naturally been adapted for stage and screen countless times; my attention-getting headline notwithstanding this post will only treat of some key English-language ones.


As early as 1877, Carroll had corresponded with Sir Arthur Sullivan about scoring a musical version for the stage. Such a collaboration would have been amazing. Carroll’s writing had a lot in common with Gilbert’s (Gilbert’s earliest pre-Sullivan writing in particular is in a similar vein to Carroll’s). But Sullivan wanted too much money. The first official theatrical adaptation came to the West End in 1886, with music by Walter Slaughter, book by Henry Savile Clarke, and lyrics by Aubrey Hopwood. It was frequently revived (especially at Christmastime) over a period of 40 years.


Silent versions (1903, 1910, 1915)

I’m not completely satisfied with any screen version of the story, but the three silent ones please me the most. The first (1903) was made in Edwardian England, two years after the death of Victoria — it’s not likely that the film makers would get the culture wrong! This version (by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow), as well as the 1910 Edison version by Edwin S. Porter, and the 1915 six reel version, all have something close to the art direction experience I’m looking for, although in cruder realization than would be ideal. All have charming, simple special effects of the sort we associate with Méliès. The 1903 and 1910 versions are both about 10 minutes long, about average for the time. At six reels, the 1915 version plays at between 40 and 50 minutes long depending on what copy you’re watching and the projector speed. This version is my favorite. Alone perhaps of any version it gives us a proper flavor of English countryside at the outset. With its greatest length, it is able to tell more of the book (including, perhaps excessively, “You Are Old, Father William”) whereas then ten minute versions are at best truncated “greatest hits”. And of the three, the 1915 version has the best make-up and costumes. Really, I don’t know why anyone would ever decide to make a movie of this story and NOT research and emulate these early versions. You might just as well stay home. Anyway, you can see these silent versions from your home, online, and I encourage you to do so.


Carroll Centennial Versions (1931, 1932, 1933)

There was a surprising kind of gold rush mentality around the centennial of Lewis Carroll’s birth. Several parties rushed to observe it. The first to plant their flag was a low-budget outfit from Fort Lee, NJ called Metropolitan Pictures, Their 1931 version starred Ruth Gilbert (later of The Milton Berle Show) and ran about an hour.

The following year the great stage star and manager Eva La Gallienne mounted her own legendary Broadway version with a cast that included herself, Burgess Meredith and Howard Da Silva. She revived it in 1947 with such folks as Eli Wallach, William Windom, Henry Jones, and Julie Harris (who — unthinkably didn’t play Alice, but the White Rabbit).

The classic 1933 Paramount version retains the unsettling, uncanny quality of the book, gazing backwards at German expressionism and forwards towards The Wizard of Oz. That’s one reason to love it; it’s just plain weird and grotesque. But secondly, there is the all-star cast, with parts apparently assigned randomly by lot. The surreal sight and sound of W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty is what stands out in my memory. Some of the casting is downright inspired: Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen; Alison Skipworth as the Duchess. Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter and Charlie Ruggles as the March Hare. Ned Sparks as the Caterpillar. Some of it is, “meh, okay”, like Louise Fazenda as the White Queen, May Robson as the Queen of Hearts, Skeets Gallagher as the White Rabbit and Ford Sterling as the White King. Gary Cooper is both wrong and wasted as the White Knight. In fact many great talents (stars, former stars, future stars) are wasted in small, unrecognizable parts: Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, Roscoe Ates as a Fish, Sterling Holloway as a Frog, Mae Marsh as a Sheep, Polly Moran as the Dodo Bird, Billy Bevan as the Two of Spades, Jack Duffy as a Leg of Mutton, and George Ovey as Plum Pudding. Plenty of these tiny parts could have been played by anyone, really. Jack Oakie and Roscoe Karns (see above) are downright disturbing as Tweedledum and Tweedledee (I suspect they are the models for two similar creatures in Dan Aykroyd’s Nothing But Trouble). And Billy Barty plays the sneezing Baby! Alice herself was played by Charlotte Henry, perhaps the only person in the cast who seems like she wasn’t assigned her part by a deaf and blind person. The film was a flop upon its release, which explains why it is such a sui generis. It was an experiment; it failed, and so this type of thing was not repeated. Today it is a curio, but one to which I love to periodically return.

In the sound era, many or most of the worst versions make the mistake of imitating this one to a fault, casting the entire production (even the small parts) with stars, transforming the experience into a game of “spot the celebrity”. Also, many of the characters in the book are little better than supernumeraries in Alice’s story. In a tale that ought to go from crisis to crisis with a good deal of momentum, it doesn’t do to have our focus constantly arrested by the fact that minor characters are being played by recognizable actors. “Hey, isn’t that –?” couldn’t be more beside the point.

I would also add that most American versions of the sound era badly miss the right cultural tone for the thing. There couldn’t be a more English, or Victorian, or English-Victorian, cultural product than Alice in Wonderland. The very atoms that compose it are English in nature. English manners are lampooned, sometimes honored (mostly by Alice), sometimes violated (by everyone else). The turns of phrase are English. The humor is English. English nursery rhymes are referenced. John Tenniel’s illustrations depict an English world.  It is a world with an English class structure: Kings, Queens, Duchesses, Footmen, Maids. The English Garden is a THING. An English country house is a THING. Tea and cakes are a THING. So, to me, if you attempt to Americanize it or even modernize it, if you attempt to bring it closer to US, you are sorely fucking it up. I don’t know what it is anymore at that stage. It’s like Bob and Ray’s “Hershey Bar with Almonds — Hold the Almonds”. You are transplanting something that is not translatable in that fashion. It belongs in its own idiom. It you want to tell something else, tell something else.


Disney Version (1951)

Walt Disney’s love affair with Alice was of long-standing. In fact it went back to at least 1923, when he released his Alice Comedies, a series of live-action/animated shorts inspired by Alice in Wonderland, but also other influences such as Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland and Gertie the Dinosaur. He had wanted to bring a proper version of the Carroll book to the big screen as early as the 1930s, and finally got there in 1951.  I think of it as the best known and loved version (it’s probably my favorite talkie version) but it falls short by filing off the edges. The book Alice in Wonderland is as much a nightmare as it is a dream, full of fear, anger and violence, much of it perpetrated by adults on a child…just like real life. The cartoon feels unavoidably sweeter and softer, and leans toward the comic aspects as opposed to those that might give the kiddies night sweats. Further, because both Wonderland and Alice are animated, one is just as real as the other. Alice never enters a dream; she is already in one. Kathryn Beaumont (who was Wendy in Peter Pan two years later) voiced Alice, supported by Ed Wynn, Jerry Colonna, Richard Haydn, Sterling Holloway, J. Pat O’Malley, Bill Thompson, Queenie Leonard, Dink Trout, Pinto Colvig, Thurl Ravenscroft, et al.


Hallmark Hall of Fame (1955)

Eva La Gallienne returns in her traditional role as The White Queen in this tv version, with Reginald Gardiner, Elsa Lanchester, Bobby Clark, J. Pat O’Malley, Alice Pearce (the original Mrs Kravitz from Bewitched), Burr Tillstrom (Kuka, Fran and Ollie), Martyn Green, et al


The New Alice in Wonderland (or What’s a Nice Kid like You Doing in a Place like This?) (1966)

Hanna-Barbera produced this one-hour animated television special written by Bill Dana, who provides this voice of the White Knight as Jose Jiminez, producing a sort of Don Quixote-like effect. It’s modernized: Alice (Janet Waldo) is doing a book report when she accidentally falls into the TV. There are playful twists on several story elements. Alan Reed and Mel Blanc are there as Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble as a vaudeville team playing the front and back ends of the Caterpillar. Harvey Korman (at the time, also a Flintstones regular) is the Mad Hatter, with the actual Hedda Hopper playing his wife Hedda Hatter. Alan Melvin plays Humphrey Dumpty, a version of Humpty Dumpty who talks like Humphrey Bogart. With Daws Butler, Sammy Davis Jr, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Howard Morris, and songs by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams of Bye Bye Birdie. 


Jonathan Miller version (1966)

Perhaps inspired by the book’s centennial, Jonathan Miller of the British TV show Beyond the Fringe (a suitable madcap credential), wrote, produced and directed this all star television version with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Peter Sellers, Leo McKern, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Wilfred Brambell (Steptoe and Son), et al.


Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1972)

Williang Sterling directed this serviceable live-action children’s musical with another all-star cast of Brits including Michael Crawford, Roy Kinnear, Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore, Ralph Richardson, Flora Robson, et al. Fiona Fullerton (later a Bond girl in A View to a Kill) was picked out of 2,000 girls who auditioned to play Alice. Music is by John Barry. It’s currently on Youtube if you’d like to check it out. I’m pretty sure I saw this one at the cinema when it came out.


Return to the Stage (1980-82)

In 1980, Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre produced Elizabeth Swados’s Alice in Concert, starrting Meryl Streep, Mark Linn-Baker, Amanda Plummer, and others. Was Eva La Gallienne jealous? In 1982, she revived her Broadway version yet again (she was in her 80s), with herself again as the White Queen, Kate Burton as Alice, Mary Stuart Masterson, Mary Louise Wilson, and the one and only Steve Massa (yes, the very same silent comedy expert whose many books, dvds and programs we have reviewed here on Travalanche many a time). This production was subsequently filmed for PBS’s Great Performances in 1983.


Irwin Allen Version (1985)

Yes, that’s right: Irwin Allen’s Alice in Wonderland. Oh, and it IS a disaster. Easily the producer’s most star studded production since The Story of Mankind, but to what end? It’s dizzying in its tastelessness and the number of actors wasted (as is the case with many of these versions). It’s like a vanity production, populated with his friends. It has almost the entire cast of The Poseidon Adventure: Red Buttons, Shelley Winters, Roddy McDowell, Ernest Borgnine, and Ernie Orsatti (okay that’s not all, but it’s a lot) plus three from Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (Karl Malden, Jack Warden and Telly Savalas, dragging his brother George with him). Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme are Tweeldedum and Tweedledee. Lloyd Bridges and Beau Bridges (Jeff clearly said “No fuckin’ way!). Then there’s Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca (but not togther), Sherman Helmsley, Donald O’ConnorSammy Davis Jr, Martha Raye, Anthony Newley, Arte Johnson, Jayne Meadows and Steve Allen (not together), Robert Morley, Ringo Starr,  Ann Jillian, Carol Channing, Harvey Korman, Sally Struthers, Merv Griffin, , Pat Morita, George Gobel, Louis Nye, Jonathan Winters, Scott Baio, Donna Mills, Patrick Duffy John Stamos, and more. Did your head explode yet? The casting director was obviously high on magic mushrooms.


Alice Through the Looking Glass (1998)

British TV film starring the adult Kate Beckinsale, with Dame Sian Phillips, Steve Coogan, Ian Holm, et al.


The Most Recent Version (1999)

That’s right! This Hallmark/NBC TV production from nearly a quarter century ago is actually the most recent (major) screen version, and some have called it the most faithful to the book. Tina Majorino plays Alice in a version that includes Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Short, Robbie Coltrane, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lloyd, Pete Postlewaite, Miranda Richardson, George Wendt, Peter Ustinov, Gene Wilder, et al (Wilder is particularly wasted here — he was born to play the Mad Hatter; here he is the Mock Turtle)


This Goddamn Thing (2010)

While I love Tim Burton, I can’t malign this one enough, on account of the false advertising of its title, and the fact that it drowns out all other versions of Alice in Wonderland when you Google it. It’s more like Alice in Wonderland fan art than the original story. I nearly walked out of the cinema when I first saw it. It’s undeniably well executed at the technical level, but they’ve imposed a coherent plot over the thing and just generally dragged it down to the lamentable literalness of the age. A typically lazy Johnny Depp plays the Mad Hatter with a randomly chosen Scottish accent. WTF is up with that poster? Is this movie Alice in Wonderland or Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, or what?  There’s also Helena Bonham-Carter (of course), Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Christopher Lee, Jim Carter, et al. There was apparently also a sequel in 2016.

Coming Up!

Stay tuned, y’all! The great Dick Zigun, founder of Coney Island USA is presenting his own version, Alice’s Americanized Adventures at Theater for the New City, opening November 30, 2023. I have read it and it is duly amazing!!!!

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