What's So Special About 'Alice in Wonderland'?

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Something about the imaginative whimsy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland seems particularly suited for the screen, but its influence has hardly been unique.

Critics say the story has inspired filmmakers "since film's infancy," has been an "irresistible invitation" to special effects creators, and has "always" been a stage and film favorite. All of which is true, in some sense. At least 25 TV and film versions have been made. (Over 30, says the National Post's Chris Knight.) The first was a surprisingly compelling (and now online!) silent film from 1903. The newest is the well-hyped Tim Burton version, which comes out on Friday alongside no fewer than five DVD re-releases.

But all the buzz and critical praise raises a question: has the story had any more influence on cinema than its contemporaries? Going by the number of films it's inspired, no. Two novels from the 1860's match "Alice" on the number of films they've inspired, while another two trail not terribly far behind.

Alice was published in 1865 and has been adapted 25 times, according to Wikipedia (sorry, it was the most accessible, reliable database). Roughly 25 adaptations exist of Les Misérables, which was published in 1862 (the number may be higher, but I limited the count to eponymous titles) while there have been at least 27 adaptations of Crime & Punishment (1866). Great Expectations (1861) had at least 15 and Little Women (1868) had at least 13.

"Alice" doesn't stand apart from its contemporaries and it also has little in common with them -- there are no unifying themes among the novels or even similar plot structures. "Alice" may be "eternal" and "enduring" as critics have said and it may have inspired many films, but it's certainly not alone.

That it's not unique, doesn't mean that the story hasn't had a substantial cultural impact. "Alice" has inspired a slew of derivative works, including art, comic books and card games, popular music and music videos. Critic James Verniere explained it well in his review of the story's cinematic history for The Boston Herald on Wednesday:

The simple, brilliant conceit of a child finding a portal to another world, a world of his or her unbridled, if not entirely unhinged imagination, is so compelling several have lovingly lifted it, including C.S. Lewis, whose "The Chronicles of Narnia" series begins when a child finds a pathway to a fairy tale universe in a wardrobe stuffed with furs, and last year's "Coraline," in which the heroine (voiced by Dakota Fanning) enters an eerie mirror-world through a small door in her basement.

He's right, the premise is quite compelling. But the same goes for a lot of stories, including a few published around when "Alice" was.

Check out the first film adaptation of "Alice's Adventures In Wonderland." It's been restored from a heavily damaged reel, so a few minutes are missing. But the special effects are unreal. For 1903.


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Niraj Chokshi is a former staff editor at TheAtlantic.com, where he wrote about technology. He is currently freelancing and can be reached through his personal website, NirajC.com. More

Niraj previously reported on the business of the nation's largest law firms for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. He has also been published in The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times and The Age, in Melbourne, Australia. He's also a longtime programmer and sometimes website designer.
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