Saturday, June 6, 2015

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's "The Story of Alice"

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is Professor of English Literature and a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. His publications include Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist.

Here he dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland:
Lewis Carroll would probably have hated going to the movies. Despite his love of theatre, he considered music halls vulgar, and it’s hard to imagine him enjoying the experience of being wedged in between modern moviegoers who text with one hand while scoffing popcorn with the other. But he would have been fascinated by the technology. One of the characters Carroll added to his original version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the Cheshire Cat, when he also arranged for two illustrations to be printed on successive pages. In the first it was sitting up a tree and grinning toothily at Alice; in the next it was slowly disappearing to leave only its grin behind. Turn the page back and forth and it seemed to vanish before your eyes. It was both a magic trick and a primitive movie sequence. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that many early filmmakers tried to adapt Carroll’s story for the screen, from a crackly 1903 silent movie (dir. Cecil Hepworth & Percy Stow) to the 56 ‘Alice Comedies’ that Walt Disney made BM (Before Mickey) in the 1920s.

Movies about Carroll himself are comparatively rare. The most successful version is probably Dreamchild (dir. Gavin Millar, 1985), in which he is played by Ian Holm as a sad and stammering figure tortured by thoughts that are too disturbing to put into words. The real Carroll was far more interesting: a playful figure who loved new inventions (at one point he enquired whether it was possible to buy Charles Babbage’s pioneering version of the computer) and was addicted to games and jokes. He was also remarkably good-looking as a young man, and it is worth remembering that when he first told Alice Liddell his story in 1862 he was only 30 years old. So who could play him now? My choice would be either a smart actor like Dan Stevens, who could capture Carroll’s personal charisma with a single look to camera, or a comedian like Steve Coogan.

As for Alice – there have been thousands of attempts to reinvent the fictional character originally made famous by John Tenniel’s illustrations, which showed her as a prim and proper Victorian miss with long blonde hair and a stiff pale frock. The real Alice looked very different: a mischievous girl with a neat chestnut bob who grew up into a rather grand society lady. But I wouldn’t choose an actress to play her. Instead I’d choose Vanessa Tait, someone I became friends with when I started to research my book, whose first novel (The Looking Glass House) examines another version of the story behind Wonderland. She’s Alice Liddell’s great-granddaughter, and the resemblance is uncanny. Apparently she wanted to audition for Dreamchild but wasn’t allowed to. In my movie she’d finally get her close-up.
Learn more about The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland.

My Book, The Movie: Becoming Dickens.

The Page 99 Test: Becoming Dickens.

--Marshal Zeringue