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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

Alice in Wonderland: Adventures into the Uncanny - part 1

Updated: May 5, 2023

I have long been interested in film versions of Alice in Wonderland, well with the surname Cheshire how could I not be!

Over the years I have accumulated over 130 film and TV versions which draw on Alice in Wonderland and other Lewis Carroll works, and I am currently watching and tweeting about these with the hashtag #CheshireonAlice. The first 50 tweets have been collated in a blog.

Given this collection, when I was doing my MA Gothic: culture, counterculture, subculture and had to come up with an idea for a presentation, I chose to look at film versions of Alice in Wonderland.

Hope you enjoy it!

Note: As I looked at three versions, I am going to split the presentation up into separate blog posts, here is the introduction and Uncanny sections, individual films to follow. No other changes have been made.

Alice in Wonderland: Adventures into the Uncanny

An examination of three film versions of Alice in Wonderland with particular emphasis on the Gothic and the Uncanny


Novels and films are different mediums and it is unfair to compare the two. The novel will always be a richer experience. Readers invest far more time and imagination to a text, and can feel cheated if an adaptor cuts a favourite scene or a seemingly inappropriate actor is cast in a key role.

Therefore for many people watching a literary adaptation becomes an exercise of comparing the two, using this as a basis of deciding whether the film is a success or not. But is this the best way to judge a film adaptation? Should we not be addressing what makes a film a film? What extra dimensions have been added? How have the filmmakers taken the written word and interpreted it for their audience?

There will always be something lost, but what can be gained offers so many exciting opportunities.

By looking at three film versions of Alice in Wonderland (Disney’s 1951 animation, Svankmajer’s 1988 blend of live action and puppetry and Burton’s 2010 3D digital extravaganza), I will look at how these three filmmakers, with strong personal visions, have brought Carroll’s novel to film with a particular emphasis on the Gothic and Uncanny elements of novel and their adaptations.

Like a number of canonical Gothic novels, Alice in Wonderland (1865) is told from the heroine’s point of view as she ventures into a world outside her own and overcomes terrible obstacles that aid her in becoming the woman she ought to be. Alice also shares the dream-like quality of many gothic fictions. If you've ever had a dream, you'll know that they are fragmentary experiences – they have their own logic, one that defies space, time, scale – they have plot arcs that don't resolve, they trail off – or are repeated in different ways. That’s what Carroll’s Alice is like. The reader, like Alice, is constantly trying to tame this wild space.

Carroll’s love of strange happenings, absurd dialogue, word-play and puzzles is at its most effective in the Mad Hatter's famous tea party which has moments of pure physical comedy, great pathos and unalloyed fear.

We witness this scene as Alice passes through it, and yet if you take a step back and take the time to consider the reality of the lives of the Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse as lost in time and forced to attend an endless tea party you can see that this scene is a rich resource for filmmakers to draw on the iconography and narrative tropes of the Gothic.

The Uncanny

Through studying essays on ‘The Uncanny’ it became clear that Alice in Wonderland could be studied both through an analysis of the text from an auteur perspective, but also through an understanding of what frightens us as articulated in essays on The Uncanny by Ernst Jentsch in 1903 and Sigmund Freud in 1919.

Jentsch’s is now best remembered for influencing Freud’s essay therefore I will focus on this more famous 1919 essay.

Freud drew on the paradox of something being both frighteningly alien and at the same time strangely familiar. In his essay, Freud defines the uncanny experience as: “that class of the frightening which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” He identified three areas of the uncanny in Hoffman’s short story The Sandman, and used these to further explore how our mind engages with and/or processes them via the id, ego and superego.

The three areas he identified were:

  1. The double (doppelganger) which can manifest in the form of twins, automata, mirrors or ghosts.

  2. Castration anxiety which can align with narratives featuring being buried alive, having one’s eyes plucked out or having limbs severed.

  3. A physical place that is both Familiar/Unfamiliar

This idea of both the familiar and unfamiliar can be seen time and again in as Alice constantly tries to make sense of her experiences in Wonderland and relate them back to her life above ground.

The use of the double can be seen in its most literal form in Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but there is also a continual pairing of character such as the King and Queen of Hearts, the frog doorman, the walrus and the carpenter. The Cheshire Cat can be seen as an example of castration anxiety, but more significantly the Queen of Hearts determination that anyone who displeases her will have their head cut off. Alice witnesses the fear of those around the Queen, but she stands up for herself and ultimately defeats the Queen in the final courtroom scene. This final scene of completes the circle and unifying theme of the book – the empowerment of a child – for it is only as Stowell writes in her essay ‘We're All Mad Here’” when Alice realises that “who she is and how she sees herself are no longer subject to the erratic and uncontrollable unknown” can she deal with her strange experiences. [Stowell, 1983: 7]

Jacqueline Labbe in her chapter ‘Illustrating Alice: Gender, Image, Artifice’ also comments on the danger and fear within the book, saying “Wonderland is dangerous for Alice; she is not in control; she has entered a world where being herself does not get her anywhere. This is the reason why nothing makes sense.” [Labbe, 2003 :24]

Whilst Peter Hunt in ‘The Same by Different: Conservatism and Revolution in Children’s Fiction’ makes central notions of the uncanny within the text: “Alice in Wonderland, equally, did two startling things: it changed the idea of what children were allowed to think and, as corollary, it changed the tone of voice for children’s books... Alice is far from light-hearted: death, for example, is no longer something controlled by doctrine, it is uncertain, difficult, challenging; adults are no longer reliable, they live in a frustrating, solipsistic, nonsensical and aggressive world. The book places itself squarely on the side of an intelligent reader... The result is a book that places a rational and rebellious child at the centre, exposing an adult world that is mad, arbitrary, evasive and threatening.” (Hunt, 2009:75)

A theory that grew out of Jentsch’s and Freud’s work on the Uncanny is the Uncanny Valley. This concept began to be articulated in Japan in the 1970s by robotics professor Masahiro Mori and has become a way of discussing the phenomenon whereby computer-generated-imaginary or a realistic robot arouses an unexplained sense of unease or disgust. It has been argued that audiences can accept animation that is up to 95% human, but if the animation is 96% it becomes 4% unhuman and it has reached the Uncanny Wall.

The three films use three different forms of animation, each bringing with them a sense of the originator’s aesthetic values and intentions; and are different points of the Uncanny/Uncanny Valley scale.

The visual style of Disney’s Alice and the other traditional colourful hand-drawn animation animation films of this period is one of a hyperrealist cartoon. The characters present realistic expressions and emotions (familiar) but at the same time they are far from human in appearance (unfamiliar). Svankmajer’s home-made stop-frame puppetry and live-action approach makes no attempts to present the characters (other than Alice, who is played by child actor) as anything other than uncanny. He fully and knowingly employs both objects and performative styles that are featured in the Freud’s essay on The Uncanny. He takes the familiar (the home) and makes it unfamiliar, fearful and unknowable. When it was announced that Tim Burton with his regular acting partners of Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter were making a film version of Alice, there were cries of “made for each other”. As most, if not all, of his films revel in gothic imagery it in unsurprising that he continues this aesthetic here. In addition to narrative threads, costumes and settings he employs the latest in CGI technology to manipulate the proportions of many of the character, giving them exaggerated-forms that cross the familiar/unfamiliar barrier.

Part 2 is on Disney's Alice in Wonderland (1951)

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