“Alice in Wonderland” is that rare Disney movie for which the source text is more beloved than the animated adaptation. Today I’m only looking at the 1951 Walt-Disney-overseen animated adaptation of the famous stories by Lewis Carroll, not Tim Burton’s recent live action film; perhaps I’ll return to that another day. Disney did something interesting with this film: it’s an adaptation of both “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.”
Bringing both stories to the screen is possible because, well, both are just the tales of Alice’s many adventures in Wonderland. Neither have a specific plot; Alice falls into Wonderland, wanders around and meets the many interesting characters found there, and then wakes up from her dream. In “Through the Looking Glass” Alice acts as a pawn in a giant chess game; if she finishes she gets to be made a queen. Yet little reference is made to the actual game, and no real stakes are placed upon it, so that the game doesn’t really act as a traditional plot structure.
The main function of the two books, which I read back to back, seems to be to tell a story for children of a young girl’s adventures, and to entertain adults with the word play. Alice has communication problems with nearly everyone she meets in Wonderland, because they take her English turns of phrase literally, or interpret them in a unique way. She has similar difficulties with the Wonderlanders’ speech.
We get less of this in the Disney adaptation, which makes sense. Word play doesn’t exactly draw mass audiences. You can see that instead it’s Wonderland itself that drew Disney to the Alice stories: a whimsical world full of talking animals and inanimate objects, where bread-and-butterflies float through fields of bickering wild flowers. It’s like Carroll wrote the stories for Disney to animate.
Carroll unknowingly gave Disney everything. His book is an animator’s dream: a mother oyster with her little oyster babies under the sea, foods that change the eater’s size, playing cards as soldiers, a cross-species tea party, everything. Disney and his team bring the details of Wonderland to life beautifully.
It’s hard to compare Carroll to Disney as I have with the other source texts because the Alice stories don’t have rising or falling action, and thus Disney doesn’t cut corners on plots or soften dark edges. Disney seems to have selected the best bits to animate out of the two stories; some of Alice’s encounters are more nonsensical than others, or not as imaginative, and those seem to be the ones Disney skipped.
The main difference I noticed was in Alice herself. For most of Disney’s adaptation she’s quite close to Carroll’s version, except for one glaring bit at the beginning: her crying. Carroll’s Alice never sheds a tear on her adventures; in fact, the closest she comes to negative emotion is frustration over her inability to effectively communicate with people in Wonderland.
I understand why Disney made the change, though. First it’s a neat way to transition into the next aquatic scene. Additionally, it’s kind of strange for a seven-year-old kid to never bat an eyelash at what’s happening to her or worry about not getting home. Some precocious or adventurous kids might have Carroll’s Alice’s reaction, but it’s perfectly realistic for others to cry.
Crying doesn’t even make her weak, because she handles the rest of her adventures with aplomb. Disney’s Alice might actually be the studio’s most well-rounded and portrayed female character to date (meaning to 1951). Sadly, as we’ll soon see, this might just be because she was viewed as a child character, not a female character.