Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland

This adaptation of Alice in Wonderland was filmed for TV broadcast in December 1966. Director/adapter Jonathan Miller aimed to be faithful to the book, with all the dialogue (except where improvised by the actors) lifted directly from Lewis Carroll’s text. But this, I think, is the adaptation’s main fault. Alice in Wonderland is a curious mix of episodes and skits, not really a story at all, and I think what you need to do with Alice is either find a way of making a story out of it, or to adopt some angle or interpretation to provide a constantly-running theme, something to give it a sort of narrative or spine. The original book wins through on sheer prissy impudence; adaptations need to offer something more.

Miller has two angles on Alice, neither of which really works for me. The first is to connect the book with dreams, and various of his directorial decisions (such as sometimes having Alice’s dialogue overdubbed while she doesn’t move her lips) come from his wanting to make the narrative more dreamlike. But I think Alice isn’t about the dream-world as much as it’s about the world of language, which has its own peculiar logic. Wordplay and double-meanings approached with a literal mind, and the ability of words to be strung together correctly but nonsensically, are what Alice, and other nonsense literature, is about. For me, this puts Alice at the head of a continuing tradition of wordplay fantasy, which includes the Oz books, and Piers Anthony’s Xanth series. It’s that tight-but-illogical logic that makes Alice what it is, not its dreaminess, which is more the province of surrealism. (In my mind, nonsense and surrealism are two quite different things. Nonsense applies logic to things that aren’t logical; surrealism revels in the irrational, with no need of logic.)

Miller’s other approach is to connect the book with “the longueurs of childhood”, a nostalgia for endless summers of blissful boredom, and in his initial edit, he had some long periods in which the actors just sat around doing nothing, in an attempt to conjure this feeling. These were edited out after a viewing by BBC executives, with only a few hints of them left in, leaving some curious points at which conversation lapses, everyone sits around staring into space, then conversation resumes. But I think the book is too energetic, too little-girl curious, for this to feel right. Kids are only bored until they have something to do; Alice, exploring Wonderland, very much has something to do. (It’s teenagers who get bored even when they have something to do; but then again, Miller’s Alice is a teenager.) Lewis Carroll, an Oxford don who could afford to spend entire days picnicking with the Liddells so he could come up with the Alice story in the first place, probably had no need to feel nostalgic for such long-lost periods free of responsibility, so they weren’t part of his book.

For me, Alice is in Wonderland because she’s a child — childhood, and the way a child views the illogical adult world, is Wonderland. All the various creatures Alice meets on her journey are comic versions of adults stuck in their own peculiarly nonsensical worldviews. Alice is the child regarding these adults with a cutting innocence. The book is all about her, in her self-contained bubble of childhood, coming into contact with the dreadfully meaningless self-importance of the adult world, and seeing it for the farce it really is: tea parties and courtrooms at which one must know the nonsensical rules of how to behave, a Queen with the power to cut off your head on a whim, and so on.

Peter Cook as the Mad Hatter

The result of Miller wanting to be faithful to the book is that the TV film feels just like a series of sketches. It relies entirely on the performers’ abilities to enchant with their personalities, rather than a story’s, or thematic argument’s, ability to keep you interested. Thus there are a few highlights that linger in the mind (Peter Cook is excellent as the Mad Hatter, John Bird is funny but too brief, Peter Sellers as the Red King, etc.), but elsewhere a good deal of puzzlement as the film moves from scene to scene without making it clear how or why. Thus, Alice stands outside a door trying to get in, then has a conversation with John Bird, then just opens the door and goes through. Why didn’t she do that first of all? You certainly have to know the book to be able to tell what’s going on, which has the unfortunate effect of making an adaptation nothing but a companion piece to the book, rather than an interesting work in its own right.

It’s easy to be too reverential to the book that’s the source of an adaptation. I enjoy watching film adaptations of books I’ve read, not to quibble with how they’ve departed from the text, but rather to see what they’ve made of it, what their interpretation is. An adaptation is a thing that exists alongside a book, and only subtracts from the original when, by being too literal, it reveals how shallow that original was in the first place.

For a more positive view of Miller’s Alice, see Jonathan Coulthart’s blog post on it. (I really like Miller’s Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You adaptation.)

Comments (5)

  1. “You certainly have to know the book to be able to tell what’s going on, which has the unfortunate effect of making an adaptation nothing but a companion piece to the book, rather than an interesting work in its own right.”

    Interesting piece. I think of Miller’s version as a commentaryon the book, breaking from it in places like a jazz version of a standard. I’m not sure I think that’s a weakness, necessarily.

    Another thing i found interesting about Alice…

  2. Murray says:

    I like that — a “jazz version of a standard”. I meant to emphasise that I do sort of like Miller’s version, but am stopped short of really liking it by what I say above.

    That piece you linked to is interesting. I have Burton’s Alice on DVD and keep meaning to watch it again, just to work out whether I like it or not.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Oddly enough, the Disney version is one of my favourites, as I think the central character’s predicament is so well established. You have a very clear impression of Alice as a sensible little English girl in a strange, nightmarish world where nothing make sense.

    The strangest version I’ve ever seen (and then only in clips on YouTube) is Jan Svankmajer’s, a weird, stop-start version, very eastern-european in flavour.

    Pity nobody ever makes a film of ‘The Snark’!

  4. Murray says:

    I’ve recently bought the Disney Alice on DVD, as I haven’t seen it in ages and want to give it another go. And I remember seeing Jan Svankmajer’s a long time ago, too, but when I was too young to appreciate it as anything but, as you say, ‘very eastern-european’. Another one I ought to re-see.

    The trouble with Alice in Wonderland, is that while it leaves so much room for interpretation (a plus) it also opens the gates to self-indulgence. It’s always a question of ‘which will it be this time?’

  5. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I think you’re absolutely right about the need for a director to leave his personal stamp on it – otherwise it can end up being very fragmented. Well it is a dream! Which is why Burton seems like such an obvious candidate. That said, puns (or a misinterpreted stock phrases)do act as a thread of continuity in the original just as you say. Never really considered this until you pointed it out. I suppose it makes sense that there should be some underlying logic to the first book when one considers how ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ is based on a game of chess.

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