Friday Afternoon Movie: Alice In Wonderland (1903)

Ahead of Tim Burton’s newest, Hot Topic flavored attempt to completely discredit his career as a director, the British Film Institute has released this restoration of the very first film based on Lewis Carroll’s classic, from 1903 directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow. At just over nine and a half minutes it is a “greatest hits” version, choosing to frame each scene based on John Tenniel’s famous illustrations for the book. In doing so, it features characters and situations that do not make appearances in most modern versions; namely the events concerning the Duchess. The BFI also points out that, like Burton, Hepworth also cast his wife as the shrill and psychotic Queen (although Burton casts his as the Red Queen from Through the Looking Glass and we can assume that here Hepworth’s wife plays The Queen of Hearts from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), and even makes an appearance himself as the Frog Footman. Their cat also puts in some screen time as the Cheshire Cat; an effect that is at least up to par with the computer generated special effects found in the upcoming film. It’s a lovely bit of history, though one that requires a knowledge of the material to fully appreciate. Certainly much less to ask of your viewer than enduring Johnny Depp made up like a clown for two hours.

34 Responses to “Friday Afternoon Movie: Alice In Wonderland (1903)”

  1. Lady Julianne Says:

    I did a presentation on this and the Jonathan Miller adaptation as an undergraduate (they were both on the same tape) and played this one for the seminar group – nice way to use up 9 1/2 mins (it’s only that short when played at the modern speed, originally it would have been about 12 minutes). The Miller version is my favourite – all creepy and intertextual.

  2. Jack Says:

    “Ahead of Tim Burton’s newest, Hot Topic flavored attempt to completely discredit his career as a director…”

    Wow, judged and dismissed before it has even been released!

  3. Charlotte Says:

    …I’m still holding out hope…I just hope I don’t get slapped in the face again.

  4. rubyredshoes Says:

    I am glad that somebody else agrees with me, its just too obvious for Tim Burton to do Alice in Wonderland. Its a sure fire hit, not to mention the money the film stands to make with the merchandising/fashion alignments. His more original storylines, whether they were written by him or not, are so much more compelling and interesting.

    Anyway. I love the effect in this film and the simplicity, especially the moody Cheshire cat

  5. ajkl Says:

    I don’t really see how tim burtons alice is “hot topic flavored”, all the fashion in it is victorian and, last I saw (though I haven’t been to hot topic since they started selling twilight murchandise) hot topic didn’t sell historically accurate victorian clothing. All of burtons films do have a surreal feel, but that’s his style, it has nothing to do with hot topic. It’s sad that condescending hipster types have started writing off burtons films, which by the way are usually visually stunning, as “hot topic flavored.”
    What’s odd is that the same things those types are now criticizing about burtons films are the things they used to admire about them…but I guess that was back when they were “cool.”

  6. » Blog Archive » links for 2010-02-27 Says:

    […] Coilhouse » Friday Afternoon Movie: Alice In Wonderland (1903) This amazing little piece of history is the first ever *filming* of Alice in Wonder Land, from 1903! Yes it's over 100 years old. It's an amazing piece of heritage and slightly humbling to think (morbidly as I do occasionally) that everyone involved in it is dead (unlike most of our tv/movie heritage). (tags: Alice in Wonder Land) [permalink]  No Comments […]

  7. Zoetica Says:

    Just a little fuel for the fire – came across this review today, and it seems appropriate to include here.

  8. Alice Says:

    @ajkl— “all the fashion in it is Victorian”? “Condescending hipster types”? Um…WHAT? And I don’t think anyone’s discrediting Tim Burton’s past movies, just this gaudy mess.

    I’m glad to see that CH’s opinion of the soon-to-be-released Alice seems to be a resounding “meh.” Considering the story’s already been treated so vilely, it’s nice to see versions like this getting a little appreciation.

  9. Tequila Says:

    @Zo…Owch.That reads more like a rant than a review. It does bring up some valid points but I think the Variety review nailed it best with this line….

    “… But it also becomes more ordinary as it goes along, building to a generic battle climax similar to any number of others in CGI-heavy movies of the past few years…”

    It seems Disney did not learn from the mess they made of Prince Caspian. Alice sounds pretty much like a remake of that troubled script.

    Wasted potential just like…well all his other remakes save for Sleepy Hallow.

  10. Mer Says:

    Alas. Burton’s work has been on a steady decline for well over a decade. But! I will always, always be grateful for his output from Vincent/Frankenweenie era through Ed Wood. That’s 8 films I will love fiercely, forever. More than enough.

  11. josey4628 Says:

    Cool find… I tried to watch this version of Alice in Wonderland on Netflix streaming a few months back, but the the file was some how corrupted… it’d play the first few minutes then jump to the credits… anyhoo, thanks for sharing this.

  12. Erin Says:

    At this point in my life, I have seen adaptations of everything under the sun. It is hard to find something that manages to stay true to the original source as well as keep the themes relevant for the modern audience. (Still waiting on that perfect adaptation of Phantom of the Opera *sigh) Hence, I am indeed excited for the new Alice in Wonderland movie that is coming out. Disney has been butchering fairy tales for decades now and I don’t expect this one to be any different. Sometimes, it’s good to just enjoy the film on its own and leave it at that.

    I enjoyed this little clip. I just reread Alice in Wonderland this weekend and it’s nice to see moving characters. I especially liked Alice waving a hankie at the Cheshire Cat. Cute!

  13. fortheloveofthestars Says:

    Erin- “(Still waiting on that perfect adaptation of Phantom of the Opera *sigh)”

    WORD! He dies of a broken heart at the end and for f’s sake where’s the Persian???

  14. Ross Rosenberg Says:

    akjl – Oh now, no reason to turn to name-calling.

    Erin – I am actually a big fan of Disney’s first, animated take on Alice, regardless of how it mixes and matches the source material.

    Here’s the thing, Like Mer and the review that Zo linked points out, there is a good director buried deep inside Tim Burton. The movies he made before Mars Attacks are great, and Ed Wood (his high water mark in my opinion) is amongst my favorites films. The problem lies in the fact that at some point (around Mars Attacks) he seems to have decided that it would be more profitable to simply take that “surreal feel” you speak of and turn it into a veneer to be applied to anything and make it a “Tim Burton” movie. The problem is that that “feel” worked well within the confines of the stories that Burton himself wrote, within universes that he set the rules. Outside of that it feels contrived and unnecessary. In other words, it’s a gimmick; and while that may be profitable and easy for Mr. Burton, not only does it not make for good movies, but it sells the man short. He’s much too talented to let his oeuvre be distilled down to remaking other people’s work into Goth acid trips.

  15. Jack Says:

    Meh, in a post that’s not actually about Tim Burton’s movie I just think it’s unnecessary hipster snark to take a swipe at in the first line of the post, to say nothing of taking another parting shot at it in the final line.

    Burton’s take on Alice in Wonderland might suck and his career as a director may have taken a turn for the worse, but why even offer a commentary on it in a post ?

    A while back I remember one of the Coilhouse editrixes being concerned about the site and magazine being seen as elitist. It’s this kind of rhetoric that gives that impression as it gives the vibe of “Since we’re too cool for that popular nonsense Tim Burton’s peddling these days, look at this obscure thing we’ve dug up that is so much better than what’s playing at the multiplex!” That attitude neither Informs, Inspires, nor Infects.

    Why not just cut the crap and say, “Look at this obscure thing we’ve dug up? Isn’t this cool?” Let the thing speak for itself, without the pretension.

  16. ellablue Says:

    Has everyone looked over the fact that this is history. It’s over 100 years old. The film was beyond repair and the BFI was able to save 9 of the 12 minutes. It was the longest movie filmed during the time in Britain. Yes, it may have been released with the upcoming Tim Burton flick in mind. And the new ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is Disney. Tim Burton is directing, but Disney has rights. It’s from their studio — what do you expect? So it’s going to be bright and colorful with merchandising in mind. The merchandise sold from this movie will make more than the movie itself.

  17. Red Scharlach Says:

    Completely unrelated, but I’m a bastard and realise that the submission form is no longer present, but I still think it would be of interest to the CH crew to know that Supervert’s new book, Perversity Think Tank, is out. It’s available as a free e-book too, and well worth reading too.

  18. Mer Says:

    Jack, on a more general note, I hear what you’re saying about the elitism worry, trust me. It’s an editorial balance I always think about. (Especially lately, honestly, after getting chastised twice in one week by different readers for my online curating– once for being too mainstream in my tastes, and once for being a snob, heh!)

    I don’t think Ross is above loving something that’s popular or mainstream, far from it! It just seems to me that he’s lamenting (in a somewhat snarky way, sure) the cheapening of a time-honored, much-beloved story.

    That said, since when does being critical of something mainstream make one a hipster? Hipsters are the friggin’ mainstream now, eh? If anything, it seems like Ross, and a lot of other folks with doubts about the rehash (myself included), are lamenting a perceived lack of creative authenticity and sincerity.

    “Burton’s take on Alice in Wonderland might suck and his career as a director may have taken a turn for the worse, but why even offer a commentary on it in a post ?”

    But! Eep! Isn’t that kinda what we do here? Talk about culture? Talk about shifts and gradations? Compare and contrast? Good and bad, populist and fringe? It’s just one fella’s opinion, and it’s presented as such… with a scrumptious bit of obscure, turn-of-the-century filmmaking thrown in for good measure. :)

    Two more cents from my pocket: Burton’s latest movies all have one thing in common: they wear stripey, “subversive” trappings without taking many of the same risks they used to, or being particularly innovative. He’s capitalizing on a well-worn aesthetic that has become increasingly generic and stale in the past ten years. Judging by the scripts he’s taken on, the man’s less interested in telling an original Burton story than in blinging up a pre-exisiting script with Burton shtick. (Big Fish and Corpse Bride being admirable exceptions, I’d say, even if they’re not personal faves.) And guess what? He’s still making money hand over fist, even though all of his post-90s movies have lost a lot of their oomph. It’s a trend worth mentioning, especially considering how influential and inspiring Burton’s style was for so many of us, growing up.

    If it’s hipstery to look at this phenom and go “ehnnnn” well, I guess I’m a hipster, too! :) But again, I say this as someone who is profoundly fucking grateful for the pre-00s movies. All of ’em.

    “Tim Burton is directing, but Disney has rights. It’s from their studio — what do you expect? ”

    Ella, commercial doesn’t have to automatically mean crappy/watered down, does it? Remember The Nightmare Before Christmas? Burton and Disney have made beautiful movies together in the past. The merch made more than the movie in that instance as well… but TNBC itself was original and creative and, at times, genuinely demented. Whether Alice will live up to that same level of originality, creativity and weirdness remains to be seen.

    In any case, I reserve the right to be skeptical, and critical. And to defend Ross’s right as well. :)

  19. Jack Says:


    Lemme clarify:

    “That said, since when does being critical of something mainstream make one a hipster?”

    Not what I meant to imply. However, the attitude of “Well, I was a fan of Burton way back then and now that he’s mainstream he sucks” veers into the realm of hipster condescension. The implication is that only underground and obscure things are worthy and only worthy inasmuch as they stay underground and obscure. See Ross’s first line again; it reads as pretty hollow posturing to me.

    But that’s really secondary to this:

    “But! Eep! Isn’t that kinda what we do here? Talk about culture? Talk about shifts and gradations? Compare and contrast? Good and bad, populist and fringe? It’s just one fella’s opinion, and it’s presented as such… with a scrumptious bit of obscure, turn-of-the-century filmmaking thrown in for good measure.”

    I know this is just my personal preference, but I’d rather the post just focused the turn-of-the century film without recourse to what, to me, reads as needless cynical snark. Talk about culture all you want, but if it reads as flippant people will view it as being elitist.

  20. Mer Says:

    “Well, I was a fan of Burton way back then and now that he’s mainstream he sucks” veers into the realm of hipster condescension.

    But… is that really what Ross was saying? Or me?

    Can’t speak for Ross or the initial post on that count, but if that’s the impression I gave you in comments, I’d be floored. As far as I see it, Burton’s always worked in the mainstream. I’ve never considered him anything BUT mainstream. The man is hardly Nick Zedd; he’s always made multi-million dollar movies! Even as far back as Frankenweenie (bankrolled by Disney), he wasn’t a true “fringe” director in terms of funding or exposure… only in his tastes and presentation. (Which, over the past decade, appear to have devolved, rather than matured and grown.)

    “Talk about culture all you want, but if it reads as flippant people will view it as being elitist.”

    Point taken, Jack. Ross’s initial post was hardly in-depth in its critique of the upcoming film. Perhaps “Burton’s Arc” is a topic we should devote a full, separate post to?

    But, for future reference: when you start out a criticism against dismissive or snarky blog commentary with a “meh”, and then proceed to classify a person’s statements as those of a posturing hipster, you do a disservice to any argument you’re trying to make against pretentiousness, labeling, or cynicism. Also, with all due respect, I’m pretty sure the “talk about culture all you want” tone of that last sentence is more flippant than anything I’ve personally written in this thread. (Hopefully I misread.)

    But still. Point taken, and appreciated.

  21. Jack Says:


    Perhaps I’ve just seen this gambit used too often, but I took “Hot Topic flavored” to be part and parcel of hipster dismissal of something that used to be “underground” but is no longer cool because it is “mainstream.” It is quite possible that Ross didn’t intend it that way, but I’ve heard a bunch of permutations of that: “punk was cool before it started showing up in Hot Topic,” “Jhonen Vasquez was cool before his comics were in Hot Topic,” etc.

    “But, for future reference: when you start out a criticism against dismissive or snarky blog commentary with a “meh…”

    I guess I am not familiar with the awesome power of “meh”! I was using it as shorthand for “I dunno” or a shrug of the shoulders, but perhaps that is not how it gets used in the wild?

    Also, no flippancy meant in my comment about talking about culture. Really, talk about culture…I love it when you do that. It’s just in this instance the snark really sticks out and detracts from what is a really cool piece of footage, in my opinion.

  22. rubyredshoes Says:

    @ anyone who doesn`t feel that its appropriate to call it hot topic flavored- and

    It really bugs me when people going on about a movie having genuine `Victorian` designs, when it clearly doesn`t, its just a stamp put on something to sell a product.

  23. Nadya Says:

    I keep trying to come up with a meaningful, nuanced comment to add to this fascinating discussion, but I just keep picturing Ross Rosenberg rockin’ nerd glasses, janitor keys and a Darkwing Duck T-shirt, and… I can’t. I fucking can’t. HOW DID YOU KNOW?!

  24. Mer Says:

    “Meh” is a verbal shrug. Shrugs are for hipsters.


    I’m buying Ross a mesh hat for his birthday. Maybe he can start growing a big, bushy, Pabst-dipped handlebar moustache. Or an ironic mullet. BOTH?!

    But seriously, Jack, I get it. :)

    What’s really weird about the timing of the hipster name-calling is that I’ve been wrestling for days with this dense, ourobouric post on “Ironic Hipster Fan Love”, which includes a couple of paragraphs on how unpleasant it feels to be on either side of a Hipster accusation. To be posted imminently. Given the general level of irritability on Coilhouse comment threads lately, I’m a little afeared! But then again, the level of discourse on here is pretty fantastically congenial, even at its grumpiest. We’ll see.

    Sneak preview:

  25. Mer Says:

    Ah! One more thing, Jack: “punk was cool before it started showing up in Hot Topic”

    This comment reminded me of something. If you haven’t already, please do check out Josh Ellis’s “Children By the Millions Wait For Alex Chilton” essay. It was recently recently published in Coilhouse #4, and in a very strange twist of fate, is now available for free download as a PDF on the Pixies website. If you find the time to read it, please let me know what you think of it. Very curious to hear your opinions.

  26. Jack Says:


    I read Josh Ellis’s piece in the latest issue and thought it was brilliant. It came at a fortuitous time, as I read it when I was deep into thinking about the vast difference between my teenage experience and the experience of my current crop of students (who are generally in the 18-21 age range).

    To extend the Hot Topic metaphor, back when I was a fledgling weirdo we didn’t have easy access to the Internet’s treasure trove of “alt. fashion,” or alt. anything for that matter, so we all became DIYers out of necessity. I’m sure my friends made a lot of cool stuff by hand that they wouldn’t have if they had the option of going to the mall and buying instead of creating.

    But when I look at the wonderfully strange group of students who populate the first row of my classroom, I realize that access was never a problem for them. A couple clicks and the alt. world is their oyster. While the DIY ethos may suffered a bit in the seismic wake of the Internet(1), the fact that these kids are literally spoiled for choice and have so much fantastically odd stuff at their disposable does feel like a cultural victory of sorts.

    I’m left being of two minds about the proliferation/appropriation/invasion of alt. culture into the “mainstream” or normative culture. On one hand, it feels like something has been lost (in that slippery Baudrillard or Debord sense), but on the other it’s awesome that a kid in Podunk, Nowhere can get his or her mitts on books, music, and else that my teenage self could only dream of.

    PS – I’m glad you characterized this exchange as congenial, as I have nothing but respect for everyone on the Coilhouse team and really appreciate your willingness to listen to critique. (And to give it in turn!)

    (1) I only half-buy my own point here; the Internet also makes available so much information on *how* to do things yourself that perhaps it internally balances its own tendencies toward commercial consumption and alt.-as-brand?

  27. Ross Rosenberg Says:

    Jack et al –

    I had no idea Hot Topic was such a divisive subject. The “Hot Topic flavored” line is not meant to imply that once something appears in a chain store it is uncool. If that were the case I would have to throw out a lot of my music and all my Jhonen Vasquez comics. The issue I take is that it seems to me that Burton is making films specifically in that vein, aimed at a specific demographic and this has come to define his work. It has nothing to do with whether or not he’s cool but how he has turned himself into a brand and seems to pick his movies based on the ability to license t-shirts.

    So what I’m saying is that Tim Burton has, like, totally sold out.

    Nadya- Don’t you make fun of my Darkwing Duck t-shirt. It’s amazing and you know it.

  28. Karen Says:

    Submitted with oodles of fondness and affection:

  29. Mer Says:

    Cheers, Jack. I too have conflicting feelings about the proliferation/ appropriation/ invasion, and I think Josh nailed it.

    Karen. That skit. Is Fucking. GENIUS. I peed my (stripey, spooky) pantaloons.

  30. Tertiary Says:

    I guess I don’t really have anything to contribute to the discussion, which is, I think quite fascinating, I just want to say that OH MY GOD CURSES DRAMATIC CHIPMUNK!

    Okay, well, maybe I do.

    I’ve been what you might call a plain clothes freak my whole life, and continue to be now. I’m comfortable with a lot of alt cultures, and with the people in them (and the music that goes hand in hand), but I’m not exactly a part of them, nor am I really what you’d call maintstream, even though I grew up in White Bread Republicanville, USA (where long hair is enough to make you an outsider, even if you dress perfectly normally). So my view is perhaps not entirely reliable.


    I have to agree with Mer that Burton has never really been anything other than mainstream, even if his ideas were often acting critiquing or in subversion of the mainstream culture. And more power to him. We should all be so lucky as to make bucketloads of money while prodding the culture we come from.

    Is he resting on his laurels? Perhaps. One can also be trapped by their own success, if not careful. I honestly find the descriptions of some of his recent movies (which I’ve not seen) as strange and out of character. Alice without a commentary on the sexual subtext? I mean, yes, it IS Disney, but it still. There is a great deal to work with in the material. The Walrus and the Carpenter has always struck me as a filthy thing, and could certainly be made subtly so on film. EAT ME. DRINK ME. Even the original Disney film doesn’t try to shake a good deal of it.

    And on the subject of DIY, well, I grew up in Crackerville, as I mentioned earlier, and hung out a bit with the few goth kids and so forth, and there was far less DIY than I see now. And this might just be a local phenomenon, and certainly my anecdotal experience does not fact make, but somehow being able to -buy- more seems to have spurred some to -make- more, and buy less.

    I do think Ross came off as dismissive and a touch elitist, but what the fuck, it’s the internet. Everyone comes off as dismissive and elitist sometimes. The main point is that he put up this interesting bit of history, which otherwise I wouldn’t have seen. The dunking of the dormouse had me laughing.

    And that’s far more important than his views on Hot Topic and Tim Burton, honestly.

  31. Colin Says:

    Personally, I think Ross’s commentary didn’t go far enough. How about this instead:

    Ahead of what assuredly will be another flash in the pan by the Burton/Carter/Depp machine which has continued for the past decade to squirt out steaming piles of films whose sole purpose is to leave stains upon cheap t-shirts and sell them at Hot Topic, the British Film Institute has released this restoration…

  32. Claudia Says:

    I’m storing up the Burton-bashing for when I’ve seen the film (like many former die-hard fans, I can’t NOT see it), but I just wanted to say thank you for posting this little film! Someone else mentioned how fascinating/humbling it is that everyone in it is dead, I often think about how that feeling is going to be inreasingly common. We’re going to be able to see more and more of our history moving around on screens in front of us. Also, I absolutely love really early special effects, they must have had such a good time playing around with Alice’s size when they made this.

  33. ajkl27 Says:

    @Alice, you’re incredulous confushion wounds me….really.
    And, yes, the fashion in Alice in wonderland is victorian based, and hot topic only sells things like thet when they are directly copied from a movie. It’s not as though Burton has his actors wearing things bought at hot topic, or hot top came up with the asthetic and Burton copied it. It’s the Burton asthetic, always has been. The fact that they sell it at hot topic does not mean that it belongs ot hot topic. They sell DVDs of Pulp Fiction at walmart, does that make Pulp Fiction walmart flavored?

  34. ajkl27 Says:

    @rubyredshoes, don’t see what that has to do with anything.
    Just because hot topic latched onto it doesn’t mean hot topic owns it or is responsible for it’s existance or that it is a hot topic specific thing. I reiterate, they sell DVDs of Pulp Fiction at walmart, does that make Pulp Fiction “walmart-flavored”?