Catch a very old, totally surreal glimpse of Alice’s Wonderland

W. W. Young’s Alice in Wonderland (1915) is Alice without the magic, or rather with a plodding magic that knows nothing of the uncanny. “Things we do and things we see shortly before we fall asleep are most apt to influence our dreams,” the first title card explains. In case you are not clear, when the ghost of the lanky but nicely pert Alice arises from her flesh-and-blood bored-to-sleep self to see a pantomime White Rabbit, she skips along past a large arrowed sign: TO WONDERLAND. It’s an early exercise in trick photography (trick photography, where are you now?), but the static camera and literalism make for a very long 52 minutes. This is an Alice to keep the kids from having bad dreams, not one to shake you awake with a new, dangerous look at the world.

Try Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow’s even earlier version, 8 minutes of which has been salvaged by the British Film Institute (1903). It has an Alice who, though she may be in her thirties, has as sour and sullen a face as you might hope for. She is all stubborn resistance to the strangeness going on in the back of her mind. There are no signposts here, and when Alice gets too big for her boots, or rather the house she alarmingly outgrows, it is genuinely disturbing. It helps that this is a fragment, burned out at the edges, barely salvaged. Just like Wonderland ought to be.

Jenny Diski is the author of What I Don’t Know About Animals, The Sixties, and many other books, and a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books. She’s currently writing a book about melancholy.

Editor’s note: This is the third of three special guest posts dedicated to movies that are now streaming, in their entirety, on YouTube. Click here to see what David Thomson had to say about Bringing Up Baby, and here to read Richard Brody’s write-up of Battleship Potemkin.

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Catch a very old, totally surreal glimpse of Alice’s Wonderland