Dennis Potter's Two Dark Visions of Wonderland: Alice and Dreamchild


Dennis Potter has written so many great, rare and unreleased television plays for the BBC over the years. So many of them have yet to be made available in any form, while others that have exist only on some pretty obscure discs. One of his earliest, and long unreleased, is Alice, a "Wednesday Play" from 1965: a more realistic and tragic take on the relationship between Lewis Carroll and the real Alice Liddell who he crafted his stories for.
Here we see Carroll, excellently played by George Baker, as a reclusive, stuttering professor with an undying devotion to the very under-aged daughter of his dean (Upstairs Downstairs' David Langton). Nothing overtly sexual or immoral happens, but Alice's mother slowly catches on that there's something inappropriate in this man's attentions to her the girl, spending all of his time with her, buying her gifts, inviting her over to be photographed. But at the same time, something genuinely beautiful and innocent is developing out of his true feelings for her: these wonderful stories he creates to win her affections.
Throughout the film, we see moments and characters that inspire some of the most famous scenes from Alice In Wonderland, and occasionally we enter into the storybook world itself. It's an honest look at human relations seldom examined and a psychological character study too honest to simply present us with anyone to demonize or romanticize. When Carroll ultimately takes his first book of Wonderland stories to an appreciative publisher, they're all too eager have their illustrator visit the real Alice for their pages, but there's the awkward moment when Carroll must explain to them that the family now objects to the whole affair.
In 1985, Potter wrote the screenplay for a film called Dreamchild, which is often referred to as a remake of Alice. That would certainly make sense... a small but highly praised BBC teleplay getting turned into a feature film happens often enough; and certainly this film has many of the same themes and a rough premise in common with Alice. It even has a few scenes replayed word for word. But I really don't think it's fair to call this a remake; it's actually quite a different film, that just happens to stem from the same root idea.
 Certainly, it's another story of "the real Alice" and an implied darker, even abusive, relationship between her and Carroll. But it's quite a different story. Despite its title, Alice was about Carroll; Alice was just the catalyst. Dreamchild, on the other hand, is about Alice. This film is set in the 1930s, when Alice is now 80, visiting America for the very first time because she's receiving an honorary degree from an ivy league university as part of a celebration for Carroll's centenary. She's surprised to learn just what a cultural icon the book has become, as she's instantly beset by reporters who don't understand how haunted she is by the story's characters (angry monsters brilliantly brought to life by Jim Henson). In Alice, Carroll seemed to simply want more than could be with Alice, but in Dreamchild, we're left to infer that something immoral did indeed happen, and she's a survivor forced by the book's lasting popularity to confront her demons to her very last days.
There is so much story that isn't even hinted at in Alice. Peter Gallagher is a major character playing a reporter who Alice rejects but eventually warms to when he shows her how much money there is to be made in exploiting her newfound American fame. There's a whole subplot, then, about her young assistant who she brought over from England and tries to keep under her thumb. The scenes this has in common with Alice are all flashbacks from her youth with Carroll, this time played by Ian Holme. Again, those scenes are the same down to the precise word; but they only make up maybe 15% of this movie, which has an entirely different tone and very different things to say. Certainly production values are much higher here - compare the gryphon and the mock turtle in the screenshots from each production above. But I have to say, key scenes - like the one where Liddell's family asks Carroll to recite a silly poem from his book and Alice and her sisters laugh and get distracted by their boyfriends, because they've outgrown his childrens' stories - are more heartbreaking in Alice. Truly, though, they're two very different and excellent original works by Potter; and you'd be doing yourself a disservice to only see one or the other.
Both of these films were unavailable for ages. However, if you'll pardon a brief detour (it will tie in eventually), what was released, was a rather smart 1966 BBC adaptation of Alice In Wonderland by Jonathan Miller, who also directed the terrific Whisper and I'll Come To You. This is a faithful adaptation of the story by someone who greatly disliked the Disney cartoon, and it features a brilliant cast including John Gielguld, Peter Sellers, Michael Redgrave and Peter Cook. It's a more mature version, with a strong score by Ravi Shankar and all the characters (the white rabbit, etc) portrayed simply as humans, and the entire adventure as a dream.
I used to have the BFI DVD of it, which had some excellent features, including an audio commentary by Miller, a vintage featurette on Shankar's scoring process, and an old silent film version of Alice In Wonderland from 1908 with commentary by a BFI expert. But I upgraded that old edition for this US DVD when it came out in 2010, as it carried over all of those extras but also included the DVD debut of Potter's Alice! I kind of wish I'd hung onto that BFI disc (also released in the US by Home Vision), because look at the ghosting in that screenshot above. I'm pretty sure that's a PAL to NTSC conversion issue the original UK disc didn't have. But I'd have bought it anyway, just for Alice. I would've bought Alice on DVD just by itself, because it's terrific. I don't care if they've tucked it away as an extra; it's an amazing package.
And Dreamchild? That finally came out as just an MOD DV-R from MGM in 2011. It's in its original widescreen OAR, and it's fantastic to finally have this movie.But DV-R is pretty disappointing and looks really compressed - imagine how much better Henson's Wonderland creatures could look in HD! It did actually get a proper, pressed DVD release in the UK just this year from 101 Films. But apparently it's the same transfer and no extras or anything. Still, DVD trumps DV-R, and it probably doesn't have the PAL/ NTSC ghosting you can see in the frame above, so I guess it's the one to get. But for anyone with the MGM disc, it's probably not worth upgrading. Hopefully eventually someone will cough up a blu-ray, and they could even include Alice as an extra. Because more people should really see both, and Miller's adaptation too, for that matter. But only viewers who are prepared for something a little heavier than a Disney musical.

No comments:

Post a Comment