Compared to most adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Jan Švankmajer’s Alice (1988) or Něco z Alenky, deviates immensely from the original material stylistically, continually forgoing fidelity in order to bring forth the darker, more surrealistic undertones of the novel. This post will aim to examine the “rabbit-hole” sequence in both the text and film, addressing the differences and similarities between each while also analyzing the dark mood Švankmajer creates and discussing how it is achieved through sound design, cinematography, and performance.
The exact moment of Alice’s entry into Wonderland is both ambiguous and arguable, due to the fluid nature in which we travel to new locations under the guise of Alice falling asleep. In a matter of minutes Alice is transported from the brook outside, to her bedroom, to a vast wasteland where only a small desk sits on the horizon. Alice is intrigued by the White Rabbit – which in this version is a taxidermied display brought to life – as it cracks its glass and flees through the desk drawer into the unknown.
After Alice crawls in after it and frightens the rabbit away, she abruptly trips into a rake, is hit on the head, and falls backwards into a metal trashcan. For the purposes of this analysis, her fall through the bottom of the trashcan into the elevator will stand as Alice’s portal into Wonderland, as her initial fall down the rabbit hole represents her point of entry in the novel. The mere fact that it is a trashcan that acts as the catalyst for the beginning of Alice’s journey foreshadows how the Wonderland to come is far from charming and fantastical. Indeed, Švankmajer seems to be deliberately placing her dreamscape in the context of something foul.
In the novel, Carroll stresses how long Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole truly is, writing how the well was either “very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next” (10). Many cinematic iterations visualize this scene by having her literally fall into a hole in the ground, but Švankmajer chooses to place her in an elevator which effectively translates the passage’s emphasis on longevity. This simple change also creates a sense of claustrophobia and prolonged anxiety that will haunt Alice throughout the rest of her journey. The sound design heightens this sense of anxiety with creaks, thuds, and distant bangs that insinuate the elevator she’s fallen into is neither safe nor secure. In fact, it sounds as if it’s barely holding together, straining and groaning it’s way down the subsequent floors towards her destination.
The elevator itself is dimly lit, with the only light entering it coming from the various shelves facing the open wall of the car. These rays of light pass quickly over Alice’s face on her journey down, but they do little to convey any illumination of Alice’s thoughts. Unlike in the novel where Alice is constantly thinking and prattling away, spouting clever things as often as unclever things, the Alice in this film – portrayed by Kristýna Kohoutová – is reserved. She says very little and any thinking she does is closed off to us, generally blocked by the blank expression she carries on her face. At most, her performance in the elevator shaft could be read as imperceptibly perturbed.
As she falls down the “well” in the book she notices that that the walls are “filled with cupboards and book-shelves” and she sees “maps and pictures hung upon pegs” (10). Here the shelves boast a multitude of objects, most of which were previously seen sprawled around her bedroom, such as a ticking metronome, a pair of puppets, paper figures, doll furniture, a herd of taxidermied animals, bones, and skulls, and a pantry of jars. Some jars are filled with different colored jellies, fruits, and worms, and one even has biscuits stuck through with nails.
In the novel, Alice takes down a jar “from one of the shelves” as she passes that’s labeled “ORANGE MARMALADE” but she finds to “her great disappointment” that it’s empty (10). The film heightens her disappointment by replacing the jar’s lack of marmalade with marmalade riddled with thumbtacks, their points protruding sharply out of the gooey confection almost mockingly. Alice rips through the plastic casing and swabs her hand through the jam and through an extreme close-up we see a lone thumbtack perched upon her finger as she holds it up to light for inspection.
The image of a child’s jam covered finger holding something so troubling echoes the story’s dichotomous theme of innocence in constant proximity to danger. Even now however, no expression of fear seems to break through her cool, placid veneer. She says nothing, her silence only amplifying the hums, squeaks, and scrapes of the elevator and adding to the viewer’s unease. Alice remains composed, simply recognizing the anomaly of the jellied thumbtack and calmly wiping her finger off on the lid of the jar. In dreams people often see and do strange things that seem acceptable in the moment and do little to provoke disturbance; here Alice portrays this illogical calmness perfectly.
Returning to the novel once more, Alice is now “dozing off” and has begun “to dream,” but a sudden “thump!” brings her crashing down “upon a heap of sticks and dry leaves” (11). In the film, the elevator picks up speed, racing down the shaft at an alarming rate. As if knowing what comes next, Alice’s first expression of genuine concern spreads across her face and she suddenly thrusts her arms in the air high above her head. The noises come quicker and the rattling increases, and then she crashes through the bottom of the elevator and lands upon a pile of dry leaves – nearly identical to the one described in the book – amidst a rain of plaster. She looks around her, nonplussed. The walls behind her are faded, stained, and ripped, evoking a gross and derelict place. Her fall has come to an end, and she has finally reached Wonderland, for better or for worse.
Personally, this adaptation held more meaning and captured the imagination more completely than the other cinematic translations of Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland. The challenge of adapting the material lies in the surrealistic nature of the novel, which lacks causal plotlines and logical time progression. Wonderland is commonly interpreted as a dream world Alice has slipped away into, and Švankmajer commits to this fully, using dream logic and recurring elements to shape Alice’s fantastic world while setting in realistic connotations and making use of everyday objects to nightmarish effect. This effectively grounds the film while allowing us to fully delve into the mind of Alice. Instead of inventing fantasy, the film gives fantastic qualities to typically harmless things and finds the extraordinary in the everyday, satisfying Alice’s curiosity while also feeding on the darkest corners of our minds.