d. Jan Švankmajer / 1988 / Czechoslovakia-Switzerland-UK-Germany / 86 mins
Švankmajer is one of the most celebrated animators in the world, and due to his interest in the themes of horror, surrealism and childhood, what could be more perfect than an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s (or rather Charles Dodgson’s) literary classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for his first theatrical début in 1988?
Whereas most adaptations have recreated Alice’s adventure as a fairytale, Švankmajer approaches the text from the perspective of a dream. This is not a land that has been meticulously constructed alongside the rule of three, each guardian requiring new tricks to outwit, words of caution and a moral lesson being its purpose. This world is far more threatening and yet at the same time familiar. The creatures and landscapes are reflection’s of Alice’s (and of course Švankmajer’s) deepest levels of subconscious.
A complete lack of music makes this world feel far more tactile, the scritching and scratchings of Švankmajer’s scuttling creations replicating the sounds associated with the act of play, a child sat on the ground, master of a grand toy box. And what a toy box Švankmajer has at his disposal, his visual inventiveness making sure the entire film is never short of wonder. Everything in Alice’s world has its origins in some sort of reality, nails and pins are a reoccurring theme, fabulous creatures are made from discarded socks, decks of cards and most frequently of all, taxidermy. As the orchestrator of her own wild flights of fancy, Alice (played by Kristyna Kohoutová) is truly able to reanimate the dead, inanimate objects and stuffed rabbits alike. The greatest weapon at her disposal is a pair of scissors, capable of destroying all that she has breathed life into with only mere whim, much like the Red Queen herself.
Only one other human is seen in the film. Cut out of shot at the head, her presence incomprehensible and detached for both an audience and Alice, only existing to cruelly dismiss Alice’s curiosity and precocious behaviour. Alone in her room, surrounded by these inanimate objects, Švankmajer creates a wonderful balance between Alice’s control over her fantasies and her helplessness to them. She narrates her own journey (at the beginning stating that “now you will see a film made for children – or perhaps not”) but is also constantly battling to retain control over her subconscious imaginations. In this manner, Švankmajer’s Alice is truly heroic, as vulnerable as she is malevolent and destructive, her reckless abandon and childish wonder allowing her to navigate her world safely. Many viewers may be surprised how violent this interpretation of Alice is, Švankmajer pulls no punches when showing us the realities of an exuberant imagination.
Alice may yet be the most faithful adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to make it to the silver screen, very infrequently deviating from the original’s well worn narrative. Although it lacks the mathematical and lexical purity of the original, it makes up for it by recreating the deeply psychological imagery of the book, exploring the boundaries of surrealism and insanity as it does so. It’s ironic that Tim Burton should be such a fan of Švankmajer’s considering how his recent attempt, Alice in Wonderland was subjected to great homogenisation. for those of you who feel a need to explore Wonderland on screen and feel neither of Disney’s versions have been up to scratch, Alice should be considered highly recommended viewing.