Tim Burton's Alice has nothing on Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer's Alice, a 1988 adaptation of Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland." Wildly weird and inventively low-tech, this movie was created in the spirit of the original novel.
The film opens with Alice tossing stones into a stream while her sister reads. The opening credits are intercut with extreme closeups of Alice's mouth as she speaks the lines: "And now, said Alice, you will see a film for children. Perhaps. But you must remember to keep your eyes shut, or you won't see anything!" Švankmajer uses this device throughout the film: all of the dialogue is spoken by Alice in extreme closeup.
After the credits, we see Alice sitting on the floor throwing stones into a teacup and playing with dolls that resemble herself and her sister. When a taxidermied white rabbit comes to life and checks his pocket watch nervously, Alice follows him into Wonderland.
The realization of Wonderland in Švankmajer's film is quite striking. Švankmajer combines stop motion with live action, the mundane with the fantastical and the morbid with the sublime to create a thoroughly eerie and unsettling dreamscape. Like Carroll, Švankmajer's Wonderland is suffused with the politics of inanimate objects. Playing cards, stuffed animals, sewing kits and the like pantomime funhouse versions of social interactions. Švankmajer's film makes minimal use of Carroll's language. With only a small portion of the dialogue and Alice's internal thoughts preserved, Švankmajer's Alice replaces satire with pure surrealism.
Stripped of Carroll's language, Alice's adventures take on an eerie quality. The Mad Hatter's Tea Party, for example, is presented with none of the wit of the novel and is reduced to a mechanical cacophony. As in the bookl, Švankmajer's Alice travels through Wonderland not only by motion but also by scale. As she shrinks and grows, she finds herself alternatively traveling through and towering over Wonderland.
Lewis Carroll's novel is about the surreal discontinuities of everyday life in nineteenth century England. It is an vision of the adult world viewed through the eyes of a child, where rules governing tea parties are adhered to with the same passion as those governing beheadings, where everyone seems to understand what is happening but no one can explain anything and where logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead. The novel presents these discontinuities through absurdist, satirical dialogue and paradoxical riddles. It is an essentially English, which is to say British, work.
By contrast, Švankmajer's Wonderland doesn't seem to occupy any particular time, place or culture. Where Carroll's novel presents a guileless Alice navigating a funhouse image of the adult world, Švankmajer's Alice seems to be on a journey through her own subconscious. Her Wonderland is not a raucous ribald farce of merry old England. The landscape is bleak and desolate. Everything seems dirty, worn out and neglected.
It is difficult to know how to judge a film like Alice. It is far from a faithful adaptation of the novel. Švankmajer has effectively replaced Lewis Carroll's voice with his own. The characters and plot of Alice in Wonderland seem sewn onto his own vision like the white rabbit's taxidermied pelt. It's an interesting experience for anyone familiar with the novel, but I certainly would not recommend it as an introduction to the story.
Alice is available on Netflix streaming and can be found on YouTube along with a number of Švankmajer's short films.
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