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Through the looking glass: Alice's adventures in film

Published: Monday, Aug. 31 2015 3:10 a.m. MDT

Johnny Depp in Johnny Depp in "Alice in Wonderland." (Disney Enterprises Inc.)

Ever since MacMillan and Company published Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland” in 1865, the world has been revisiting Wonderland in one way or another.

Common expressions of confusion or surrealism such as "down the rabbit hole" and "through the looking glass" come from Carroll’s work. Grace Slick, the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, spoke in a Wall Street Journal interview about a long infatuation with the story that led to the song “White Rabbit.” And the influence has even seeped into other iconic figures of the modern era, inspiring the creation of one of Batman’s arch-villains, The Mad Hatter.

However, one of the art forms most often influenced by Carroll’s book is film. With a history that starts all the way back in 1903 with a short silent film version, Alice has spent as much time on the silver screen as she has in Wonderland or through the looking glass.

A new version of the story can be seen in a spin-off of the popular series “Once Upon a Time,” focused on Wonderland, premiering on ABC on Oct. 10. Here is a quick journey through the numerous adventures based on or inspired by the classic children’s fantasy book:

'Alice In Wonderland' (1951)

One of the most well-known of the films bringing Carroll’s book to life, this animated feature film from Walt Disney is ironically not even the first attempt that Disney had taken at the material. Back in 1923, before Walt Disney had become the king of animation, he created a series of short films now called the Alice Comedies, which followed a live-action girl named Alice having adventures in an animated land. The first of those films was a loose adaptation of the Carroll story. Disney revisited the same territory later, when in 1936 he produced a Mickey Mouse cartoon called “Thru the Mirror.” And finally, in 1951, still at the peak of his influence on the culture, Disney recruited distinctive personalities like Ed Wynn and Sterling Holloway to bring the story to life in a feature film.

'Dreamchild' (1985)

Though not as wildly nonsensical as the book itself, the story of Carroll’s inspiration for writing “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland” is quite a story itself, and it is given an interesting spin in “Dreamchild.” Though largely fictional, it uses the names of the real people who created the book, Carroll and his inspiration, young Alice Liddell, to tell a dark story of an elderly Alice looking back on her life and being visited by the iconic characters once again. With character designs by The Jim Henson Co. and a strong performance from Ian Holm as Carroll, this film is an interesting oddity from Dennis Potter, the writer who created the original British versions of the musicals “Pennies From Heaven” and “The Singing Detective.”

'Alice' (1988)

One of the most surreal and mind-blowing versions of the story, “Alice” was written and directed by Jan Svankmajer, a Russian artist who made many stop-motion animated short films before creating this feature-length nightmare that features taxidermy animals coming to life. While this is a much darker take than usually seen in film, director Svankmajer said in an interview with Electric Sheep magazine that “So far all adaptations of Alice (including the latest by Tim Burton) present it as a fairy tale, but Carroll wrote it as a dream. And between a dream and a fairy tale there is a fundamental difference.” Svankmajer’s goal of creating a film with a dreamy, atmospheric mood was certainly achieved.

'Alice in Wonderland' (1999)

As one of many classic pieces of literature given the television movie-of-the-week treatment in the late 1990s (along with “Jason and the Argonauts” and “The Odyssey”), this version boasts an incredible cast of names popping up in small roles, from Robbie Coltrane and George Wendt as Tweedledum and Tweedledee to Martin Short as the Mad Hatter. Directed by Nick Willing, who also directed the television version of “Jason and the Argonauts,” the movie earned four Emmys. Willing would later return to Wonderland by directing “Alice,” another version of the story made specifically for the Syfy channel, which reinvented the story in the same way as Willing’s earlier mini-series “Tin Man” had done for “The Wizard of Oz.”

'The Last Mimzy' (2007)

One of the most original (and tenuous) connections to the original Carroll novel came in the form of “The Last Mimzy,” a science-fiction fantasy film about children gaining mysterious abilities after finding a box of toys. Based on the 1943 short story “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” the film does not use the story from Carroll’s book, but rather the circumstances around the making of the book, and extrapolates a fake history involving Alice, Carroll himself and a person from sometime in the future. Directed by Bob Shaye, known more for his producing work and for founding film company New Line Cinema, “The Last Mimzy” is a surprising and adventurous film with a good environmental message that uses Carroll’s wild imagination as a great jumping-off point.

'Alice in Wonderland' (2010)

When The Walt Disney Co. announced that a new, live-action version of “Alice in Wonderland” was being planned, it was almost the most obvious choice in the world to have Tim Burton, the director behind such visual feasts as “Edward Scissorhands” and “Big Fish,” directing Carroll’s darkly absurd material. And in this case, the most obvious choice seems to have been the right one; with a Box Office Mojo estimate of more than $1 billion in worldwide gross and Academy Award wins for costume design and art direction, it seems that the time was right, with technology where it is now, to bring that fantastical world to life again. Accroding to screenrant.com, a sequel is currently in the works, and its writer, Linda Woolverton, is aiming to create another blockbuster reimagining of a classic Disney animated film with “Maleficent,” a retelling of the “Sleeping Beauty” story from the villain’s perspective, starring Angelina Jolie.

Carroll could never foresee how perfectly he combined bright fantasy for children with humor and absurdism for adults when he created “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” nearly 150 years ago; his intent was simply to bring joy to the children who heard his stories. However, many children heard those stories through the generations, and some of those children, like Walt Disney and Tim Burton, grew up to be visionaries and marvelous storytellers who never forgot the joy they received from those stories.

And now, because of their films, a new generation will remember them, too.

Chris Vander Kaay is a screenwriter and author who lives in central Florida with his wife and co-writer, Kathleen.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company