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Alice on the Silver Screen

Alice in Wonderland (1903)

Alice was first adapted for the screen in 1903—only five years after Carroll’s death and when the film industry was still in its infancy. The film is preserved in just one badly damaged print. Originally about twelve minutes (800 feet), it was the longest film yet produced in Britain and a big production for the day. It is seemingly disjointed and wildly episodic, based only loosely on the original story, but this is partially because the individual scenes were shown interspersed with other similarly short films: several tableaux (or “actualities”) and narrative shorts would be compiled into a longer program by individual cinemas.

The directors Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stowe attempted to faithfully reproduce Tenniel’s illustrations in the film and created elaborate costumes and set designs. They also experimented with inventive special effects, to show Alice growing and shrinking and the appearance and disappearance of the Cheshire-Cat.

In the first years of the twentieth century, Hepworth’s studio was producing around one hundred films a year. Alice in Wonderland was shot on a small outdoor stage and at a nearby estate, and the actors were culled from the studio’s staff: Mabel Clark (the studio’s unofficial secretary) played Alice; Hepworth’s wife took the roles of the White Rabbit and the Queen; and Hepworth himself was the Frog Footman.

Hepworth spent his childhood assisting his father with Magic Lantern performances. He began making films in 1898 and published Animated Photography, the first handbook on film. By 1910, he was experimenting with was experimenting with ways to add sound to film, but Alice in Wonderland would have been screened with live accompaniment.

Alice in Wonderland (1915)

One of the earliest American adaptations of Alice is this 1915 production directed by W. W. Young. The film is nearly an hour long, and it too features elaborate costumes and set designs that strive to mimic Tenniel’s original designs in the book. The title character is played by Viola Savoy, who was primarily a stage actress: she was involved as many as 125 plays, but Alice is one of only two films that she acted in.

Alice in Wonderland (1931)

The first Alice film with synchronized sound (or “talkie”) was released in September 1931. The low- budget production was shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Although the American actors struggled with British accents, the film is one of the most faithful adaptations of the tale. It was produced in advance of the 1932 centenary of Lewis Carroll’s birth as an education aid and was not successful at the box office.