Tim Burton’s "Alice in Wonderland" (2010) is the latest in a long line of screen adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s books. There have been versions from the silent era of film (Cecil Hepworth’s of 1903 and W. W. Young’s of 1915); a star-studded MGM film from 1933; the 1951 Walt Disney animated film; Jonathan Miller’s trippy 1966 BBC television adaptation, which features British comedy icons like Peter Cook and Peter Sellers and the music of Ravi Shankar; an X-rated “musical fantasy” version from 1976; and a wonderfully dark and surreal 1988 offering by animator Jan Svankmajer. All of these films illustrate the pros and cons of adapting Carroll’s singular works. On the one hand, the Alice stories allow filmmakers to showcase the latest in cinematic special effects as the heroine falls down the rabbit-hole, grows and shrinks, or encounters the Cheshire cat’s lingering grin. On the other hand, Carroll’s intricate verbal humor, circuitous plots, fantastic creatures and events, when coupled with the iconic status of John Tenniel’s illustrations, make the books difficult to visualize. The result tends to be films with some isolated stunning moments, but that disappoint adult fans and either bore or terrify the children that they were ostensibly meant to entertain.
Might Carroll’s surreal wordplay and flashing leaps of the imagination be easier to adapt in a sound-only medium? In the next few blog entries, I will post excerpts from some of the audio adaptations of Alice’s adventures. For my first installment, I offer a December 1937 radio broadcast of CBS’s prestigious “Columbia Workshop.” This show was directed by William N. Robeson, and featured an “experimental musical score” meant to determine the extent to which orchestra instruments could provide a radio drama’s sound effects. Listen below to how the show dramatizes a scene from Carroll’s "Through the Looking Glass" (1871) that is not typically found in the films: Alice’s ride on the Wonderland train and her conversation with the gnat. The scene highlights how the broadcast uses musical instruments as sound effects, and also reminds us that Carroll’s prose is populated by a wild cacophony of voices: we hear Alice’s long-suffering politeness, as well as uncanny disembodied voices that speak and think in chorus; the murmurs of overheard speech from the other passengers in the coach; a train announcement that morphs into the whinny of a horse; and the piping of a gnat in Alice’s ear.