It might have been on John Lennon’s mind when he wrote “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (so speculates Beatles biographer Bob Spitz). It was directed by a cast member of Beyond the Fringe, a popular satirical revue from the early 1960s, and sitar guru Ravi Shankar composed the score.
With that kind of 1960s pedigree, you might anticipate a psychedelic trip through this version of Lewis Carroll’s classic novel. But filmed in black and white, with the screenplay scripted straight out of the book and set in the same Victorian period, director Jonathon Miller’s Alice in Wonderland has a timeless quality instead.
This was the first film Miller directed, made for BBC television in 1966, and available on DVD at the Whitehorse Public Library.
What marks this adaptation as a product of the 1960s is that Miller gently subverts the usual expectations fof Lewis Carroll’s familiar tale, drawing on the melancholic strain that lies beneath the surface of the account of Alice’s adventures, which he ultimately views as the story of a child on the verge of entering the world of adults.
On the audio commentary included on the DVD, Miller describes his own experience of childhood as one seemingly endless, idyllic summer day “before it all fell apart”. In keeping with that vision, this Alice in Wonderland is a pastoral, sometimes disturbing, dream.
Lewis Carroll’s odd logic, puns and shifts in time and space remain, and the fantastic characters still accompany and unsettle Alice. But instead of elaborate costumes, figures such as the White Rabbit, the Caterpillar and the Mock Turtle are dressed in Victorian clothing, appearing normal within the context of Alice’s world, but speaking and often behaving nonsensically.
Alice is played by Anne-Marie Mallik in her one and only acting role, as a serious and languid Alice. Like any good Victorian child, she rarely speaks but glumly observes the increasingly mad circumstances she finds herself in.
Peter Cook, who was also in Beyond the Fringe, plays the Mad Hatter. John Gielgud is a wise, rather sad Mock Turtle and Michael Redgrave is the scholarly Caterpillar.
Peter Sellers is unusually subdued as the meek King of Hearts, and Alison Leggatt, his demanding Queen, is very scary. Wilfred Brambell, who played Paul McCartney’s grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night, is the White Rabbit.
The visual quality of this Alice in Wonderland is greatly appealing. Miller looked to early Victorian photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron for inspiration and the shots are carefully composed, if sometimes surreal.
Texture and the light and dark contrast of objects, especially plants, are emphasized with black and white film, strengthening the illusion of a world of familiar objects seen from a slightly weird perspective. Ravi Shankar’s lovely score, performed with sitar and percussion, adds to the otherworldly effect.
The DVD has a treasure trove of extras, including the director’s audio commentary, recorded more than 40 years after he made the film.
A short film written for the BBC by Dennis Potter in 1966 is also included. The Wednesday Play:Alice dramatizes the relationship between Charles Dodgson (who wrote as Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell, the child who inspired the story of Alice in Wonderland. It stars George Baker and Deborah Watling.
Also included is a clip from the first film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, a 1903 silent by Cecil Hepworth, and a behind-the-scenes documentary of Ravi Shankar as he composed the score.