Posted by: Kyle M. | November 1, 2009

When You Mix a Cup of Carroll With A Dash of Disney…


This is part one in a series of articles, which will be updated as I continue to progress through the story


Based on the title of my post, What’s the result?

One would be hard pressed to dispute the notion that Walt Disney and Lewis Carroll were amongst the most influential figures in the history of ‘children’s’ entertainment. Carroll was the twisted writer behind the classical Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Walt Disney hardly warrants any introduction: his iconic characters, such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy, remain cornerstones of American popular culture over sixty years after their inception. The similarities between the men extend far beyond their popularity; for example, they both had a tendency to ‘push the envelope’ in terms of content in their ‘family-friendly’ work, with Disney’s feature films consistently dealing with the idea of death (Bambi certainly comes to mind) and Carroll’s Alice irreverently making light of said concept on numerous instances (such as when Alice remarks about “going out like a candle” [Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, page 17]).

That being said, the two craftsman were not completely identical; the disparities between their story-telling philosophies became perhaps most evident in Disney’s 1956 film adaptation of Carroll’s aforementioned masterpiece, retitled to simply Alice in Wonderland. To a certain extent, the movie version follows the original almost religiously. Alice falls down a rabbit hole and embarks on a grand journey, meeting a plethora of strange (and symbolic) creatures along the way. However, while the plot might follow recognizable beats, the attitude and approach towards the tale is much, much different. These divergent interpretations  not only highlight the ideological divide between the two artists, but also the radical differences between the eras in which they existed.

Chapter 1/ The Film’s Opening

Carroll’s Alice begins on a fast-paced note, and doesn’t hesitate to rush its protagonist straight into Wonderland; by the fourth paragraph, the young heroine has already tumbled down the rabbit-hole (The Annotate Alice: The Definitive Edition, pages 11-12). For most writers, this would be the logical manner to present this particular story’s beginning; the ‘hook’ to the entire tale is the prospect of transporting the reader to a brand new world, so why not do so as quickly and efficiently as possible? But Disney chose to pursue another route; his version of the opening is composed of several expository scenes, establishing Alice as a girl who wishes that the world was made of utter nonsense. He even goes so far as to include a rather lengthy musical number expressing this emotion; Disney purposefully extends a scene that could have been dealt with in two minutes to a full-fledged introduction to the main character.

This reveals a number of things about Walt as both an artist and a product of his time.

For starters, it paints him as a man who values strong, identifiable characters; Alice is intended to be a ‘mirror’ to the children experiencing the story, and Disney was most likely well aware that kids tend to hold a similar love of nonsense. If they can ‘see themselves’ in Alice, they’re more likely to be thrilled by the absurd affairs about to happen to her; if she matters, the movie matters. Also, the fact that the exposition is offered through a song is equally significant; the film was released in the year 1951, which is part of what could be considered the golden age of the musical*. Where as Carroll’s book was originally written for the enjoyment of a twelve-year old girl that he knew personally (The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, page XXIV, lines 15-16), Disney possessed perhaps more of a capitalist mindset; as an undeniably suave businessman (Just take a look at Disney World), Disney knew how popular musicals were at the time, and it’d be safe to assume that he sought to profit from this fact. Or it could be just as reasonably presumed that he simply loved good music; either way, he clearly had a different philosophy than Carroll in regards to opening a story. Carroll cut straight to the main course; alternatively, Disney had no problem with treating his audience to some preliminary appetizers. Which style is preferable is solely dependent on one’s personal taste: they’re both fine ways to tell a story, and serve as attention-grabbing introductions to the classic tale.

What can be learned by examining the differences between a film and its source material? Does it yield a greater appreciation and understanding of the story in question, or is it all nothing more than inconsequential fragments of trivia? The answer is one I do not know; I suppose I’d better venture down the rabbit-hole to find out.

* See here:

Part 2:


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