Falling in love with Alice;Children's classics;Books

29th October 1999 at 01:00
The surreal adventures of an Edwardian schoolgirl called Alice have been replayed on page and screen ever since she first fell down the rabbit hole. Below, Elaine William ponders what makes life beyond the looking glass so compelling and is impressed by the latest quirky adaptation for Channel 4 Schools, while, opposite, Joanna Carey praises twomodern illustrators' forays into Wonderland.

W hatever Walt Disney might have us believe, there's nothing cute about Alice's journey into Wonderland, or through the looking glass for that matter. Lewis Carroll's stories present a fabulous feast of language and images; words, phrases and characters strangely lit by the author's preoccupation with logic. They are fascinating, witty and immensely clever in a disturbing kind of way, but at times they are truly horrific.

Alice enters worlds in which she is completely out of control; a pawn in a game of chess. She gets stuck down rabbit holes, shrinks into bottles, expands to the size of a house with her foot stuck up the chimney and contends with the disembodied grin of a Cheshire cat. She suddenly finds herself on a train journey travelling the wrong way or talking to a "queen" who lives her life backwards and can best recall events that happen the week after next.

Alice's relationship with the Red King in Through the Looking Glass seems to sum up her predicament. Here they are, locked into parallel dreams: she is dreaming of the king who is dreaming of Alice who is dreaming of the king and so on. Should the king wake, according to Tweedledum, "you'd go out - bang! - just like a candle!" When she meets Humpty Dumpty, he grimly reflects that she is now six months past her seventh birthday. "With proper assistance," he notes, "you might have left off at seven." Let's face it, it's all a bit of a nightmare.

Lewis Carroll, a pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was a middling lecturer in mathematics at Oxford in the mid-19th century. Uncomfortable in the company of adults, he appears to have directed his friendships towards young girls, a preoccupation that we in the 1990s find hard to regard as wholly innocent. However, there is little evidence to suggest anything sinister. He was truly brilliant at getting into the mindset of children and entertaining them with his puzzles, games of logic and stories.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were written for, and take as their main character, Alice Liddell, the middle daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College, Oxford, where Carroll was a student.

Carroll took his cue from children themselves; he noted how they view the world as an irrational place where almost anything can happen, not all of it comforting or pleasant. John Tenniel's original, brilliant pen and ink illustrations perfectly interpret the troubling nature of the text, with their dark, surreal portrayal of the weird and downright bizarre - always with Alice looking on, wide-eyed and bemused. Walt Disney's animation seems flaccid and whimsical in comparison.

It is the narrative, expressive nature of Tenniel's line which suits Carroll's rich literary fayre. Indeed Carroll's characters are so bound by the fantastical nature of the language that past efforts to turn the books into film have not succeeded particularly well. In the case of Alice we are dealing with a very curious, complicated kind of nonsense, written for British readers of another century. Capturing its full wit and flavour will never be easy.

However, Channel 4 may well have stepped into the breach. In November, Channel 4 Schools will broadcast a three-part adaptation of Alice Through the Looking Glass for its popular primary English series Book Box, aimed at 7 to 11-year-olds.

The film is faithful to the text, retaining the riddles, jokes and word tricks that make the world of Alice so appealing. And it avoids glossing over the turbulent nature of life on the other side of the looking glass. Filmed through the eye of a restless camera, it reveals a mad, brilliantly coloured world of bewitching, faintly threatening landscapes and bewildering interiors. Undoubtedly it will be challenging for this age-range.

Nevertheless, the film is impressive and captivating, boosted by some clever, delightful performances from its all-star cast - Kate Beckinsale as Alice, Ian Holm as the White Knight, Geoffrey Palmer as the White King and Sian Phillips as the Red Queen.

The accompanying teacher's guide makes an excellent resource in its own right. The presence of inspired nonsense poems like "Jabberwocky"; the use of riddles; Carroll's original and unusual use of words; the fantastical characters; the chess board theme - all present rich opportunities for imaginative work, and the guide breaks the book down into some meaty projects. For example, with "Jabberwocky", it suggests that children write their own definitions of words such as "brillig", "gyre" and "gimble" and then compare them with the definitions given by Humpty Dumpty in the book. Delicious!

Resources: video pound;17.99; teacher's guide pound;3.95; 'Through the Looking Glass' story book, published by Puffin, pound;2.99 for one copy, pound;2.49 per copy for five or more. Channel 4 Schools, PO Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZ. Tel: 01926 436444. http:schools.channel4.comshop'Book Box: Alice Through the Looking Glass' is transmitted on Wednesdays, November 3-17, 11.30am-12 noon. An uninterrupted version will be shown on Strap needs to say that while Lewis Caroll's Alice has never reallly gone

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