The enduring popularity of Alice in Wonderland

4 Apr 2019

For generations Lewis Carroll’s book about a curious girl who falls down the rabbit hole has captured the imaginations of children and adults alike. Interacting with Alice now involves negotiating 150 years of retellings, adaptations and deviations.

Alice – of Wonderland and Looking Glass fame – has featured in approximately 60 literary retellings, 40 films, and 30 stage and television adaptations.

Her first time on the screen was in a 1903 British short film, notable for its use of special effects. Of course, everyone remembers Disney’s cheery 1951 musical animation and its iconic cartoon characters. In 2010, Tim Burton took Alice to a darker place in a film where adult Alice escapes a marriage proposal to revisit her adventures.

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Carroll was still alive to witness Alice’s first appearance on the stage in an 1886 musical pantomime. Recent stage adaptations include a Broadway musical by Frank Wildhorn, a ballet by Christopher Wheeldon and an opera by Korean composer Unsuk Chin.

Some adaptations just use the story as launching pad for more creative interpretations. Terry Gilliam borrowed the Jabberwocky for his berserk filmic romp through the Dark Ages. In Alice in Murderland (2010) a Wonderland-themed party turns into slasher-horror. The 2015 musical Wonder.land sees modern Aly fall down a digital rabbit hole into the internet.

Victorian Opera has created three works starring Alice. This includes two pastiche works which introduce children to the joys of opera – Alice’s Adventures in Operaland (2015) and Alice Through the Opera Glass (2019) – in which Alice and the White Rabbit travel to Operaland to meet beloved opera characters.

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Alice and the White Rabbit meet the Barber of Seville in Victorian Opera's production of Alice's Adventures in Operaland. Photo: Bri Hammond for Victorian Opera

Alice’s fame extends beyond stage and screen. Salvador Dali created 12 illustrations for each chapter of Alice in Wonderland. Gameboy released an Alice in Wonderland video game based on Disney animation. Taylor Swift muses about rabbit holes and the Cheshire Cat in her song ‘Wonderland’. There’s even a neurological condition called Alice in Wonderland Syndrome that makes objects seem bigger than they are. The list goes on.

So why does this story continue to resonate, infusing every corner of popular culture?

The book is filled with puzzles, riddles and conundrums making the text open to wide-ranging interpretations. While children delight in the nonsensical word-play and irreverent humour, adults can appreciate its cleverness and dark undertones.

The characters are so memorable they have become stars in their own right – the jittery rabbit always running late, the batty Mad Hatter, the impetuous Queen of Hearts, and the curious girl at the centre of it all. The hero is not a typical man of action but an ordinary girl who is inquisitive and polite, yet willing to speak her mind. 

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Sir John Tenniel's classic illustration for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Carroll had a unique ability to recreate the childhood world, exciting the imagination and making adults feel like children again. Escaping your everyday life and tumbling into a whimsical world of nonsense and mockery has universal appeal. Wonderland is a world of discovery where normal rules do not apply. Despite being a child, Alice is more logical and well-mannered than many of the adults, turning reality on its head.

Alice helps makes sense of chaos. Consider it a survival guide to a bizarre, topsy-turvy world. Perhaps in our modern times, where news can be stranger than fiction, we need stories about being the only sane person in a mad, mad world.

What are your favourite Alice adaptations? Why do you think it is still popular? Leave your comments below.

Victorian Opera performed Alice's Adventures in Operaland as part of Season 2015 and Alice Through the Opera Glass as part of Season 2019.