With Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll’s birthday on the horizon, we wanted to follow a few films down the rabbit hole and explore some of the fantasy worlds portrayed in the Victorian-era novel. Ignoring the recent blockbuster monstrosity that is Tim Burton’s movie, we ventured into the pool of tears, got advice from a caterpillar, and attended a mad tea party to find out what movies explore the same kinds of themes that the English author made synonymous with phantasmagorical adventures and self-discovery. Check out our gallery of Alice-inspired cinema past the break, and tell us your picks in the comments below.
Mixing low-fi weirdsies with a live action actress, and his signature stop-motion animated creatures, surreal visionary Jan Svankmajer created a bizarre version of the famed Carroll story in his 1988 movie, Alice. Brain-meltingly strange and often terrifying, the Czech filmmaker uses a slew of grotesque, visceral imagery to emphasize Carroll’s morbid tinges of tragedy. It’s magical to watch Svankmajer’s uncanny juxtaposition of living, breathing things and the imaginary. (See: Alice’s menacing stuffed rabbit with ferocious teeth and bleeding wounds.)
Willy Wonka‘s journey down the rabbit hole trades Alice’s riverbank setting for the bowels of a candy factory and all the “Eat Me,” “Drink Me” a kid could want. Wonka‘s world is full of similarly mind-bending, dysmorphic substances, revealed by Charlie — who like Alice escapes his unhappy existence, but remains true to himself on the journey despite the seductive Wonderland.
Teenager Sarah sets out to rescue her baby brother from a dizzying labyrinth’s puzzles and traps — and from the enchantingly twisted Goblin King (David Bowie). She struggles with the transition from childhood to womanhood, conflicted by her young imagination and adult desires. It’s the same kind of frustration and trauma that Carroll’s story touches upon, regarding loss of innocence and physical flux.
Zack Snyder’s pulpy, exploitative, 12-year-old boy fantasy — Sucker Punch — is a bit of a mess (in a very short skirt), but that doesn’t ban the movie from Alice in Wonderland territory. Snyder himself even described the film as Alice with machine guns. Set in the 1950s, a young girl is institutionalized by her father and surrenders to her own fantasy world in order to cope with the horror. Snyder’s failure to explore self-realization and feminine struggle in a sincere and satisfying way is a bummer, but the lines connecting his work to Carroll’s are pretty clear.
In the late ’50s, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther perhaps described why Albert Lamorisse’s French short The Red Balloon most closely resembles Carroll’s tale best. Crowther described the movie as ” … a tender, humorous drama of the ingenuousness of a child and, indeed, a poignant symbolization of dreams and the cruelty of those who puncture them.” Both stories blend the real and unconscious — in this instance allowing a lone balloon a mind of its own — and the threat of a dangerous menace (Balloon‘s bullies and Alice‘s underlying darkness). Both stories recover with a sense of hope and freedom for their lead characters.
Coraline — the titular character from Neil Gaiman’s 2002 novel — like Alice crawls through a hidden entryway to escape her everyday existence. Inside, Coraline discovers an alternate universe inhabited by her “Other Mother” and “Other Father.” Both seem perfect and attentive — everything her real parents aren’t — but have creepily sewn-in buttons for eyes and Stepford family personalities. Coraline’s “Other Mother’s” true (evil) form is eventually revealed to be not unlike Carroll’s brutal Queen of Hearts — the one person at the heart of Alice’s inner turmoil who she must face to solve the puzzle of the strange wonderworld. Did we mention there’s a talking cat in each story?
You can escape your ordinary life for a wild, self-actualized journey in Wonderland, or you can find the same thing by joining an all-girl band, exploring your sexuality, growing up on the road, and eventually starting a successful solo career.
Both profoundly complex children’s stories that take place in twisty worlds of fantasy and magic, Alice and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away explore the confusing liminal space between childhood and adulthood. The director’s inclusion of the supernatural is steeped in Japanese mythology and cultural symbolism, just as Carroll’s touches upon morality struggles and other themes centered on the Victorian middle-class.
Neo’s gateway drug to a long journey of transformation and self-empowerment isn’t the only Alice in Wonderland reference in The Matrix. Did the Wachowskis read up on their Carroll before making the movie? “Big fan! It is a brilliant book. Many of the themes we tried to echo in The Matrix,” they shared in an interview about the sci-fi blockbuster. Le duh.
Marilyn Manson’s dream project has yet to see the light of day, but the musician released a NSFW teaser in 2010 for his Phantasmagoria: The Visions of Lewis Carroll to show us what’s in store. Conceived in 2004, delayed far beyond its 2006 lensing date, and unheard of again since the trailer surfaced, Manson’s film promises to be visually arresting — and a bit on the nose. The story follows author Lewis Carroll (played by Manson) who lives in an isolated castle and is tormented by sleepless nights and visions of a girl named Alice. The movie features a parade of Manson’s favorite people and things: artist Gottfried Helnwein, former fiancée Evan Rachel Wood, former wife Dita Von Teese, English model Lily Cole as Alice, Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” (a song that apparently inspired the film’s ending), and lots of porny, sadistic imagery. There’s no telling if this one will ever see the light of day anytime soon, but it’s certainly one for Alice fans to have on their radar.