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Alice through the ages

Alice through the ages

While Disney’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass” may not be wholly faithful to the original, its iconography is instantly recognisable. This is a credit not only to Lewis Carroll himself, but also to the many artists (and one in particular) who have over the years turned his words into images

While Disney’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass” may not be wholly faithful to the original, its iconography is instantly recognisable. This is a credit not only to Lewis Carroll himself, but also to the many artists (and one in particular) who have over the years turned his words into images

Nicholas Barber | May 27th 2016

Disney’s new megabudget “Alice Through the Looking Glass” has even less in common with Lewis Carroll’s books than its predecessor, 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland”. The first film, directed by Tim Burton, turned Lewis’s tongue-twisting, logic-flipping nonsense into a Tolkienesque feminist quest, in which an adult Alice (Mia Wasikowska) donned a suit of armour to battle the fire-breathing Jabberwocky. The sequel takes even more liberties with the source material. In James Bobin’s frantic steampunk time-travel caper, Alice puts the universe at risk in order to help the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) resolve his daddy issues.

What’s curiouser and curiouser, though, is that however far the films stray from the novels which inspired them – 1865’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, and 1871’s “Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There” – they never lose sight of those novels completely: there is something in every scene which is drawn from Carroll’s writing. But that says less about the films than about the indelible stamp which Carroll’s characters and situations have left on popular culture. Even after 150 years, we have only to see a mouse at a tea party, or a pair of rotund identical twins, and we know immediately that we’re in Wonderland.

This iconography isn’t a testament to Carroll’s genius alone. It’s also a tribute to the many artists (and one in particular) who have turned his words into images. After all, what is the use of a book without pictures or conversation?

Lewis Carroll (1864)
Type “Lewis Carroll Alice in Wonderland illustrations” into Google, and you’ll see a screen full of drawings by John Tenniel (cf, next picture). But Carroll himself – that is, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – was the story’s first illustrator. When he presented his muse, Alice Liddell, with a manuscript entitled “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” in 1864, it incorporated 37 of his own sketches. They’re stiff and amateurish compared to Tenniel’s, with ill-proportioned characters who look more like Victorian dolls than people. But they also have the naive creepiness of a sinister folk tale and of Heinrich Hoffman’s grisly “Der Struwwelpeter”. And it’s interesting that Alice didn’t start life as the blonde we all imagine. In Carroll’s mind, she had a mane of thick, dark, pre-Raphaelite hair.

John Tenniel (1865/1871)
Sir John Tenniel was “Punch” magazine’s political cartoonist for 50 years, but his claim to immortality rests on the 92 illustrations he drew for Lewis’s “Alice” novels. These classic and endlessly reproduced pictures have been seen by far more people than have read the books, and that’s even before you count all the imitations and parodies. The characters in Walt Disney’s 1951 cartoon, to give just one example, are modelled on Tenniel’s. It was he, not Lewis, who gave Alice blonde hair and a blue dress with a white apron and a bell-shaped skirt. And it was he who made the Hatter buck-toothed and chinless, with a bow tie and a price-labelled top hat. As well as their unforgettable costume design, what makes his pictures so fascinating is their combination of strangeness and finely detailed naturalism: the White Rabbit may be wearing a waistcoat and carrying a watch, but he still looks like a rabbit.

Central Park sculpture (1959) and photograph (1968)
Central Park’s bronze statue of Alice and her friends was sculpted by José de Creeft in 1959, having been commissioned by the publisher George Delacorte in memory of his late wife, Margarita. The sculptor takes his cues from Tenniel, although the sharp-chinned Alice is said to resemble de Creeft’s own daughter, Donna, while the Mad Hatter is a caricature of Delacorte. The statue has been the site of a million picnics and proposals, and it almost became a rock’n’roll landmark. Before she was Linda McCartney, Linda Eastman photographed the Jimi Hendrix Experience there, as they lounged next to Alice on a giant mushroom, alongside a group of children. Hendrix wrote to Reprise Records, requesting that one of Eastman’s photographs be used on the cover of the trio’s 1968 album, “Electric Ladyland”. Executives at the record label ignored him, and chose a picture of a crowd of naked women instead.

BBC television play (1966)
The BBC marked the centenary of the first book’s publication with a television film of “Alice in Wonderland”. Shot on a typically low BBC budget, the black-and-white film dispenses with talking animals: all of the characters, mice and rabbits included, are played by actors in conventional Victorian dress. But that doesn’t make it any less surreal than the average adaptation. Written, directed and produced by Jonathan Miller, with sitar-and-tabla music by Ravi Shankar, this swinging sixties artefact takes the story’s madness eerily seriously. Its 14-year-old Alice (Anne-Marie Mallick) sleepwalks around a derelict hospital and Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, whispering to herself in languid voice-over, and bumping into random groups of gibbering lunatics. Despite the presence of Peter Sellers, Alan Bennett, and, as the Hatter, Peter Cook, it is less of a comedy than a psychological horror film or an early Pink Floyd video. That could be why it was broadcast at 9pm, when impressionable young “Alice” fans were fast asleep.

Helen Oxenbury (1999)
So many interpretations of the “Alice” books emphasise their dark and disturbing aspects that Helen Oxenbury’s sunnier vision seems quite radical. Best known for illustrating “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt”, Oxenbury doesn’t forget the stories’ inherent weirdness, but she also remembers that Lewis wrote those stories to entertain children. Her Alice is an inquisitive modern youngster in a casual summer dress and white plimsolls. She is relaxed and happy in Wonderland, slouching in an armchair at the Hatter’s tea party, laughing as she strolls arm-in-arm with the White Rabbit. Unlike Tenniel’s Alice, she prefers to smile than to scowl. Oxenbury will never replace Tenniel as the books’ definitive artist, of course, but it’s good to be reminded that there is a more child-friendly alternative available. Also, it’s nice to see the Hatter as a portly spiv in a checked jacket, with three Panamas stacked on his head.

Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie (2006)
A controversial three-volume graphic novel written by Alan Moore (the creator of “Watchmen” and “V For Vendetta”), and illustrated by his fiancée (now wife) Melinda Gebbie, “Lost Girls” has an aged Alice meeting Wendy from “Peter Pan” and Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” in an Austrian mountain hotel in 1913. As the three of them trade erotic reminiscences, they hint that the fantastical yarns that made them famous were actually warped reflections of their own sexual memories: Alice had to endure under-age sex, opium addiction, and being raped by the staff of a mental hospital, so it’s not surprising that she dreamt of Wonderland. Moore cheerfully labelled the book a “pornography”, but it’s also a complex, postmodern update of “The Decameron” which examines the meaning of obscenity and the value of imagination. If any author can beat Carroll at word games and mathematical puzzles, it’s Moore. Tenniel, meanwhile, would have recognised the wide-eyed Alice of “Lost Girls”, even if he didn’t approve of the poses she strikes in Gebbie’s sinuous watercolours.

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