Adaptations: Alice’s Adventures through Stage, Screen and More

Eighty-six pages – that is how long a book needs to be to become one of the most beloved novels of all time, inspiring the imagination of millions of fans year after year.

At least that is the case for Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. First published in 1865, Wonderland was an immediate success with adults and children alike, earning the admiration of such well-known figures as Oscar Wilde and Queen Victoria. The book has never been out of print and has been translated into 174 languages.

The mad tea party scene, as originally illustrated by Sir John Tenniel.

Adaptations of the beloved novel began very quickly after its first publication and continue to this day. One such adaptation you can see right now is Jobsite Theater’s ALICE, a cabaret-style retelling of the original stories running through June 4 that features puppets, acrobatics and original musical numbers. To celebrate ALICE’s run let’s tumble through the rabbit hole and into some of the most notable versions of Carroll’s Wonderland.

The cast of Jobsite Theater’s ALICE (2023). Photo credit: Photography of Tampa.

Just 21 years after the first edition was published, a musical adaptation entitled Alice in Wonderland premiered on the West End in 1886. Directed by English dramatist Henry Savile Clarke, Alice was adapted as a pantomime, a musical comedy geared towards families. Carroll was heavily involved in the production of the musical, choosing child actress Phoebe Carlo for the titular role and even paying for her costumes. Alice in Wonderland was a smash hit and continued to play on and off over the next 40 years.

Phobe Carlo as Alice and Dorothy D’Alcourt as the Dormouse (1887).

While Walt Disney’s eponymous animated film adaptation is perhaps the most well-known version of Alice in Wonderland aside from the books themselves, Alice’s journey on the big screen would begin 30-some years prior in the early 1920s. Not yet a household name by this point, Disney and creative partner Ub Iwerks created the Alice Comedies, short films loosely based on aspects from Carroll’s books. These films acted as both predecessors to the 1951 smash-hit animated film and marked one of the first instances of live action film being combined with animation.

View the Alice Comedies in the compiled playlist above.

Carroll’s characters have inspired many well-known creators, leading to new characters that bear striking resemblances to Wonderland’s most famous citizens. Take, for instance, the villainous Mad Hatter, a recurring enemy of the Caped Crusader himself, Batman. Created by Bob Kane, the Mad Hatter first appeared in Batman #49 and has since become an iconic supervillain in his own right.

A scientist with a taste for mind control and a flair for fashion, the Mad Hatter uses his technical genius to take over the minds of hapless citizens (usually with hats) all while quoting lines from Carroll’s book and generally being a nuisance to Batman. While not the most original character in Batman’s rogues’ gallery, the Mad Hatter’s iconic status is proof of the sheer ubiquity of Carroll’s work.

Oh Mad Hatter, you absolute scamp. ( . . . that man is dead, isn’t he)

Alice’s Wonderland adventures have seen great success on TV as well. From anime adaptations to children’s variety shows and beyond, there’s been a TV adaptation made for nearly everyone. However, in 1985 another instantly iconic version of Carroll’s work would grace the air waves to simultaneously delight and traumatize a generation.

Move along folks, nothing to see here.

Alice in Wonderland was a star-studded take on Carroll’s work that boasted such onscreen talent as Shelley Winters as the Dodo Bird, Sammy Davis Jr. as the Caterpillar, Ringo Starr as the Mock Turtle and a young John Stamos as the Messenger. The movie is most well-known for its outrageous costumes and Carol Channing’s jam-obsessed White Queen.

If you do one thing today please let it be watching Channing’s unhinged performance as the White Queen. You won’t regret it, promise.

After the original 1886 musical the world wouldn’t see another major musical adaptation until 2011’s Wonderland. Developed by former Straz Center CEO Judy Lisi and musical composer Frank Wildhorn, Wonderland was the first production created as part of the Broadway Genesis Project, an initiative by the Straz Center to develop and prepare new musical theater for Broadway. From the show’s inception to final staging, the Project provided “a safe and nourishing environment in a state-of-the-art complex with artistic, technical and administrative resources.”

This version sees Alice as a struggling writer living in New York City with her daughter. Alice ends up in Wonderland after hitting her head on the light of a service elevator, and there she follows many of the same story beats from the original novel before eventually fighting the Mad Hatter, now a conniving villain who intends to overthrow the Queen of Hearts as ruler of Wonderland.

Janet Dacal as Alice in Wonderland (2011).

Wonderland first began tryouts in 2009 at Ferguson Hall and would be reworked several times before finally premiering on Broadway in 2011. Though the show was praised for its musical numbers and visual splendor, the book was heavily criticized, and it ended its run after just a month of performances. However, an updated version of the show has seen continued success, most notably a 2017 UK tour and a youth premiere by the Young Artists of America in late 2022 that featured over 160 performers and new orchestrations.

We’ve only just scratched the surface of works based on and inspired by Lewis Carroll’s classic. Now go find your own journey through the looking glass, and afterward come back and tell us of your adventures. We’re getting ever so curiouser and curiouser.

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