Lewis Carroll’s novels Adventures of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are enduring classics read and enjoyed by millions since their publication in 1865 and 1871 respectively. Some of the best examples of “literary nonsense”, the novels have delighted generations of children and adults with its skewering of Victorian Manners, uninhibited children, class struggle, logic, mathematics, card games, croquet and chess. Adapted for stage, radio and screen dozens of times, the fanciful story and characters have become part of our collective unconscious. While more recently, thanks to Tim Burton, the mental image of “The Mad Hatter” has been assurped by a wild-haired Johnny Depp, prior to 2010 the character (as well as most of the others) had been defined by John Tenniel’s delicately grotesque illustrations and refined by countless artistic interpretations. But who among us is baffled by the mention of “The White Rabbit”, “The March Hare”, “The Queen of Hearts”. Okay, maybe “Jabberwock” isn’t in everyone’s lexicon (and more’s the pity), but have you ever met anyone who doesn’t know about “The Cheshire Cat”? And if you have, were you compelled to rectify this hole in said person’s education, or did you merely back away fearing he’d suck out your brain and take the knowledge back to his overlords?
But as beloved as the novels are, their inception has always been surrounded by a bit of controversy. Invented by Charles Dodgson for the purpose of entertaining a ten-year-old Alice Liddell and her sisters, of whom he was quite fond, speculation existed even at the time that the stuttering professor, more comfortable around children than he was adults, felt more than just affection for the girls, Alice in particular. While nothing of a salacious nature has ever been proven, the suspicion has shadowed Dodgson’s reputation for over a hundred years. Was he merely the Michael Jackson of his day, preferring the company of children and nothing more, or was he inappropriately attracted to the prepubescent young lady? Not even the “real Alice” could attest to the basis of the relationship, one way or another.
It is this relationship, however, that is at the heart of Gavin Millar’s Dreamchild. Written by Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), the movie fictionalizes the adult Alice Liddell Hargreaves’ visit to the United States in order to receive an honorary degree from Columbia University in celebration of Dodgson’s centenary anniversary. Traveling with her ward, an orphaned teenager named Lucy, upon which she is completely dependent, the elderly Alice is at once overwhelmed by the Depression-era New York as well as all the attention she attracts from journalists. One in particular, a disgraced newspaper man named Jack Dolan, connives his way into Alice’s confidence via Lucy’s affections, hoping to land an exclusive on the story. Amidst the fuss and bother, Alice insists that she can scarcely remember Dodgson at all, but finds herself reliving her past via both memory and stress-enduced hallucination. Dodgson and many of his Wonderland characters appear to her in her stately hotel room, many of them cruel and abusive now, haranguing her for being old and stupid. “You half-witted old hag,” says the Mad Hatter, “you should be dead!”
Tortured by her delusions, as well as a guilt she doesn’t quite yet understand, Alice Hargreaves acts even more cruelly towards Lucy, who is growing frustrated and miserable at sacrificing her life and happiness in order to serve the older woman.
Dreamchild is an exceptional “quiet” movie about the need for fantasy when reality is too great to bear. It is also, like Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, a study in the contrast between the adult and adolescent mind. While very English in pace, even during the hustle of the New York scenes, the movie never drags and is frequently spiced up by the appearances of full-sized Wonderland characters, including the Mock Turtle, the Griffin, the Mad Tea Party and the Caterpiller, re-enacting their scenes with Alice from the book before turning sharply more sinister as the adult woman works out her demons and fears of dying. These fantastic characters are based directly on Tenniel’s illustrations and are famously brought to life by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, masterfully manipulated by some famous Muppet Performers like Steve Whitmire, Mike Quinn, Karen Prell and an unbilled Cheryl “Gates” McFadden (Dr. Beverly Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation). Far from the whimsical Disney-esque interpretations, these are figments from Alice’s psyche, taunting her with riddles she can’t understand, “Why is a raven like a writing desk,” and, most importantly, “Who are you?”
As Alice, the usually cold Coral Browne is our central focus and guide through the Wonderland of both Dodgson’s and F.D.R.’s creations, but it’s Ian Holm as Dodgson where our sympathies truly lie. His restrained and introverted performance is the film’s heart. There’s nothing sinister or untoward about his affection towards Alice or the other Liddell sisters, even if others may see there to be. We only see loneliness and a desire to please, to be loved in any way, and there is a very quiet moment near the end, which actually serves as the film’s climax, that is nearly heartbreaking in its tenderness. While it might be easy to say that an American script would culminate with shouting and tears and, perhaps, a young Alice running in the rain to escape the oppression of her mannered world, in Dreamchild and Potter’s script, there is only sunshine, misplaced cruelty and a silent apology. Most British, but the best possible solution to the interior story.
That more research has brought to light that the fictional Alice has almost nothing in common with the real Alice, and that Tenniel based his interpretation of the character on a completely different girl, is really neither here nor there, as a certain Caterpiller might say. These arguments are for the real world, not the one explored in Alice or Dreamchild. The novel tells the story of a little girl who fell down a rabbit hole and found herself caught up in a world she didn’t understand. Dreamchild tells the story of a woman in her golden years, a celebrity by accident, who is only now understanding what kind of an impact a family friend had on her life fifty years ago. What reality has anything to do with the truth in this case is certainly beyond me.
Thanks to the success of Burton’s less-than-whimsical and nonsense-bereft adaptation of Alice in Wonderland in 3D, MGM has seen fit to quietly re-release Dreamchild d as a movie-only DVD, available through its site and through Amazon. It’s a lovely little film, mature in the best sense of the word, and well worth your full attention. In this I both mean what I say and say what I mean.