» » Alice in Wonderland (1903)

Short summary

Alice dozes in a garden, awakened by a dithering white rabbit in waistcoat with pocket watch. She follows him down a hole and finds herself in a hall of many doors. A key opens a small door: eventually, she's through into a garden where a dog awaits. Later, in the rabbit's home, her size is again a problem. She tries to help a nanny with a howling baby, then a Cheshire cat directs her to a tea party where the Mad Hatter and March Hare dunk a dormouse. Expelled from the party, Alice happens on a royal processional: all the cards in the deck precede the Queen of Hearts, who welcomes then turns on Alice and calls on the royal executioner. Alice must run for her life.

The first film adaptation of the book.

Only one copy is known to exist, rather damaged with some parts missing. The British Film Institute has restored sections.

User reviews

  • comment
    • Author: Yellow Judge
    Cecil Hepworth is a vitally important figure in Britain's early cinema, but his achievements were compromised by the fact that he was a poor businessman and poor planner. Prints of his most popular films -- such as "Comin' Thro the Rye" and "The Joke that Failed" -- were sold outright to exhibitors, causing Hepworth to wear out the original negatives. In order to meet continuing demand for new prints, he was forced to re-shoot these movies in their entirety! Hepworth probably deserves credit for filming the first remake.

    Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll, author of 'Alice in Wonderland') died in 1898, in the very earliest years of Britain's cinema, and there is no surviving record of him ever having seen a movie. (Dodgson's vast archive of correspondence was burnt by his family after his death, and his diary was censored: there may well have been a movie review in there someplace.) Yet I'm 100% certain that Dodgson would have been a cinephile. He was an expert and enthusiastic amateur photographer, he had a deep love of the theatre, and the 'Alice' books contain several devices which seem more cinematic than literary: Alice is subjected to the shot change, the jump cut, the dissolve, and so forth.

    Cecil Hepworth's 1903 film version of 'Alice in Wonderland' -- apparently the first movie version of that oft-filmed book -- was made barely five years after Dodgson's death. Scantly nine minutes long, this crude 'trick' movie necessarily shows only a few fragments of the novel. The uncredited production designer (Hepworth himself?) has clearly made considerable effort to base the sets and costumes on Sir John Tenniel's beloved illustrations, so it's strange that the central character looks nothing at all like Tenniel's Alice: the actress cast here has long black hair, and her pinafore is nearly ankle-length.

    Quite impressively, Alice actually falls into a genuine hole in the ground. To show her plunging vertically (as in the novel) would have been technically difficult to stage, so we see her creeping through a slanting shaft, in an impressive cutaway shot (the cinema's first)? Some of the special effects are achieved through simple jump cuts, much less flamboyant than what Georges Melies was doing in France at this time. Alice's growth spurt in the White Rabbit's house is amusingly staged by placing the actress intentionally too close to the camera, in an undersized set.

    I was impressed by one elaborate bit of pageantry in an exterior shot. Alice stands on a broad greensward (apparently a partial matte shot) while the 52 members of the pack of cards parade past her, one suit at a time.

    The print which I viewed had neatly typeset intertitles, but was an acetate print several generations removed from the original ... so I can't tell if these titles date back to Hepworth's original 1903 production, or were added later. Oddly, the opening title makes a point of telling us that Alice's adventure is a dream: this was only implied in the first chapter of the original novel. More significantly, the dominant figure at the Mad Tea Party is identified in a title here as 'the Mad Hatter'. This usage is now quite common, but it never appears in Carroll's original novel: nowhere in the text of 'Alice in Wonderland' is the word 'Hatter' immediately preceded by the word 'mad'. The expression 'mad as a hatter' refers to the fact that 19th-century hatters often developed nervous tics from exposure to the highly toxic vapours of mercuric nitrate. Men's hats in Victorian times were made of felt; 19th-century hatters cured the felt by a process called 'carroting' which left a carrot-coloured residue. Since the Hatter in Carroll's novel is never explicitly cried 'the Mad Hatter', I'm surprised to find evidence that this popular mis-usage may have been in place as early as 1903. I wish I could establish the origin of these title cards.

    Hepworth's production of 'Alice in Wonderland' is extremely crude by modern standards, and leaves out most of the plot of Carroll's book, as well as the wonderful wordplay. But this film was an extremely ambitious undertaking for its time, and it achieves nearly all of what it set out to accomplish. I'll rate it 9 out of 10.
  • comment
    • Author: Gelgen
    Like that other 1903 "adaptation" Uncle Tom's Cabin, this very short movie is a succession of illustrations brought to life before a static camera. The Great Train Robbery of this same year was a great cinematic step forward in its use of film as story-telling. Nevertheless, Alice is a gem that has survived the ravages of time miraculously if rather battered. It is very primitive, but that also lends it a great charm, particularly the procession of the cards and their chase of Alice, with its host of little children dressed up as cards and having great fun on a sunny day in the park. For those who are not Alice lovers, this may barely register, but aficionados may happily have it on a permanent loop filling one whole side of a plasma screen wall (in a few years time that is). It is a strong candidate crying out for restoration, even though a number of frames will remain missing, particularly of the dog, who would later gain fame in Rescued by Rover! Have a happy Wonderland!
  • comment
    • Author: Shezokha
    Much in the same way as 'The Blacksmith Scene' from 1893, the first filmed version of 'Alice in Wonderland' from 1903 plays out more as a curious look into the history of film making at that time and the importance of film preservation for today, than a credible film adaptation of the book. However, in its initial release to the public, the film was popular, and at a staggering eight minutes in length, it was the longest movie to date. There are some nifty special effects of Alice shrinking and growing in the doll house, and there's an excellent commentary track on the DVD that talks about the people involved in the production of the film. However, through years of neglect and the natural decline of the nitrate on the film, there are more gaps, breaks and white scratches on the film that make its viewing somewhat difficult. No copies of the film have survived through time, the one used for the DVD is the original and it's in terrible shape.

    You can find this movie, warts and all, on the DVD of 'Alice In Wonderland' from 1966 directed by Jonathan Miller, who's version while clean, starring a stellar cast, and looking beautiful, could also be described as viewing that is 'somewhat difficult'.

    I'm giving the movie a 9/10. It was a 3, but I took this pill and it grew to a 9.

    Clark Richards
  • comment
    • Author: Alianyau
    The remnants of this silent movie was added to Jonathan Miller's Alice DVD as a Bonus.It has to be viewed as an historical document and hardly for entertainment value. But May Clarke deserved a better fate than being called "ugly".I have a photo of her on one of my Alice sites and she's at least attractive enough. This was the final film of the 3 she made,all before 1904 so there's no evidence of what her speaking voice was like. In answer to that rather ignorant remark I don't think any movie studios at this time employed children but the age of Alice should not be brought into question when you realize many older actreses played her.The child star was yet to be invented and all actors came from the stage When you think of it this Alice silent is now over 100 years old
  • comment
    • Author: Haracetys
    British film pioneer Cecil M. Hepworth ("Rescued by Rover" & "The Egg-Laying Man") teamed-up with fellow film pioneer Percy Stow for the first big screen adaptation of the classic children's book by Lewis Carroll which has since been innumerably remade.

    Alice (May Clark) follows the White Rabbit down the rabbit-hole to Wonderland where she shrinks and grows, gets directed to the Mad Hatter's Tea-Party by the Duchess's Cheshire Cat and disrupts the Royal Procession in a series of entertaining early effects.

    Production secretary May Clark never entirely seems at ease in the role and is outclassed by the professionalism of co-stars Cecil M. Hepworth, Mrs. Hepworth, their cat and first British film star Blair the dog ("Rescued by Rover").

    The film-makers have done a surprisingly successful job of brining the original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel to life with some truly pioneering effects and although much was lost when the original reels were melted down by the receivers there is still plenty to enjoy.

    "Until she remembers the magic fan."
  • comment
    • Author: Winn
    At eight minutes this was actually considered a long film and it is a very condensed version of the book Alice in Wonderland.

    Unfortunately these early film stocks have degraded and even though this version is restored, it still makes for difficult viewing but at least its preserved.

    Special effects are used to show Alice growing and shrinking and the latter scenes has a large gathering of costumed characters as Alice encounters the Queen of Hearts. The footage of the Cheshire Cat looks rather charming as it also highlights almost 'stone age' special effects technique.

    Its hard to rate these films properly as they are essentially surviving examples of the history of the cinema.
  • comment
    • Author: Dead Samurai
    This is the first film adaptation of Lewis Carroll's classic book "Alice in Wonderland" and it was released more than 100 years ago (I'm not joking, just do the math!). It is a impressive film, with a strange sense of narration (conidering that even back in 1903, to watch this movie you really had to know Alice's story because it is very confusing, I got lost in some parts, trying to understand what was going on) and interesting editing effects, wonderful transition moments, one scene cuts and dissolves into another, brilliant effects.

    You can find this short film on the net, YouTube but unfortunately the remaining copies are too grainy, sometimes it's almost impossible to watch it. But everything is there: Alice, the rabbit (that guy dressed as rabbit scared me for some awkward reason), the Mad Hatter, the cards and many others.

    It was a very ambitious movie during its time, and now might look a home made movie from the early days of films. It's good anyway. 6/10
  • comment
    • Author: Shou
    I just discovered this film the other day and was surprised at how interesting it was. Yes if it were to be made today it would be shot on the spot, but nobody expected anything from movies back then and I'm sure the people who originally saw it thought it was great.

    I also admire the actors for having to rely solely on body language to tell the story and express what's going on, because obviously it's a silent film and has no sound.

    I especially think that the costumes, props, and backgrounds look pretty good, even though the card procession was obviously shot in on a park road. :)

    I just appreciate it for what it is, one of the first films ever filmed and some pretty good looking effects.
  • comment
    • Author: JoJogar
    For 1903, this is a rather long and elaborate fiction film, although exhibitors could also buy the scenes separately. This was when exhibitors still retained editorial control and the final appearance of the films they screened; however, by 1903, producers were gaining more control over this, and this film is a reflection of that. By then, story films were becoming more popular than the single shot-scene attractions and novelties of cinema's beginnings. "A Trip to the Moon" (1902) and "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) remain the most popular examples of the new story film.

    Hepworth's "Alice in Wonderland" is said to have been originally 800 feet and, perhaps, as long as 12 minutes, with 16 scenes. The print available today suffers severe negative decomposition and lasts about 8 minutes. That's longer than most films from then. "Alice in Wonderland", however, isn't so much a story film in the sense of continuity and self-contained narrative, but, rather, is a series of images, loosely connected, to illustrate selected parts of Lewis Carroll's novel. They're based on those by John Tenniel. If one were unfamiliar with the novel, this film would make little sense; its narrative isn't self-contained. The filmmakers assume audience foreknowledge and relied upon lecturers to explain the film at showings with the aid of Hepworth's catalogue description of it. In the tableaux style, the film's title cards describe the action before we see it, and tell some of the narrative that isn't shown. Dissolves are often used as a transition, too, which was quite common back then, since Georges Méliès did it.

    Regarding the titles, one thing I found remarkable about this film is that the title to the film overlays the opening image, via multiple-exposure photography. I've rarely seen this before the 1920s, although an earlier British film, "Scrooge; or Marley's Ghost" (1901), which was also selected images to accompany a popular novel, featured a similar overlap of images and title cards.

    The rest of the picture is rather unremarkable. There are a few cutaways and insert medium shots and match-on-action cuts, but some are awkward and primitive. There's also a reverse-angle shot when Alice is trapped in the rabbit house. The multiple-exposure (or superimposition) trick photography was nothing new, except for the aforementioned use. Prints were originally toned. The film is notable as a comparatively large production for its time, but there were more advanced story films then, which had self-contained narratives and that invented continuity editing. One of these would by Hepworth's 1905 film "Rescued by Rover".
  • comment
    • Author: Adoraris
    I don't know if this film exists in another form other than the public domain one that is available on the internet. My review is based solely on this public domain print. If there is a restored print available, please, please, please see that one instead, as the public domain one is severely degraded--much more so than usual. This is because older films were made on nitrate stock that would begin degrading (turning to powder, liquifying or even exploding over time) almost immediately. Many early sound and silent films simply no longer exist due to this decomposition. ALICE is so badly degraded that many portions of the film are almost unwatchable.

    As for the film apart from that, like many of the films of these early years of cinema, they've taken a literary classic and replicated scenes from it--not the entire film. As most films were five minutes or less (often much less), the fact that this is about eight is actually unusual--making this "full-length" at least for the time. In many ways, it was like a highlights clip. The costumes and sets, for 1903, were very good but when compared to films of the middle and late silent era, it would appear very crude and incomplete. If I were comparing it to other 1903 era films, I'd give it a 7 or 8, but given the severe decomposition, it's probably not worth seeing for the average person and more of interest to film historians and devoted fans.
  • comment
    • Author: Alsanadar
    Five years after Lewis Carroll's death, his most famous work entered the world of motion picture for the first time. And this 8-minute version has pretty much all the famous scenes: the white rabbit, Alice shrinking and growing, the meal with the mad hatter, the "card people" etc. Unfortunately, the physical quality of the film is so low that it really hurts the viewing experience. Occasionally, it's even absolutely necessary to know the story in order to understand what is actually going on, despite the intertitles. Anyway, it's still a good effort by directors Hepworth and Stow. The former also stars in the film as a frog. Sadly, these two have almost sunken into oblivion until today. Many of their films have gone lost, but looking at their prolific body of work, it's easy to see that they belong to Britain's most influential pioneers from the early days of cinema. Looking at how the most recent version of the tale starring Mia Wasikowska was a dominant force at the box office for months not too long ago, it's nice to see the story so relevant until this day and Hepworth and Stow here and there getting the recognition as well.
  • comment
    • Author: GAMER
    This ten minute silent movie presents an extremely condensed version of Carroll's immortal book, but still manages to be quite faithful to the source material (for example, Alice uses a magic fan to make herself shrink after she grows to giant size in the White Rabbit's tiny house). The special effects shots of Alice growing and shrinking are admittedly rather primitive by today's more sophisticated standards, but are effective and impressive for their time just the same. Cecil M. Hepworth's tinted black and white cinematography delivers a few pleasing visuals such as Alice going down an actual hole to venture into wonderland. The sets and costumes are very fanciful and elaborate. Attractive brunette May Clark makes for a fetching Alice. This charming relic offers a neat glimpse into the state of cinema back in its early 20th century infancy: While it may seem kind of plain and rough around the edges to modern audiences, it nonetheless qualifies as a cool piece of celluloid history that both hints at and plays around with the magical possibilities of this wondrous art form.
  • comment
    • Author: Dream
    This 1903 film by Cecil M. Hepworth is said to be THE first adaptation of the classic story "Alice in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll. Running at a little over 8 minutes, the film is laughably poor when looked at today because of its primitiveness. However, such a comparison is not allowed because of its age. You cannot criticize this movie for having no computer graphics because there were none by 1903. Instead, superimposing and dissolves were done in a much harder way and took a deal of work. Thus, the special effects used in "Alice in Wonderland" are actually very good for the time.

    The entire story is not even told in this short adaptation. Instead, they show some of the highlights of the book--the shrinking and growing to get through the door, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, the Queen of Hearts. Because it is so old, it is understandable they didn't tell the whole thing--full-length features were still in the future. But the fact is, the surviving print of the film is very deteriorated looking. Not your typical few specks and scratches, I mean actual, crumbling deterioration. You can still see what is going on enough, but the fact is, modern audiences just won't find much value is what's here and film buffs who are used to this sort of thing will get much more out of this beat-up copy.

    That said, it does have some interesting things to note. At the beginning of the film, they superimposed the film's title on the bush by which Alice sits before she falls asleep. This is something I don't think I've seen before from the early silent era and looks more up-to-date then a title card (although it was still there when the White Rabbit came along, and when he passed his head in front of it you could see his head right through the type). Also, several title cards too which looked authentic, not modern cards added to help with the story. This makes it one of the first movies to use title cards!
  • comment
    • Author: saafari
    The very first screen adaptation of Lewis Carroll's novel will look crude to the modern viewer but it's still impressive what they managed to accomplish with the minimal resources. This "Alice in Wonderland" only lasts a few minutes, so it only contains the novel's major scenes, but they look pretty neat.

    I understand that in cinema's infancy, a number of the short movies were based on famous novels - "A Christmas Carol", "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde", etc - so that people would understand the stories without having to hear anything. I've seen a few of these early adaptations. More than anything, they're interesting to watch, just since they give one an idea of what movies were like in their first years. Anyway, this one's worth seeing.
  • comment
    • Author: Dusar
    Nowadays, over-reliance on special effects is such a source of contention in the film industry, that it's refreshing to revisit early cinema, where, over a century ago, cinematic effects were akin to magic, and considered the greatest boon in the unparalleled potential of the medium. In this respect, 1903's Alice in Wonderland, the earliest cinematic adaptation of the beloved Lewis Carroll novel, is a treat to watch, if only for the thought of Carroll (who had only recently passed away) tickled pink at the notion that the magic and wonder of his novel could be realized in live action in a fashion impossible on the stage. Ultimately, the eight minute film (reportedly, some cuts ran as long as 16 - an epic for 1903) is an 'adaptation' of Carroll's novel in only the crudest sense, its disconnected succession of scenes likely nonsensical for those unfamiliar with the story. As narrative in cinema was only a recent concept, this was hardly the point.

    Where the film excels, as is the case for its innumerable remakes, Disney or otherwise, is in its visuals. Again, for contemporary audiences, being wowed will take some suspension of disbelief, but the real joy lies in imagining 1903 audiences gasping in awe at the shrinking and growing Alice (amusingly done by having the actor simply stand closer or farther away from the camera, with varying background sets), or the magically appearing Cheshire Cat (superimposed through double-exposure photography, and sans trademark Disney grin, to boot). The film gets a fair amount of mileage out of its costumes, with the White Rabbit suit and marching playing card army of the Queen of Hearts establishing a proudly storybook aesthetic, demonstrating whiffs of inspiration for the tale's iconic animated and less-admired Tim Burton adaptations alike.

    Most interesting is the fact that the opening title card declares the ensuing whimsy to simply be Alice's dream, while later adaptations are more calculatedly ambiguous about the fantasy realm of Wonderland. It's a curious paradox that the first take on Carroll's classic is at once its most magical in terms of perceived effect on viewers, and yet the least willing to buy into its own magic. It's no wonder generations of children and adults alike continued to revisit Wonderland, for proper closure of a fantasy, surrealist realm they were allowed to believe to be real.

  • comment
    • Author: Whiteflame
    This short piece, the first ever film adaptation of the Lewis Carroll story, has some nice costumes and clever visuals. Since it is only eight minutes, there is little time to develop anything. We have the scenes with the mushrooms and the drink that make Alice small, then big. We have the baby turning into a pig. We meet the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. a full deck of playing cards, and the Queen of Hearts. If you know the story, this is fine. Otherwise it is practice for future cinema. The piece I viewed was restored from badly damaged film. The beginning is nearly unwatchable, but as we get farther in, it gets better.
  • comment
    • Author: Umi
    Spoilers herein.

    I suppose we should be amazed at seeing any film that is 100 years old. But this has no appeal or interest either as a film, or as an Alice. Don't bother the search it out unless you are a collector.

    Ted's Evaluation -- 1 of 4: You can find something better to do with this part of your life.
  • comment
    • Author: Fato
    By and large, the biggest problem with most adaptations of Lewis Carroll's fable is people's tendency to read too much into it. I guess it could be said that he so effectively created absurdity that people cannot handle the absurdity of it and MUST give it meaning. Thus, film adaptations of Alice in Wonderland tend to either stray from the original story to include other random and bizarre things the director or screenwriter feels like inserting, or worse, includes some unnecessary theme or social statement. This short, over a hundred years old and the first ever adaptation of the book, succeeds mostly because its technical limitations, time constraints, and lack of sound allows the camera to just sit back and enjoy the absurd nature of Wonderland without too much deviation or social statement. It's an abridged Alice, but a true to form Alice nonetheless. Unfortunately, "Alice" is still too old.

    The effects are light and mostly done through double-exposures, sometimes giving away the process but they still tell the story, which is the most important part. Unintentionally, the awkward movements of silent cinema on today's screens help create a much more surrealistic movement behind the characters which helps. Unintentionally, the damage and rot that has occurred to the only surviving print over the years is also tragic, as it blows over some of the best moments and sometimes makes the movie a little hard to watch. This is an early silent film, so the blocking is mostly along a traditional staging, with cuts only between certain locations (or effects). This movie is meant to be flat and allow the viewer to enjoy the magic as it happens, not skip around with jumpcuts and uneven spokes. Oh well, what exists is an impression of what once was, and the idea is still there. The best work is the costuming and art direction, which was the most true to the book.

  • Credited cast:
    May Clark May Clark - Alice
    Cecil M. Hepworth Cecil M. Hepworth - Frog
    Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
    Blair Blair - Large dog
    Geoffrey Faithfull Geoffrey Faithfull - Card
    Stanley Faithfull Stanley Faithfull - Card
    Mrs. Hepworth Mrs. Hepworth - White Rabbit / Queen
    Norman Whitten Norman Whitten - Fish / Mad Hatter
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