Once upon a time, I was so little that I could stand on the back of my nan’s sofa and survey the kingdom all around me. That summit seemed very high, and I was still small enough for her living room to be divided into several distinct regions. In the hazy distance opposite me (and it was hazy because my nan was a sixty-a-day woman) was the cliff edge of the mantlepiece. There lived regal ladies and gentlemen dressed in the fashions of the French court, and each of them bore the scars of terrible tumbles into the precipice below. My nan was not a fussy person, and each time one of them got knocked off and broken on the hearth, she would carelessly stick them back together with her trusty tube of Uhu. The figurines looked like Frankenstein creations, with arms, legs and heads reattached with bobbly contusions of sinister yellow glue.
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Away to the far left, through the chasm between a sagging armchair and my nan’s monolithic rented telly, was a little-visited glade beneath the large bay window, where a wooden table contained the remnants of a long-defunct record player. On the far right of the room was my nan’s armchair, where she smoked, watched TV, read Mills and Boon paperbacks and idled away the hours doing word search puzzles. Between her armchair and the mantlepiece was a dark cabinet where she kept her most prized ornaments, glassware and keepsakes. Then, far below me, was the plateau of her coffee table. I was so tiny that I could make a den of it by propping mail-order catalogues against the shelf underneath and crawling inside.
The interior of a house is as big or as small as a child’s imagination needs it to be. A coffee table can be a tiny piece of driftwood afloat in the sea, all that’s protecting them from circling sharks. Or it can be a vast battlefield for their toys to wage war against each other. A wardrobe can be a deep cave to hide in and a tall mountain to conquer…
A child’s imagination is malleable and grotesque, and their games are influenced by both what they know – many of my kids’ make-believe involve picnics and household chores – and whatever springs into their ghoulish little minds. Few films capture this feeling of fluid space and floor-level adventures as well as Švankmajer’s Alice, which also triggers all the senses, to often queasy effect.
Švankmajer makes it clear from the outset that we’re operating inside the headspace of Alice (Kristýna Kohoutová) – first, we’re sitting by the babbling waters of a brook, with a bored young girl throwing stones into the water. Next, we’re inside her home with her doll (who doubles for Alice in later scenes) tossing stones into a teacup. Then the adventure begins proper, with a standout set piece of a threatening-looking stuffed rabbit busting out of its display case before leading Alice on her bizarre adventure through a desk drawer (in lieu of a rabbit hole).
Švankmajer plays fast and loose with the source material, using it as a jumping-off point for his own strange imagination. The basic structure of Lewis Carroll’s tale is present, and Alice encounters surreal versions of the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar, the Dormouse, and the King and Queen of Hearts. Many of them are disquieting to look at – the Caterpillar is made from a gross old sock with a pair of dentures, while other creatures are knocked together from real animal skeletons with beady glass eyes.
Alice is a film that you can taste, smell and feel. Švankmajer’s wonderland is tactile, conjuring up long-lost rainy days indoors exploring your own home, with dust along the skirting boards, jars of bobs and buttons, browning discarded apple cores and plates of uneaten biscuits. You can taste the sticky jam and the homemade pastry, smell the fust of long unopened closets, and feel the rasp of cheap polyester on your fingers. It’s not a cosy version of the story, but then Alice was never a cosy tale to begin with.
Is it a good adaptation of the story? That’s a tricky one. I studied Children’s Literature at university and, while I never actually liked the book, I found it endlessly fascinating. It’s a story that shows its ad-hoc origins throughout – famously, Carroll invented the tale while rowing a couple of his young female friends down a river. Whereas other fantasy lands such as Neverland, Narnia and Middle Earth have some kind of clearly defined topography, Carroll’s wonderland is much vaguer. I always thought of it as a literary desert island, populated with forlorn castaways from shores as distant as heraldry (the gryphon) and nursery rhyme (Humpty Dumpty).
Perhaps its vagueness is part of its appeal, and key to its longevity as a source for filmmakers. Disney is responsible for two of the most commonly known versions – the cutesy 1951 version that cemented the image of Alice as a blonde-haired fairytale princess, rather than the forthright and somewhat uppity Alice of Carroll’s story; and Tim Burton’s turgid CGI-fest, which transformed the tale into a by-the-numbers hero’s quest. One of the more interesting takes is the little known Dreamchild, which touched upon Carroll’s possible paedophilia while also offering a feast of Jim Henson creatures which accurately captured the melancholy, threadbare nature of Tenniel’s original illustrations.
Here, countering the image of Alice as a flaxen-haired goody-two-shoes popularized by the earlier Disney effort, Kohoutová’s protagonist is certainly closer to Carroll’s Alice – inquisitive, interrogative, no-nonsense and sometimes surly, with an indomitable child’s spirit.
Švankmajer’s Alice is not the definitive film version of this story, and I doubt he ever intended it to be. Perhaps we haven’t had the definitive version yet. The film creepy, surreal and potentially nightmare-inducing, and I’m doubtful whether it is suitable for younger children. However, it deeply invokes the feeling of being a child in a darkly non-Disneyfied way, stirring sensations that I thought were lost forever – for better or worse.