Alice Analysis

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Alice Adaptation Project: Analysis


Team Members: Salman Bakht, Robin Chin, Sarah Harris, Rama Hoetzlein


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Reading Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, the first impression one has is a richness of imagination which moves freely between dialogue, physical surrealism, and narrative nonsense. The same may be found in the various adaptations of Alice in Wonderland, whether it be Walt Disney’s animation or Svankmajer's Alice.


Despite the nature of the story as a work of nonsense, however, we can find certain patterns which maintain Alice in Wonderland as a narrative. In order to communicate with the reader, degrees of more and less rule-breaking must be present even in works of nonsense. The analysis of Alice and Wonderland considered here is maintained by observing certain fundamental actions, which are found in every adaptation of Alice we considered. Unless we are speaking of purely random symbols, in any work of the imagination whether it be Tom Robbins, Lewis Carroll, or Kurt Vonnegut, we can find some level at which the work effectively communicates meaning, and therefore applies some - possibly very subtle - social rules to that communication. As our group has discovered, Alice herself binds the narrative together, so we have examined her actions through the various texts and also used these actions to help develop our own montage.


Our group considers the first two chapters of Alice, and the actions specifically considered for this analysis include:

            - falling

            - finding doors

            - appearance of table

            - eating

            - drinking

            - shrinking

            - growing

            - fanning


Despite stylistic differences, and great changes to dialog, each adaptation represents these actions in some way or another. Thus, her actions provide a way to analyze the adaptations of Alice structurally. This was carried out by marking in each text the location and duration of each action above. Additional actions, and other divergences from the original text were also marked. For simplicity, the actions of other characters. This analysis is therefore a focus one, limited just to Alice, and her actions in time and space.





The story of Alice's shrinking and growing is the most established plot element in the first two chapters. While a wide range of nonsensical dialog surrounds this, Carroll is very specific about the structure of these transformations. The tiny door is 15" high (p. ), Alice shrinks to 10" (p. ), then grows to 9 feet (p. ). Finally, she shrinks again, then "measures herself to be roughly 2 feet" (p.  ), until shrinking small enough to fit through the door again at 10". We find that much of the nonsense of the original text lies in Alice's own interpretation of what is happening to her, and while her shrinking and growing in unexpected, it has definite parameters (meaning) to Carroll.


The adaptations we consider are all film adaptations. As film explicitly expresses spatial and temporal dimensions, we can use Carroll's dimensions to allow us to visualize Alice in Wonderland in terms of her actions and her physical size in relationship to the original text. Figures 1 thru 5 show the results of this analysis. These represent 1) Carroll's original text, 2) Cecil Hepworth's 1903 film adaptation, 3) Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland, 4) Jan Svankmajer's Alice and 5) our own montage.






      Fig 1-5. Visualization of Alice texts in time and scale. 1) Lewis Carroll's original, 2) Cecil Hepworth's 1903 film,

      3) Walt Disney (1951), 4) Jan Svankmajer's Alice (1988), and 5) our montage.


In these figures, the horizontal axis represents time, which has been normalized so that each graph is scaled to end at the same time in the plot, when Alice exits the room of doors. The vertical axis represents Alice's physical size. In addition, to help the viewer to compare adaptations, the fundamental actions of Alice are represented with different colors.

                                    green               =          falling

                                    red                   =          shrinking

                                    blue                 =          growing

                                    aqua                 =          crying


The actions of eating, drinking and fanning are used to trigger growing and shrinking, and are usually very short in duration. Therefore, these are labeled diagonally in italics just prior to the actions they trigger. Finally, the color yellow is used to depict actions not found in the original text.




A close reading analysis of Alice in Wonderland may explore the motivations of Alice, her personality, and her perception of reality. However, by examining Alice's actions systematically, without inquiring as to their motive, the visualizations here seem to reveal something else altogether. That is, rather than show us Alice herself, they show how the overall structure of adaptations has become more liberal over time. This is not to say that Alice's motives should not also be examined, as they allow us to look at personal meaning. Rather, the analysis here is just of a different quality, a distant reading.


What we discover in these visualizations is an observable increase in freedom, from Carroll's original text to Svankmajer's stop-motion film with regard to the plot, narrative, and physical structure of Alice.


In Cecil Hepworth's 1903 adaptation, closest to the original text, we find deviations which may be explained as a struggle with the new media of film. The falling is replaced with crawling, noticeably because it is easier to film crawling. The duration of growing and shrinking are also much longer. Examining the film, it is easy to see that the creators were struggling with how to composite film to achieve this effect. Thus, we might say in a literal way that film itself has introduce these deviations from the original text.


In the Walt Disney adaptation, the deviations are more severe, and also much more deliberate. Here, we can also observe how animation has influenced creative decisions. The shrinking and growing of Alice is both faster (steeper lines), and also starts and ends at much greater extremes (4" and 30 ft). In addition, in this version, the filmmakers introduced a great deal of dialogue between Alice and the door, not found in the original. This might be explained as helping to build Alice as an emotive character, something perhaps desirable in a cartoon animation, and perhaps especially in a Disney animation. Thus, an overall analysis reveals that the medium of animation helps to push the physicality, caricature, and dialogue to extremes.


In Jan Svankmajer's Alice we find the most liberal interpretation of the text. First, Svankmajer introduces a wide range of new actions for Alice: pounding, jumping, swimming, and rafting. In addition, he also allows objects themselves to move independently, for example when leaves fly into the desk drawer. This may be compared to Walt Disney's talking door, but at a much more fundamental level. Finally, a unique element of Svankmajer’s adaptation is to break the structure of the room itself, lowering the ceiling to Alice rather than expanding her to it. Svankmajer's Alice is rich with textures and physical materials (not conveyed in this analysis), which contribute to a very transformative, physical, and sculptural interpretation in which tacticle processes are most important.


Our own montage can be viewed as a new interpretation itself. The plot generally follows the narrative of falling, eating, drinking, shrinking and growing, but with several notable differences. The unique aspect of montage to create a repetition of imagery from preexisting memories won’t be examined here. We use the technique of montage, however, to present a succession of short clips. This was found to be very in tune with our goal of analysing the existing text on a microlevel. Thus, in our version, nearly every action is actually a rapid succession of the same action. This has the effect of exaggerating certain micro-behaviors of Alice, such as drinking and eat, which are transformed from momentary events in the original text into prolonged activities. We intentionally interweaved crying and eatting to make our own references to the behavior of consumption.


Shrinking and growing are also interleaved, so that during this time in our montage Alice is in a state of physical change in rapid succession. Although this was not planned, it is interesting that after this point we make liberal use Alice existing at different scales so that at one moment she is seen swimming as a full grown girl, and in another moment as a doll.


Another essential difference in our adaption is the appearance of the key. In the original text, and all the adaptations we viewed, the key appears on the table prior to her scale changes, thus setting up the logical paradoxes Alice finds herself in. In our adaptation, the key appears only after her shinking and growing, which has the effect of further emphasizing Alice’s entrapment in these events. This may be a theme particular to our montage: the existence of Alice as a girl caught in a paradigm.


Despite these differences, we consider this work to be an adaptation, and not simply a montage, because Alice goes through the same basic steps as outlined in the original text – entering the room, shrinking and growing, eating and drinking, using the key, and finally exiting the room. In keeping with our theme of Alice’s predicament, however, we transform the final exit into a new entrance into the same space, thus keeping Alice in this paradigm for perpetuity. In light of this, one wonders if all adaptations of Alice might be viewed as a means to put this poor girl into ever-more-cruel predicaments? Interestingly, whereas Lewis Caroll is the more liberal in how Alice interprets her surroundings (dialogue with herself), the other film adaptations are more liberal in what happens to her (events and environment).


Overall, we can observe an increasingly liberal interpretation of the original text. Despite differences, in all the film adaptations (except our own), the steps of shrinking, growing and shrinking are maintained in that order. Other deviations are more subtle. In the original text, and the 1903 version, a hand-held fan triggers the final shrinking, but in both Walt Disney and Svanjmajer this has been replaced with eating or drinking. Thus, somehow, the modern adaptations have lost the fan altogether (Note: The fan is found in the 1999 TV movie). We may wonder that this was either to emphasize consumption, or simply to keep the actions of growing and shrinking consistent.


In every adaptation, the media itself can be seen to play a critical role to such a degree that one can see how the creative process is really a dialogue with the media. In the Disney version, caricature pushes the issues of scale and time to an extreme. In Svanjmaker, the materiality of sculpture introduces the active, physical processes of pounding on doors, swimming, and rafting, etc. While the motives of the artist are not specifically considered here, we can see that they must have resolved issues in very specific ways with their media.


It is important to mention the limits of this analysis. A systematic approach as these visualizations portray do not capture the emotions of Alice, her mood, or her personality. In addition the specific style of each film, such as Disney's cartoon presentation, or Svankmajer's unique sculptural stop-motion, is also lost. While another analysis may approach these, it would be necessary to sacrifice in some other area. Any analysis through a simulation or system must therefore always compromises in what it shows, hiding some things to make others clear.


What is shown by this analysis, however, is an increasingly liberal deconstruction of the rules of plot, narrative, and dialog as observed in film adaptations of Alice in Wonderland. Such a clear view of the transformation of media over time may have been impossible with a traditional analysis. This deconstruction occurs even on the level of physical structure and expected rules of communication. Our own montage ultimately breaks with the shrink-grow-shrink plot itself, giving a sense of repetition, consumption and cyclicality.


Looking at these visualizations, one cannot help feel direct parallels between the adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and the general direction of our culture. As this example shows, rules of art-making are being increasingly broken in various media. As Walter Benjamin, or Lev Manovich would state, this is because novel media are largely responsible, perhaps more than the individual artist, for contemporary transformations of meaning. The visualizations here would tend to support this distant view of creativity.


One interesting question might thus be posed which connects distant and close reading. There is a general tendency in contemporary art and filmmaking to unhold the breaking of rules as one of the defining motives of the artist. Levi-Strauss explicitly identifies this modern myth as being central to art practice. Yet, we might wonder if this is a conscious choice by the modern artist – to uphold the belief in break rules in order to produce novel forms – or a necessary psychological response to the wide range of new types of media now present? Does our media-rich culture demand rule breaking to engage in contemporary practice? Is an increasing move toward rule-breaking an inherent aspect of art-making, or simply a product of post-modern culture? Must every artwork be novel? Regardless of the response, a distant analysis such as this reveals clearly that each new adaptation of Alice also creates new rules to support those which it breaks. This process of making and breaking rules in art reminds me of a well known comment by the naturalist John Muir (applied to laws, which are a type of rule):


”Our crude civilization engenders a multitude of wants, and law-givers are ever at their wit's end devising. The hall and the theater and the church have been invented, and compulsory education. Why not add compulsory recreation? Our forefathers forged chains of duty and habit, which bind us notwithstanding our boasted freedom, and we ourselves in desperation add link to link, groaning and making medicinal laws for relief. Yet few think of pure rest or of the healing power of Nature.”






Our editing work in progress. Little bits of adaptation films are scattered across the timeline, spliced by shot and roughly organized by action.

These gradually these make their way to the left, as a single reforumlated montage where we would take turns editing them into the final project.



Continue on to Reflection


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