ReelReviews #2: Alice Through the Looking Glass (BBC-TV, 1973)






Continuing my look at weird, obscure adaptations of weird, well-known childhood favorites, I screened 1973’s Alice Through the Looking Glass earlier this week. This was a British production that aired on the BBC only once. It was finally rescued from obscurity and released on DVD only recently, probably to cash-in on Tim Burton’s more famous Alice In Wonderland (in name only) from 2010. It was released along with 1986’s Alice in Wonderland, and given the same sort of DVD artwork as if the two movies were a box set. In reality, the only thing they have in common are being TV movies made by the BBC.


The bad news is that 1973’s Alice look nothing like its DVD menu or case artwork, though both of them are very impressive and stylish. Even Alice’s bright blue dress on the cover appears to be photoshopped – she’s actually dressed in a washed-out yellow dress in the movie. As a TV movie, the production is clearly very low budget. I am also not exaggerating when I say that I have seen better special effects in some High School stage plays. For starters, there are no sets.


Live-action actors are basically sloppily inserted into stagnant flat illustrations. That could produce a very unique artsy feel if it was done in the style of Who Frames Roger Rabbit, but here it is very fake and tacky. One of the worst effects when Alice meets Humpty Dumpty. The filmmakers simply choose to make the actor’s face look very pale and white, then super impose it over a still drawing of an egg person sitting on a fence, when it clearly doesn’t match.


The good news, on the other hand, almost makes up for all the bad stuff. This is one of the very few adaptations of Through the Looking Glass that is a faithful retelling of the source material. Considering how popular the works of Lewis Carroll are, you’d think such a film would be easy to come by. Think again. In most cases, movie adaptations of Carroll’s works simply opt to use the first book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as their prime source material. Generally they combine a chapter or two of the sequel (Through the Looking Glass) into a Wonderland movie – popular additions include Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and the garden of live flowers (the subject of “unbirthdays” is also from the sequel and not the original novel.) When we do get an adaptation of Through the Looking Glass as its own movie, filmmakers have an annoying habit of straying far from the source material. A 1987 cartoon adaptation changed the events to a contemporary setting (the Jabberwocky was voiced by Mr. T!) and the better known 1998 live action version had Kate Beckinsale playing an adult Alice who somehow reverts back into a child when she goes through the looking glass yet physically still remains an adult. (I don’t know what the filmmakers were thinking with that, it’s cringe-worthy).


1973’s Through the Looking Glass is a masterpiece by comparison The actors all play their parts well and bring the characters to life, and the script is extremely faithful to Carroll’s original novel, even showing classic elements of the novel that other movies overlook – like the argument between the Lion and the Unicorn. The movie ends exactly as the book did, showing us the text from Carroll’s “A boat beneath a sunny sky” poem, and highlighting that the first letter from each line eventually spells out “Alice Pleasance Liddell” – the name of Carroll’s child friend that the book was dedicated to. The characters of “Hatta” and Haigha“ were intended by Carroll to be thinly veiled Looking Glass versions of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare (John Tenniel even illustrated them to look the same in the book), and this movie casts and costumes them accordingly. Then 11 year old child actress Sarah Sutton (who later went on to play Nyssa in Doctor Who) turns in a solid portrayal of Alice, and is given more interesting things to do here than she ever was in Doctor Who. It’s ironic that accomplished adult actresses like Mia Wasikowska and Kate Beckinsale were far worse in the title role.


If anything, this movie probably shares the most in common with the American made 1999 TV movie Alice in Wonderland (made by Hallmark entertainment and shown on NBC), if only because both of them had compelling scripts that tried to stick fairly close to the source material, and cast actors who resembled the original Tenniel illustrations. The 1999 movie is much more polished and “modern looking”, with far better special effects, but it would work as a companion piece to this movie very well. Even Alice’s yellow dress and the actors playing the White Knight and the Mad Hatter look very much like their counterparts in the 1999 film.


Basically, in spite of it being poorly made and difficult to watch, 1973’s Through the Looking Glass accomplishes it goal: it translates Carroll’s text into a live action movie, and it becomes an interesting and fun adventure to watch in its own right. Like the weird Russian adaptation of Wizard of Oz, I was sad to see it go when the film ended after only 65 mins. When an obviously ultra cheap movie endears itself to you like that, it must be doing something right.


** ½ out of ****




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