There’s something delightful about a film that manages to create visuals you couldn’t have imagined. In a largely visual medium, one where, especially nowadays, the corner-most vestiges of anyone’s mind can be played across a screen, there is a certain tendency towards the monotonous. Most films can only ever manage to capture and create imagery that looks a lot like everyone else’s. As a film going culture we tend to award the films that defy these expectations with longevity occasionally undeserving of them. Tim Burton has made a career out of it. Films like The Dark Crystal (and presumably Labyrinth). Filmmakers with a unique set of visuals tend to garner some cult status, like Guillermo Del Toro, Ridley Scott, and the aforementioned Tim Burton. Some of these directors have success almost entirely predicated on their visual chops. There’s something magical about seeing someone conjure something you couldn’t have imagined.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (and Through the Looking Glass, I will lump them together like the rest of the world does), has always inhabited a unique place in my mind. It’s a book that’s often undervalued. Alice in Wonderland sort of needs to be contextualized and analyzed to be fully enjoyed. The events as they exist on the page are certainly fascinating, but the fact that, say, the events in Looking Glass all conform to a semi-functional chess game, or some of the encoded jokes scattered throughout, really heighten the experience. That, coupled with some of the stickiest imagery ever scribed, has given Alice in Wonderland an almost unwavering relevance. Alice in Wonderland doesn’t just have iconic imagery; all its imagery exists on a scale between instantly recognizable and as prevalent as the iconography of a successful religion. It’s a piece of art you have to have consumed in order to understand a swathe of other art.
It also has a sort of magical universality. The basic framework of Alice Wonderland, and even the key images, can be twisted in fairly minor ways and be completely transformed. It makes it delightfully adaptable. Basically it could be about anything. Which makes it all the weirder that I’m not sure there’s been a perfect adaptation (Although writing this makes me want to watch every Alice in Wonderland movie ever to be honest, would anyone read that?).
As you may have predicted this initial dichotomy of topics is about to resolve itself as I transition into talking about the 1988 Czechoslovakian adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s seminal novel Alice. Perhaps partly because its director and chief visionary, Jan Švankmajer, so admired Carroll’s book, describing it as “one of the most important and amazing books produced by this civilization.”
Alice is a mainly stop-motion driven horribly surreal reimagining of Adventures in Wonderland. There’s no Looking Glass to be found here. It’s almost entirely wordless, with the only dialogue happening as narration and being kept divided from the visuals. It’s otherwise a pretty strict retelling with only a handful of minor alterations. What makes the film unique is the brilliant imagery. Jan Švankmajer and Bedrich Glaser’s combined efforts lead to some of the most wild surreal stop-motion animation out there, and one of the weirdest Alice in Wonderland adaptations.
The film opens with a young girl narrating. She says:
Alice thought to herself… Alice thought to herself ‘Now you will see a film… made for children… perhaps… ‘ But, I nearly forgot… you must… close your eyes… otherwise… you won’t see anything.
The visuals are all based around objects found in the room Alice starts the film in. As far as depicting ambiguous dream states that’s not exactly the most original choice, or at least not at first glance. Quick interjection but do people do this? I’m not sure I’ve ever had a dream inspired by shit strewn across my floor. People I know sure, but not playing cards because they’re in the room. However the film makes this choice brilliant instead of rote and uncreative. Jan Švankmajer accomplishes this by putting Alice in a room full of really creepy shit when she falls asleep.
Her room is either a basement or bunker, and either owned by a serial killer or the creepiest uncle ever. It’s filled with trinkets and skulls and display cases with stuffed animals and skeletons. There are cards, obviously, but also socks and darning mushrooms. The film immediately establishes how weird it’s going to look when the white rabbit appears. There’s a glass display case in the room with a stuffed white rabbit in it. It starts to move and pries its feet out of the nails holding it to the case. It cuts its chest open in a spray of sawdust and procures a stopwatch. It dresses and chatters its exposed teeth. It looks more like a horror movie than the children’s movie its opening purports it to be.
The rabbit runs off into a desolate wasteland and Alice chases after him, as she is wont to do. Her chief repeated line of narrated dialogue is her cry for the rabbit “please, sir!” The rabbit crookedly moves across dry soil towards a small desk. He opens the drawer of the desk and disappears into it. This introduces the film’s chief unique recurring motif. Or chief recurring motif that doesn’t come from the source material. Perhaps for the ease of incorporating stop motion and live action many transitional areas from the book are swapped out for drawers. Drawers whose handles always snap off in Alice’s hand, forcing her to pry them open awkwardly. In this case she manages it and follows the stuffed white rabbit into the film’s uniquely macabre depiction of Wonderland.
Jan Švankmajer was committed to the dream interpretation of Carroll’s book as opposed to the fairy tale approach he saw as more prevalent: “While a fairy tale has got an educational aspect – it works with the moral of the lifted forefinger (good overcomes evil), dream, as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realization of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure. My Alice is a realized dream.” More than that though Švankmajer’s approach is inherently surrealistic. Surrealism is all about uncanny and unpredictable juxtapositions that also frequently communicate ideas more plainly than, say, Dada. It’s borderline symbolistic most of the time, but without the pretence at realism (yes I know symbolism was a counter to realism but there’s still an attempt to incorporate the symbols without the jarring contrast apparent in surrealism). Jan Švankmajer’s utterly unique imagery is every bit the jarring unexpectedness you’d expect from surrealistic stop-motion.
(This isn’t idle reaching on my part. Švankmajer claims to be a surrealist artist and married a surrealist painter. Also he has Edgar Allen Poe adaptations I’ll have to watch.)
It’s also filled with what could be recurring symbols. In a movie as devoid of dialogue as Alice it’s harder to parse out what the film is about. You have to interpret purely visual symbols, like a painting. So it’s not necessarily perfectly clear what recurring images are aesthetic choices favoured by the director and what are symbols unique to this work. Alice certainly seems to be a film rife with unsubtle memento mori. Many of the animals from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are presented as skeletons in the film. Snapping disembodied skulls or skulls affixed to stuffed animals. The animal cavalry in the scene that sees Alice enlarged and trapped in a small house is portrayed by small stuffed bird with a mammalian skull for a face driving a carriage pulled by a stuffed chicken with a similarly mammalian skull for a head. Inside the carriage there’s a fish skeleton with long spindly bird bones for legs. There’s even a preserved alligator with a skull head. The white rabbit spends a lot of the movie licking up the sawdust it keeps leaking from its new hole. Every time it tugs its stopwatch from its gaping torso it licks the dwindling sawdust of the watch to fill itself back up. It even administers extra sawdust from a first aid kit at one point. The fact that most of the animals without exposed bones are jerkingly moving stuffed animals continues the morbid reminders of mortality throughout the entirety of the film. The film’s version of the dormouse is actually a fox stole that unwinds itself from it’s place of slumber.
Of course some of the movie’s menagerie aren’t macabre animated dead animals. The Mad Hatter and March Hare are both figurines. Maybe children’s toys. The Hatter is an aged wooden marionette and the March Hare is a decrepit wind-up toy with disintegrating fur. Somehow this makes the iconic characters even more manic and disturbing. The image of a mad marionette and fidgety wind-up toy almost seems to imply some great Lovecraftian entity hiding at the edges of reality. Given that this is a dream, if that entity is anything in the film it’s Alice herself, the god giving these broken toys a broken life.
Then there’s the caterpillar. Alice’s version of the caterpillar is stunningly unfamiliar and upsetting. Alice wanders into a bare wooden room with holes across the floor and a single desk with a drawer in it on the opposite end. There’s an unsettling sound and tubular creatures start buzzing and shooting between the holes like floorboard-eating worms. Closer inspection reveals them to be socks posing as worms and eating their way through the room. The drawer at the end of the room opens and reveals a darning mushroom, a torn sock, and a pair of dentures. The mushroom moves and stands upright on the table. The sock follows, fitting the dentures into its hole and unveiling its eyes. The sock with giant human teeth and eyes wraps around the darning mushroom and begins to pontificate. The uncomfortable juxtaposition of intensely familiar objects adding up to an iconic character makes the whole scene impeccably intriguing. Everything about the way the sock moves feels wrong. It’s not even a relief when the caterpillar stops talking, as it can’t seem to do that without making a point of sewing its own mouth shut.
There are a few other unique visuals that set the movie apart. Perhaps the least notable of these are the card people, who appear as the cut-out figures from playing cards. There are fish and frog people, moving meats, and one strangely horrifying scene that sees a bunch of eggs hatching tiny skulls. When Alice floods a room with her tears there’s an amazing scene that sees a mouse make a campfire in her head. It’s a striking blend of live action and stop-motion.
The movie’s most interesting blending of live action and stop motion might be Alice herself.
As you almost certainly know, one of Alice’s chief recurring incidents involves changing size. She eats things, and then she gets bigger or smaller. It’s one of those many super iconic parts of Lewis Carroll’s novel. The film, with its blend of animated bones and real world little girls, accomplishes this by turning Alice into a doll via stop-motion. The film uses a series of differently sized fake Alices to convey the transformation, either turning her from a girl into an animated wooden doll or vice-versa. One scene her change gets interrupted and the girl breaks out from a paper mâché facsimile of herself, which is freaky and claustrophobia inducing.
Like I said before there’s something to be said for brilliant imagery, and this film has that in spades. It’s a jarring film, filled with nightmare dream imagery that presents one of the most unique interpretations of one of the most iconic books ever written. Every scene of the film is an image you couldn’t have imagined and won’t be able to forget. The surrealistic stop-motion applied to such a familiar story makes for a powerful bend of recognizable characters presented in utterly unique ways.