One of my favourite television productions is the weird and wonderful adaptation of Alice in Wonderland from 1966. The next time the BBC returned to the world of Alice was their attempt at Alice Through the Looking Glass, seven years later. It’s hard to imagine how they could have made something more different and more disappointing.
The attempt to stay as close as possible to the original work is admirable, but there’s probably a reason why faithful adaptations of the Alice books are rarely attempted, particularly Looking Glass. I recently read both books to my son, having not read Looking Glass myself since I was a child, and I was surprised by the drop in quality between Wonderland and its sequel. Adapting it faithfully means adapting a book that is frequently very boring. The bits that aren’t boring are virtually unfilmable, dealing with largely abstract concepts such as Alice’s movement around a landscape that does not follow the normal laws of physics. Also, a lot of the ideas in the second book are massively and unintentionally creepy when rendered in any visual form. I have nothing against creepy versions of Alice, but that has to be the intention. Instead, this is a production that is trying for a child-friendly version of Through the Looking Glass, complete with hideously jaunty music, and is very often unintentionally visually disturbing.
The prime example of that is Humpty Dumpty, a nightmarish vision of a shouting face superimposed on a giant egg costume, worn by somebody flapping their arms around, in turn superimposed on an illustrated background. The nature of the effects used means that the face moves around while the head remains static. The part of the brain that responds to the uncanny valley effect is screaming out in horror at that moment. Then we have a couple of middle-aged men as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, who somehow manage to be creepy and boring at the same time, which is quite an achievement. The director’s choices often make things worse, such as the moment Alice arrives at the dinner party and everyone just sits there in their disturbingly odd costumes, staring at her.
Alice is played by a charming, gap-toothed Sarah Sutton, best known for portraying Nyssa in Doctor Who, a rare example of an age-appropriate Alice, and already a competent and charming little actress. The fact that she makes at least some of this watchable is a testament to her budding abilities, because the process of making this for all the actors must have been hugely frustrating, or at least very challenging, because it’s an utterly horrendous example of the use of CSO instead of building studio sets. Virtually everything was filmed against blue screens, with background illustrations keyed in behind the actors. The actors’ faces are sometimes so distorted by the fringing that it’s hard to figure out who is who. In an early scene, Alice’s legs just disappear, and later the top of her head vanishes and what is left is a perfectly flat surface. The director also didn’t seem to understand that you couldn’t zoom in on a scene or pan across when shooting CSO, because the actors start to float around in relation to the background. One of the worst of many examples is the dinner party, where the director tries to pan along the table and it lurches around wildly against the background as if it’s on the deck of a ship. I suppose you have to have respect for the ambition. This is, after all, a 75 minute production that almost entirely features characters moving around a world that is made up of illustrations. It does look cheap, though. Even when something is physically there it’s nearly always laughable. The props look like they belong in a pantomime, made to be seen only from a distance, such as Alice’s fabric crown, and the physical prop for the farting Jaberwock has to be seen to be believed. Just when you think it couldn’t look any sillier, a section of its arm vanishes, lost to the vagaries of CSO.
It was a lovely touch that they bothered to include the closing poem to the book after the end credits, spelling out Charles Dodgson’s (for he is unarguably Dodgson at that moment) melancholy acrostic tribute to the greatest love of his life. It feels like it belongs at the end of a better production than this. RP