Jul 08

Alice’s Adventures in Google-Land

This year marks the sesquicentennial of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — or, as it’s more typically referred to, Alice in Wonderland. I’ve been thinking a lot about the history and reception of the Alice books lately. This week I was pondering the two titles, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice in Wonderland. The difference matters. Google searches are an index to the popular lexis, and Google Image searches for the two titles look really different. This is immediately visible in the categories Google suggests:

Google Image CategoriesAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland is on the right. The first four categories are book covers, characters, quotes, and movies. The most prominent image for “characters” is Jessie Wilcox Smith’s 1923 illustration, and the top two movie posters are for the forgettable 1972 film, which starred Michael Crawford as the White Rabbit. If we look past the categories, we see a mix of book covers and the Tenniel drawings (click the picture to enlarge it):Screenshot 2015-07-07 15.22.43 Disney is recommended as a category, but doesn’t otherwise appear in the top images. Searching Alice in Wonderland, though, gives us something different (again, click the image to enlarge it):

Screenshot 2015-07-07 15.28.37

The first two categories are “cast” and “Disney” (and the cast is not of 1972 film but of the 2010 Tim Burton one — produced by Disney). In this search “characters” pretty much means “characters as depicted in Disney’s 1951 cartoon,” an emphasis reflected in the costumes, too. Even the “drawings” category shows Disney’s, not Tenniel’s, and most of the images are from the Tim Burton film, with a smattering of Tenniel and of the 1951 cartoon.

Disney has pretty successfully appropriated Carroll’s text, and his adaptation arguably looms larger than Carroll’s in the popular imagination. Disney dominates the popular visuals for Alice in Wonderland, despite being essentially absent from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. So is Disney’s 1951 cartoon, Alice in Wonderland, responsible for the truncated title?

The short answer is no. Paramount’s 1933 film used the shortened title, and in their recent study of the publishing history of the Alice books, Zoe Jacques and Eugene Giddens note that the “diminutive version had circulated in the popular imagination almost since the original publication” (205). Their bibliography includes a 1903 film, Alice in Wonderland, though not until 1910 did a book use the truncation.

Just as Google’s search results give us some insight into the popular perception of the culture text, Google’s Ngram Viewer give us a broad historical picture. Ngrams chart the occurrence of words in the Google Books corpus. Here is the search for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from 1860 to 2008:

Screenshot 2015-07-07 15.42.00As is typically the case with ngrams, the trends are easily explained. We see a sharp rise beginning with the initial publication, when reviews would have begun, then negative slope until the mid-1870s, when Looking-Glass bumped Wonderland back into the spotlight, and a sharp spike in the late 1880s, corresponding to Henry Saville Clarke’s popular stage production. The second rise corresponds to the first centenary of the book but is more likely explained by the adoption of Carroll’s text, with its references to size- and mind-altering substances, by the counter-culture of the 1960s (think Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” or the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus”).

Keeping in mind the difference in scale, here is the ngram for the truncated title:

Screenshot 2015-07-07 15.49.56The graph confirms Jacques and Giddens’s claim that the truncated title showed up pretty quickly. This graph differs from the above: it has a steadier rise, peaking in the mid-1930s, presumably with Paramount’s Alice in Wonderland (1933). The title got a slight bump during the war years, but the slope in the years following Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) is negative, not picking up again until the 1960s. Disney’s film may now dominate the Google results for Alice in Wonderland, but the studio adopted rather than introduced the shortened title — and their cultural dominance doesn’t show up until later, at least not in the (admittedly limited) ngram results.

Jun 15

Victorian Vogue and Disney’s Alice

On Wednesday I head to Richmond for the Children’s Literature Association’s annual conference, and this post previews what I’ll be talking about.

2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland. The Lewis Carroll Society of America is hosting a series of events, including an exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York, and Harvard’s exhibition is viewable online. In the century and a half since its first publication, Carroll’s book has been adapted for television, theater, film, and even board games and soap. And of course, advertising. If you watched television in December, it was hard to miss this commercial:

Once you know the commercial is a riff on Alice, the tea party and the size-changing marshmallow fit the theme. But the Alice-ness is first established by the entry into the Target logo, the head-first dive after the White Rabbit (here replaced by Target’s canine mascot). Alice-white-rabbitThat visual doesn’t allude to the book — Carroll doesn’t tell us the precise manner in which Alice enters Wonderland. Alice follows the rabbit and is “just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.” Then “In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.” The illustrations aren’t much help. Tenniel’s illustrations show the rabbit checking his wrist-watch, and in the next image Alice is already down the rabbit-hole, opening the curtain to reveal the tiny door.

In Disney’s 1951 adaptation, though Alice enters the rabbit-hole head first. (You can see the scene on YouTube, if the clip hasn’t been taken down). That image has entered the public consciousness, and Target counts on shoppers to recognize it.

I take the phrase in my title, “Victorian vogue,” from Dianne Sadoff, who argues that we must consider “the production, distribution, and exhibition situations of films that adapt classic novels” . In other words, the context in which an adaptation is produced matters. Understanding an adaption requires more than just comparing it with the original. Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is no exception. Walt Disney’s interest in Alice started early: he produced “Alice’s Wonderland” in Kansas City, and brought it with him to Hollywood. He eventually produced 57 Alice cartoons, De Alice's Abenteuer im Wunderland Carroll pic 03though they have little to do with Carroll’s story, beyond the title: mostly they’re a vehicle for the novelty of blending live action with animation. Disney also screen-tested Mary Pickford for a live-action Alice in the early 1930s, abandoning the project when he learned of Paramount’s competing film. But Disney secured the copyright for the Tenniel illustrations only after the release of Snow White in 1938 , and that’s when studio really got to work on Alice. (It’s plausible he hoped to get a film together by the 75th anniversary in 1940, though I haven’t seen anything particular to suggest that).

By the early 1940s, of course, the world had more important things to worry about. To understand the context in which Disney’s 1951 film was produced, we’d have to consider Disney’s films supporting the war effort, and how World War II changed the relationship between England and America (and consequently how an American film based on a much-loved English text would be received). And of course, we’d want to think about the role of the Alice books in American culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Sadoff adapts her title from F. R. Leavis, who felt that Victorian novels were particularly “in vogue” in the 1940s. So that’s a lot of historical pressure affecting the production and reception of Disney’s film.

But this week I will look at a smaller, parallel history: the company’s story meetings and drafts of the film. Meeting notes and research reports from the archives show Disney’s storywriters responding to public perceptions of Alice in Wonderland and even considering biographical and scholarly works. Walt Disney was supposedly mystified by “the symbolic meanings people kept finding in The Three Little Pigs,” and responded with a phrase that’s quoted in most of his biographies: “we make the pictures and then let the professors tell us what they mean” . In that statement Disney seems dismissive of academics, of whom F. R. Leavis is a fine prototype (Leavis wrote one of my favorite academic sentences: “The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad” . Such confidence). But the archives show something different – Disney did care what “the professors” said. As I will argue this week, storywriters responded to contemporary events and the cultural reception of Carroll’s Alice books, and knowing that fact should shift how we think about Disney’s adaptations.

Works Cited

Dec 11

Dickens, Adaptation, and A Christmas Carol

My book manuscript is about children’s literature, the novel, and moral instruction. I argue that Victorian writers like Charles Dickens learned the narrative strategies that underlie their morally instructive novels from the stories they read as children. Chances are, this holiday season you’ll watch or read some version of one of the texts I write about: A Christmas Carol.

The novel is everywhere this time of year, in unexpected forms. Characters might be Muppets, or the Flintstones, or Barbie. Scrooge might be be Bill Murray as a television executive: Scrooged film poster.JPGOr Matthew McConaughey as a bachelor photographer: Ghosts of girlfriends past.jpgOr Vanessa Williams:A Diva's Christmas Carol.jpg

All adaptations are interpretations. And even the oddest adaptations of A Christmas Carol might in fact be quite consistent with Dickens’s story, which is itself about interpretations, good and bad. Scrooge is initially skeptical about the instructive ghosts: when Marley asks him if he believes in ghosts, Scrooge says he can’t believe his own senses – “A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

But it only takes one visit for Scrooge to realize how valuable the lessons will be. When he meets the second ghost, he says, “I went forth last night on compulsion, and learned a valuable lesson. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.” Before the story is half finished, Scrooge has already learned not only to recognize his own unhappiness but also to welcome future lessons.

By the third spirit’s visit Scrooge knows the game very well: he resolves “to treasure up every word he heard, and everything he saw.” The silent third spirit shows Scrooge a funeral, and Scrooge replies: “I see, I see. The case of this unhappy man might be my own. My life tends that way, now.” Scrooge is wrong. He incorrectly interprets his moral visions, failing to recognize himself in the “unhappy man.” When the truth finally dawns on him, he tells the spirit “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse.” He is converted only after making that mistake.

Part of the lesson, then, is being wrong. To learn something from A Christmas Carol, we have to be willing to make a mistake – and then willing to correct it.

When we watch an adaptation of a novel, we typically ask, “how does this film compare to the book?” And we typically respond, “the book is better.” But A Christmas Carol gives us an opportunity. In Scrooge, Dickens shows us the power of being wrong. So when we look at an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, we can ask not just, “is it right in its interpretation” but also “how might it be different from the book, and what might that difference mean”? How might making Scrooge a television executive or a bachelor or a diva use Dickens’s novel to respond to modern, American cultural needs?

And if those responses turn us back to Dickens, is that such a bad thing? In Film Adaptation and Its Discontents, David Leitch calls A Christmas Carol “entry level Dickens”: people encounter the novel, often as children, and besides the moral lessons about compassion and conversion they gain the cultural knowledge that the story represents. The story provides an entry point not just to Dickens, but to adult culture more broadly (his reading of The Muppet Christmas Carol is especially good).

ChistmasCarol2009-Poster.jpgOne problem: the story isn’t always associated with Dickens. Disney’s 2009 version, for example, advertises Jim Carrey and claims this is Disney’s A Christmas Carol — Dickens is nowhere on the poster.

So at this time of year, maybe we need to be especially conscious that we make this connection: that we make A Christmas Carol entry-level Dickens rather than just another Disney product.

I’ll be doing that on Saturday: if you’re in Orlando, come hear my talk at the Orlando Public Library. I’ll be talking about Dickens, childhood, (both his own childhood and his child characters), and, of course, Christmas: Poster for Dickens Christmas Talk