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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

Alice in Wonderland: Adventures into the Uncanny - part 3

Updated: May 5, 2023

This is the third of four posts on film versions of Alice in Wonderland with a particular emphasis on the Gothic and the Uncanny, which I originally wrote as a presentation for my Gothic MA.

You can read part one, the introduction here.

You can read part two here on Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland (1951) here.

Also follow me on twitter @cheshellen for regular posts about Alice in Wonderland with the hashtag #CheshireonAlice.

Jan Svankmajer

In the opening credits for Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 Alice it says that this is “A Film for Children. Perhaps.” This ‘perhaps’ is central. This Alice is disturbing and troubling - drawing on all the uneasy elements of the book.

It was the first full-length feature film for the Czech animator who since making his first short film in 1964 had gained a reputation for his innovative live-action stop-frame animated surrealist fantasies. His films are often made from a child’s perspective or are filled with nightmarish visions of childhood. But they are not for children.

His interest in the Gothic is evident through his body of work and it tone. He is the only director to have made a film version of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), the novel which is claimed to have launched the gothic genre.

Svankmajer’s 1977 short film of the Walpole classic is framed as a pseudo-documentary, a framing device recalls the meta-fiction of Walpole’s original. Within the ‘documentary’ you are introduced to a mix of the live action with an abridged adaptation of the story itself presented in cut-out animation in the style of Gothic art.

Prior to Alice Svankmajer had had previous flirtations at adapting Carroll to screen. In his fourteen minute 1971 film Jabberwocky (right), he takes Carroll’s poem and creates a free-form animation in which a wardrobe moves through a forest, within it a playroom filled with childhood toys which transform into macabre images. Down to the Cellar (1983) features a young blonde-haired girl who ventures ‘underground’ to her family’s cellar, and discovers all her hidden fears manifested in animated form. This certainly echoes Alice’s frightening experiences of losing control and the fear of the unknown.

Svankmajer described Carroll’s novel as "one of the most important and amazing books produced by this civilisation.” [Stafford and Sélavy, 2011] Disappointed by previous versions which tended to focus on the Carroll’s lightness, Svankmajer was keen to portray the book’s dark-side.

Alice features the horror of the domestic and shows how everyday objects (like Carroll’s playing cards, stuffed toys and chess pieces) can take on an eerie quality as Alice ventures through her house and the land around it. The house is dilapidated, with rotten floorboards, creaking floorboards and dust everywhere.

Svankmajer stripped out the word-play, the poetry, the philosophical discourses and the humour. All the dialogue is spoken by Alice alongside the puppet’s mouthing, returning to Alice for “Said the mad hatter” etc in extreme close-up. Although transformations in size are represented by Alice changing from human to doll imply a lack of control, the intermittent close-ups of Alice’s lips speaking short lines of narrative suggest that she ultimately has the control.

The set-up is familiar; a bored Alice falls asleep in her playroom. But what happens next demonstrates the juxtaposition of the fantasy with the reality. The white rabbit breaks free from a taxidermist’s glass case leaving a trail of sawdust behind him. Alice chases the white rabbit across a field, and climbs through a desk drawer and back into the house.

Svankmajer’s powerful vision and authorial presence somewhat usurps Carroll’s, but enough of the characters and plot remains, but he focuses on the darkness in the tale. For instance in the Hatter’s Tea Party you are confronted with the repercussions of the tediousness of a never-ending tea party, as Svankmajer clearly repeats the same shots time and again; the fixing of the watch, the Mad Hatter’s footsteps as he moves down the table.

Svankmajer's ‘wonderland’ is not fun or raucous, this ‘wonderland’ is bleak, desolate with everything dirty, broken, worn out and neglected. For instance, the stuffed toy March Hare continually has to reposition his bead eyes and has no legs, the squeaking of his wheels resonating in the eerie quiet of a film that has no music score.

If Carroll’s novel is a dream then Svankmajer's is a nightmare. He doesn’t attempt to rationalise the craziness, there may be notable omissions, but it's the little details which maintain true to the spirit of the book. Stop-motion animation has always looked creepy, but combined with the sinister thread-bare puppets, dead animals, lumps of meat and animal skulls that he brings to life perfectly captures the weirdness and inventiveness of the original and make Alice a visceral and disturbing experience.

Part 4 is on Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010) plus conclusion and bibliography

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