Jonathan Miller’s Alice

Because I am teaching Alice in Wonderland this semester, I ordered Miller's 1966 production, which includes turns by Peter Sellers, Sir John Gielgud, & Sir Michael Redgrave, though the most valuable minutes on the disk -- certainly from a film history perspective -- may be Cecil Hepworth's 1903 silent film of the story. Miller's telling of the story is certainly a period piece, with a sitar soundtrack & a portrayal of Alice (by Anne-Marie Mallik) remarkable for its stoned lack of affect. Miller says in the commentary that he wanted to avoid the "traditional concept a over-cheery seven-year-old" & he certainly succeeds, replacing her with a disturbingly sexualized hippie chick version of the character. It's not the sexuality, though, that he gets wrong, but the lack of fear. Alice is supremely in control, bemused at what is taking place, but never startled or afraid. One of the most important themes of Carroll's tale, though, is the frightening irrationality of the adult world. It is only Alice's thin veneer of breeding that prevents her from flying completely to pieces. When the Mad Hatter confides to Alice that "we're all mad here," it is clear that Alice's problem is her relationship to "here." Is she a part of Wonderland, or does she stand apart? One should not be fooled by the fairytale title: Wonderland war originally merely Underground. The title was changed for marketing reasons. In any case, for Carroll, Wonderland might have meant something more like Puzzleland. The best scene in Miller's Alice is the mad tea party, which is a simultaneously loony & terribly depressing meditation on the tyranny of time. I'll show my students that scene & the Hepworth film after they have read the story, though I think I may show the opening scene next week, which shows Alice & her sister (no Lewis Carroll anywhere to be seen) in a field of tall summer grass at the beginning of the story. Miller uses a voice-over in Alice's voice: There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, / The earth, and every common sight, / To me did seem / Apparelled in celestial light, / The glory and the freshness of a dream. The words are not Lewis Carroll's, but William Wordsworth's, from the beginning of the "Immortality Ode," a poem we will be discussing next week after Blake's Songs of Innocence & Experience. The loss of childhood. Maybe I'll begin the class with Van Morrison's "Madam George" & "Cyprus Avenue" Morrison's songs are studded with references to Blake & Yeats: Here is a remarkable live version of "Cyprus Avenue" that gains power from our having heard the folkier version from Astral Weeks . Thematically, all these texts work the same turns. As part of my project to demonstrate the false distinction between elite & popular arts, I'll begin this opening phase of the course with Blake & Wordsworth & segue to Morrison. And all of that is just to set everybody up for Alice.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.