Nov 04

Translating, Performing, and Exhibiting Alice

This month is the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. I’ve written two recent posts about the Alice books (on Google and in Disney’s 1951 cartoon), which have been close to my heart for a long time now. In college I wrote my math thesis about Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the Oxford don who wrote the Alice books under his more famous pseudonym. Researching that thesis led me to claims like, “Lewis Carroll invented children’s literature.” Curiosity and skepticism about those claims spurred my interest in graduate studies, and in many ways led to my forthcoming book The Legacy of the Moral Tale (which has only a few pages about Alice).

The sesquicentennial has been a big deal. Scholars, fans, and collectors have been celebrating the books’ un-birthday for most of the year, especially in New York City. I was there for a brief trip last weekend, and had a chance to visit two fantastic exhibits about Alice.

Alice Translation Exhibit ProgramThrough November 21st the Grolier Club is hosting “Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece.” Curated by Jon A. Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum, the exhibit includes materials from their book of the same title. It is housed in a single room on the ground floor, below a 360° library on the second floor. The first few cases cover Carroll himself (including his letters, photographs, and mathematics), translations during his lifetime, and theories of translation. The latter display was a nice touch, giving some theoretical background to the choices made and comparing Alice in Wonderland to Pilgrim’s Progress, the only English novel that exists in more translations than Alice. The case includes example translations from chapter 7, “A Mad Tea Party,” which includes Carroll’s parody of Jane Taylor’s “The Star.” They  include a a copy of Taylor’s Rhymes for the Nursery, and explain some of the challenges to translating the poem in particular and Alice in Wonderland in general.

The rest of the exhibit is organized by geography or language group, with cases focusing on Great Britain and Ireland, Spanish (the language with the most translated editions), Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Africa. A final case focuses on Disney’s books (even the company has lost count of how many there are). Also included throughout the exhibit are translations in shorthand, braille, computer code, and experimental alphabets. In the corner of the room, a television is set up showing clips of multimedia translations, including a Japanese version of Disney’s 1951 Alice, a preview for their 2010 film subtitled in Arabic, Svankmajer’s experimental Czech film (1988), and the video game American McGee’s Alice, dubbed (if I recall) in German.

The Grolier Club has a formal, exclusive feel. Only one other couple was present when my wife and I visited, and the room was silent. The “Alice Live” exhibit, held at the New York Library for the Performing Arts, was a different world entirely. The library branch is located at Lincoln Center, which when we visited (on Halloween) was hosting kids’ a trick-or-treating party. We navigated a crowd of superheroes and princesses (and one elaborate Little Red Riding Hood family, complete with a wolfish grandmother in a wheeled bed), many of whom made their way into the exhibit, which includes a scavenger hunt to find images in the displays. Costumed children raced to complete it.

Alice Performance ExhibitThe exhibit was no less interesting for that additional madness which, frankly, added to the “performance” aspects on which the exhibition focused. At the front of the exhibit are materials related to Dodgson, including his games for children, his fondness for theater and friendships with actresses, and his collaboration with Henry Savile Clarke.

On the NYPL blog Charles Lovett, curator of the exhibit and author of Alice on Stage (1989), describes his personal history collecting Alice-related items, especially theatrical memorabilia, and gives a good overview of the exhibit. One of the highlights not mentioned  is a series of photographs of actresses who have played Alice, from Phoebe Carlo and Isa Bowman (who starred in Clarke’s production in 1886 and 1888, respectively), through Vivian Tobin (in the first Broadway production, 1915), Josephine Hutchinson (who starred in Eva Le Gallienne’s 1932 production), Meryl Streep (who played Alice in 1981), and ballerina Janessa Touchet (from 2015).

Le Gallienne’s play, revived in 1947 and again in 1982, with Le Gallienne playing the White Queen each time, features prominently in the exhibit, but it includes not just famous mainstays like Clarke’s and Le Gallienne’s adaptations but also Andre Gregory’s 1970s play (the result, the exhibit tells us, of two years of improvisation and experimentation) and dozens of musicals, puppet shows, and dances. One image even documents an underwater Alice in Wonderland, performed by the Weeki Wachee mermaids. (Not mentioned in the exhibit but evident in this video: the show adopts one of the mermaids’ signature tricks, drinking a bottle of coke underwater).

Overall I found “Alice Live” rather overwhelming. Even the most extensive coverage of a performance was limited to a description, a few pictures, and (at best) a short video. The Grolier Club, in my view, had the slightly easier task: they convey a lot about a translation with just a page and a short description, and the theoretical background was a nice touch. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading about the performances, and learned about several I hadn’t known about. If you find yourself in New York in the next couple months, both exhibits are well worth the time.

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