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Page to Screen: Alice in Wonderland (1999)

Updated on July 21, 2015

Foreword

Unlike most other Alice in Wonderland adaptations, this work attempts to recreate the original books instead of creating their own spin on things, such as Tim Burton's proposed sequel in 2010, the Canadian film that puts Wonderland in a more modern setting, and so on and so forth.

Film Poster

Source

The Movie

Notably, this is the last adaptation of Lewis Carroll's in the 1900s. Directed by Nick Willing, who would later direct and write another Alice adaptation, this live-action adaptation stays very true to its original work and plays it safe.

It gives it a little more of a plot where Alice is scheduled to sing a song for a tea party her parents are throwing. Unfortunately, Alice is getting stage fright and eventually decides to run and hide until everything passes over. Of course, she falls into the Rabbit Hole by following the White Rabbit where she goes on the expected Wonderland adventure. However, many characters refer back to why she's there and address her fear, many attempting to encourage her. When she decides she's ready, Wonderland fades away and she sings a song from her dream, Lobster Quadrille.

What makes this adaptation so notable is its sheer cast of fantastic actors. To name some, Martin Short, Gene Wilder, Whoopi Goldberg, Miranda Richardson, George Wendt, Robbie Coltrane, Christopher Lloyd, Elizabeth Spriggs, Ben Kingsley, and many, many more.

The Book

The subject books that are used as source material for Syfy's Alice areAlice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) &Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871).Both works were written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, known better by his pen name Lewis Carrol, and are classified as literary nonsense, filled with talking, anthropomorphic animals and plants, puzzling scenarios that force one to change size, and excellent wordplay.

As such, there's barely a plotline that involves Alice trying to find her way home (in the first book) and in the sequel she's trying to be crowned Queen. Nonetheless, the words and characters (supported by John Tenniel's iconic illustrations) are hard to forget and likely to charm their audience. That goes to explain why so many cinematic adaptations are made off this source material.

Book Cover

Source

The Adaptation

As it is one of the best live-action adaptations, there's very little that could be discussed as its source material is nonsensical So, I'll put bits and pieces.

The Library Setting
Not at all referenced in the books, but it is a wonderful and iconic scene that contributes to the charm of this adaptation. Using various books and pages as a sort of transitory between worlds fits well within the Carrollian Universe.

The Caucus Race
It's a little different in the film but no less entertaining. Now there's cheating involved, and instead of everyone running in circles they run whichever way they fancy. It's small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but this film adaptation is so spot on with source material in theme and presentation.

Gene Wilder as the Mock Turtle
The Mock Turtle (created by Lewis Carroll from the concept of 'mock turtle soup') is originally created with the idea of a cow within a turtle's shell. As referenced by the name, mock turtle, it's not really turtle but instead the cheaper parts of a cow to imitate the intended flavors. Why am I mentioning this? In the visual display of the adaptation, the Mock Turtle looks like Gene Wilder in a turtle's shell. Due to Gene Wilder's popularity at the time, i can excuse the change. Also, it might be a bit confusing, especially to the current audience who aren't aware of mock turtle soup, to have a cow wearing a turtle's shell singing about such soup. Perhaps this change was for the better.

From Through the Looking Glass
This adaptation nearly exclusively draws from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and especially stays true to a presentation of The Queen of Hearts without combining with the character of the Red Queen. However, there are several things that are actually drawn from the semi-sequel, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There:

  • The White Knight
  • Tweedledee and Tweedledum
  • The Red King
  • Tiger Lilly and the various talking flowers
  • The Walrus, the Carpenter, and the Oysters

There's also a smattering of poems and whatnot are all originally from Through the Looking Glass. However, I found it notable as most other adaptations liberally borrows from both of the novels with little distinction. While not exclusive to one work or the other, it's decently refreshing to have it stick mostly to one of the books instead of both.

The Opening to Alice in Wonderland (1999)

Closing Thoughts

Every single actor in their role plays their part wonderfully. One could easily argue that the majority of the characters are overacting (Martin Short's portrayal of the Mad Hatter definitely comes to mind), but for the setting and atmosphere that is Wonderland, it works. The set, the costumes, and general aesthetics of this film are convincing despite its original release, although one may catch the occasional 'glitch' of a green screen. The musical scores are nice as well.

But again, it's the performances that really beg for attention and they deserve it. To see Martin Short as The Mad Hatter spouting drivel with an oversized head, shimmying himself this way and that (way before Johnny Depp did his 'Futterwacken'), is unforgettable. You'll hear Miranda Richardson (as the Queen of Hearts) scream in her iconic voice and you won't be able to not smile at the sheer ridiculous of it. Or at least I couldn't.

And of course, one can't forget the iconic 'mentor' scenes with Christopher Lloyd (as the White Knight) and Gene Wilder (as the lesser known Mock Turtle). I appreciate them to a degree due to playing characters that are commonly disregarded in adaptations despite their potential, but their performances are memorable all on their own.

Ultimately though, it's a very spot on adaptation of its source material while adding in some believable conflict from a pre-pubescent little girl of the Victorian era. It worries less about the plot and focus more on the the performance of the cast.

Book vs. Film

For those of you who read the book and watched the movie, what did you prefer?

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Further Reading

For more Alice in Wonderland adaptations, you can check out my commentary on Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010). You can read also commentary on the Page-to-Game adaptation in American McGee's Alice series. Also, there's the other, lesser known adaptation that this director also had a hand in, Alice (2009).

You can read more varied Page to Screen adaptation commentaries if you click here.

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      Josh B 23 months ago

      I remember watching this movie so many times when i was younger! It is really a fun movie to watch... if perhaps a bit on the creepy side, haha! Whoopie Goldberg as the Cheshire cat used to creep me out, and martin short with his giant head and creepy way of dashing about in weird ways...

      Not to mention that freakish demon-sorcerer baby who turns into a pig!

      (Pig-Baby thing still haunt my dreams to this day... *shivers*)