Jun 14

Alice in Disneyland

Alice in Wonderland Ride

It has been almost a year since I last posted on this blog, and it had been almost a year before that post, too. Excuses abound (a first child, a new job, a new house in a new city), but I’m recommitting to posting here more regularly. I am partly inspired by Dan Cohen’s essay from a few months ago, about his own desires to write more on his own blog in support of movements to “re-decentralize” the web

But I am also at a point in my current research project that I want to make more public. While I was still teaching at a college outside Orlando, I developed a course called “Disney’s Victorians,” in which we read a bunch of Victorian texts that Disney has adapted, like Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandTreasure Island, and Oliver Twist. With Walt Disney World down the street, I thought it might appeal to students, giving them an entry point into Victorian literature. That summer I attended an NEH seminar in California, and since we had some time set aside for research I drove down to Burbank to visit the Walt Disney Company Archives. I thought maybe I”d find one or two things to use in the class.

I found so much more than that. The archives contain a fascinating record not just of Disney’s films but of the research behind them. Research reports dating back to the 1930s include surveys of competing adaptations, which I would expect, but also scholarly and biographical contexts that might inform the animators’ work — something that surprised me! Two days in the archives resulted in an article about Disney’s Charles Dickens adaptation Oliver & Company in the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, and that barely scratched the surface of what I found. The rest of that research will be included in my next book, tentatively titled Disney’s Victorians: Literary History in the Age of Corporate Media. I connect a historical period to a global media company to address a range of topics in literary studies, including form, history, authorship, empire, gender and sexuality, adaptation theory, and institutional processes. 

Alice in Wonderland Dark RideOver the coming months I will share parts of my book-in-progress on this blog: starting today, June 14th, 2018, which happens to be the 60th birthday of the Alice in Wonderland dark ride at Disneyland. When the ride opened in 1958, Disneyland was still in its infancy. Considered the first amusement park to make storytelling its central focus, the Anaheim theme park opened in 1955. Disney’s cartoon musical Alice in Wonderland (1951) featured prominently in the lead-up to the theme park’s opening, especially on the television program Disneyland. The film also inspired the spinning tea cups at the Mad Tea Party, which was among the park’s first attractions.

The 1951 film is the one you know. In the last sixty years it has become probably the most recognizable version of Alice, displacing even Lewis Carroll’s books and John Tenniel’s illustrations. The movie was the culmination of decades of attempted adaptations and false starts. The 1923 short film “Alice’s Wonderland” was among Walt Disney’s first cartoons. It was inspired by Carroll’s book, though it uses only the basic idea of a girl in a fantasy world to justify the gimmick of a live-action girl interacting with cartoon characters. Disney brought the film with him when he moved to Los Angeles, and used it as his demo. He found a distributor and created a series of Alice films, which he eventually leveraged into a second series, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and eventually Mickey Mouse.

Mary Pickford 1916.jpg

Mary Pickford, who at one point was slated to play Alice in a Walt Disney feature.

The Disney Company, this story reveals, starts with a Victorian text. And the connection to Alice didn’t stop there. The company had some version Alice in Wonderland in production from the 1920s through 1951. In the book, I use archival materials and press releases to reconstruct what Simone Murray has called “phantom adaptations,” versions of a film that reached some stage of production but were never completed. These phantom adaptations include a version starring Mary Pickford as a live-action Alice interacting with animated characters; dozens of pages of suggestions about how to adapt specific characters, choose voice actors, and fit the studio’s own Alice among existing adaptations; and a script written by Aldous Huxley, complete with a frame narrative in which Lewis Carroll and Alice meet the actress Ellen Terry.

Each of these adaptations struggles with a question of form. While the Alice books offer rich material for the cartoon, whose key formal feature is the “gag,” animators continually struggled to connect those episodic moments into a single, unified story with compelling characters. In the book I discuss how the various phantom adaptations approached this struggle.

For now, though, I’ll leave you with the option to watch a ride-through of the Alice ride at Disneyland (you can wish the ride a happy 60th birthday):

Mar 18

Introducing Streaky Bacon

Like many teachers, I often use adaptations in my literature classes: paintings of Tennyson’s poems help students identify the visual details he builds into them; Playboy‘s publication of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” makes the poem’s sexuality graphically clear; David Lean’s Oliver Twist, with Alec Guinness’s prosthetic nose, transfers the text’s anti-Semitism into a different medium; Disney’s Frozen, based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, shows how texts from the past can become twenty-first century cultural sensations. An adaptation can help students see a text in a new way, or prove the continued relevance of texts from a seemingly distant past. And in the field of adaptation studies, scholars are asking questions far more interesting than, “is this adaptation faithful to the original?”

But where does one find these adaptations? Some I remembered from my own student days; some I learned about in conversations with colleagues; others I saw mentioned in an editor’s introduction, or just stumbled onto. This ad hoc discovery is fine, but it would be nice to have something more centralized. It would also be nice to have a place to share newly discovered adaptations, and how they connect to undergraduate teaching or to research questions in literary studies.

Last summer I broached this topic with three colleagues in Victorian studies: Victoria Ford Smith, Annie Swafford, and Carrie Sickmann Han. We began a project that we’re excited to launch today: Streaky Bacon, a curated website that collects short essays about adaptations of Victorian texts. Over the past few months we’ve put together an advisory board of top scholars, collected a dozen or so essays that model a variety of approaches to adaptation, and written an introductory essay that theorizes the project.

The site will be a resource for teachers and scholars of Victorian literature. Check us out, and if you have an adaptation that’s not covered yet, send us a submission!

 

Feb 11

Academic Summers

Like most professors, I don’t usually teach during the summers. But that doesn’t mean we don’t work. In fact, since so much time during the semester is taken up with planning classes, grading papers, and meetings (with students, committees, etc.), the summer might be when the most academic work gets done — if by academic work we mean designing new courses, researching, and writing.

If you are or know an academic, you’re probably reacting like those people in Geico commercials: everybody knows that.

As it turns out, the National Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities know that too. Both offer summer seminars for faculty, and last summer I had the privilege to attend two: a Jesse Ball duPont Summer Seminar for Liberal Arts Faculty, held at the National Humanities Center and led by Laurie Langbauer, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar at the University of California, Santa Cruz, led by Sharon Weltman.

Both were immensely valuable experiences, and I’m still reaping the benefits of those weeks in North Carolina and California. The seminars changed the course of my research. I was working on my book proposal during the NHC seminar, and thanks in part to feedback from Laurie and the other seminar participants, that paid off: my book has been accepted for publication by the University of Tennessee Press. At the NEH seminar I developed what had been an undergraduate class (“Disney’s Victorians”) into an article. That article will be part of a larger project in Victorian studies and children’s literature, but also building on adaptation studies and performance theory — fields I might not even have known about if it hadn’t been for Sharon and the other NEH summer scholars. The NEH seminar culminated in Dickens Universe, a week-long event open not just to scholars but to anyone interested in Dickens. I’ve since then increased my public humanities commitments (I gave a talk at the Orlando Public Library in August and another in December, and in a couple weeks I’ll be a guest judge for a Shakespeare competition).

Summer School, Windermere, England, 1943 (Wikimedia Commons). Sing-a-longs optional at NEH seminars.

Two of my three classes this semester were also directly shaped by those seminars. My literature and childhood course builds on materials from the NHC seminar, and includes texts I wouldn’t have thought to include, were it not for the multimedia and childhood studies approaches I learned at that seminar. The syllabus is varied: we just transitioned from Charlotte’s Web to Sapphire’s Push (Sapphire visited campus last week as part of Rollins’s Winter with the Writers series, so my class got to hear her speak, too). I also redesigned my “Disney’s Victorians” class completely: we’re starting with two case studies, Oliver Twist and Alice in Wonderland, and looking at stage adaptations, reviews, and film clips. Then students will work on group projects for the second half of the semester, ending with research-based creative projects. All this is grounded in the adaptation theory I read at the NEH seminar.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of both seminars was meeting like-minded scholars, with whom I’ve kept contact and will be collaborating. I’ll be presenting at this year’s Dickens Universe with others from the NEH seminar, and put together a panel for the Children’s Literature Association with participants from both seminars. Less formally, but no less importantly, I made good friends with those scholars.

So if you’re an academic and can spare a few weeks this summer, I highly recommend these opportunities. Applications for this year’s NEH summer seminars are due in March. The duPont fellowships have internal deadlines, but the NHC is hosting a Summer Institute in Digital Textual Studies; applications due February 20th.