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):

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.