Even Incomplete, the First Alice in Wonderland Film Charms

Note: This is the twenty-fourth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1903 film, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been adapted so many times for a reason. Lewis Carroll’s surreal, nonsensical fantasy tale is incredibly iconic; it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t recognize its characters in some form. Of course, Disney’s 1951 animated adaptation ALICE IN WONDERLAND is probably the most well-known iteration of the story. But Tim Burton’s recent sequel series and offbeat reimaginings like Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars series of novels also represent just a couple of the many directions Alice has been taken over the years.

Suffice to say, Wonderland has entered our public consciousness and domain not unlike Oz, A Christmas Carol, or even much older, mythological concepts. This is all a long-winded way to say that it might be fair to say that Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow’s 1903 film ALICE IN WONDERLAND might have begun this rash of adaptations and the proliferation of Carroll’s creation into popular culture.

Of course, the book itself had done this on its own by 1903, but ALICE IN WONDERLAND was made “only” 38 years after the novel was originally published. In that intervening time, Alice hadn’t yet been “remixed,” of course. The emergence of film as a popular medium really did introduce the concept of interpretative adaptation, just as it created the concept of truly mass media, and obviously not just for Alice. Film as a movement, and ALICE IN WONDERLAND as a part of that early movement, facilitated the wave of adaptations, interpretations, and reimaginings, even in other media, that would stem from Carroll’s book. In that, the movie’s significance as the first film adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is not just an interesting footnote, but a tangible throughline for the success of the property.

So what did the movie do? Was it a crazy sci-fi reimagining or did it use the original story as a jumping off point for continued adventures? Well, near as we can tell, and as you can probably expect from such an early adaptation, no. ALICE IN WONDERLAND gets as near to a straight adaptation as it can get, but it is also an incomplete film, at least today; about three minutes of its original 12 run time missing. That being said, the British Film Institute’s (BFI) restoration is a pretty sound experience, relative to what the original film was said to be like. The movie progresses from key scene to key scene in sudden and bizarre cuts and transitions, an effect that is actually conducive to the tone of the story. Of course, that is most likely because of the fragmentary nature of the surviving print, but even still, an extra three minutes throughout the film would not provide total narrative cohesion. Instead, ALICE IN WONDERLAND is presented as a sort of “greatest hits” experience of the novel, and even in its abridged form, the movie was a record-breaking length for British films at the time.

Cecil Hepworth, who generally gets credit for ALICE IN WONDERLAND, was a British film pioneer who, up until 1903, had a string of fairly successful, astonishing trick films like HOW IT FEELS TO BE RUN OVER (1900) and EXPLOSION OF A MOTOR CAR (1900). ALICE IN WONDERLAND was by far his most elaborate production, and co-director Percy Stow most likely facilitated many of the special effects in the film. He worked for Hepworth for only a few years, from 1901 to 1903, and specialized in the kind of film tricks seen in the aforementioned movies. Hepworth most likely produced general and big picture direction, although of course his trick film chops had already been proven. Regardless, Hepworth would only have a few more solid, influential hits on his hands before the 1910s, in retrospect. In my opinion, ALICE IN WONDERLAND is the most spectacular of them.

The strange costumes of characters like the White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, and March Hare are visual standouts, but the shrinking and growing of Alice is also relatively seamless for the time. The proportion plays work quite well, much better than the superimposed image of the “Cheshire Cat.” Perhaps I’m spoiled by Disney’s version of the character, but an ordinary house cat (Hepworth’s family pet) surrounded by black space that clearly didn’t want to be filmed doesn’t strike me as particularly astonishing or amazing. That being said, it is a pretty ridiculous scene given the preceding intertitle (which really only seemed to be utilized by British films at this time): “The Duchess’s Cheshire Cat appears to Alice and directs her to the house of the Mad Hatter.” So maybe it accomplished its function after all?

Otherwise, the intervening scenes are slightly underwhelming, most likely lacking some context or missing some visual spectacle, but the final stream of child playing card soldiers is an amusing sight. I really couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by the absence of characters like the Caterpillar or the Mock Turtle, even though I knew full well that the limited nature of film at the time could never include everything from source material. I just really wanted to see the early 20th century artistic interpretation of how they should look on film; the White Rabbit and the Dormouse’s weirdness will have to do, I suppose.

Ultimately, in spite of some inconsistency and a relatively muted nature, ALICE IN WONDERLAND’s pace and standout visual moments carry the thread of its source material into film with a certain degree of charm. It’s incredibly interesting to see adaptations of stories before Disney got to them, as the House of Mouse’s versions typically set the pace for everything else to come. More people are familiar with Disney’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND than Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, after all. And truly, Hepworth’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND played some part in making that happen as the first film adaptation of the amazing and fantastic novel.

Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.

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