A Kafkaesque Adventure for Alice in Wonderland

Karolina R. Swasey



Directed by Jan Svankmajer

Now available on DVD from FirstRunFeatures



No other children’s book is more in need of explication than Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, for every single line in it is a decisive stitch in an intricate, philosophically profound, and mathematically precise fabric that most adaptations dismiss in favor of the quirky tale that surfaces the story’s undercurrents.


As fun as Disney’s or Tim Burton’s interpretations are, for example, they merely scrape at the surface of the paradoxes of sense that Carroll intended to expound in order to reveal that words and the things they try to describe don’t form a holistic system and can only meet in nonsense. Alice’s Wonderland is that place of nonsense — a reversed world that changes invariably, where meanings are being constantly destabilized, and where chaos is ever-present.


Jan Svankmajer’s Alice, the esteemed Czech animator’s feature-film debut from 1988, is far more than just a strange, wonderful, and surreal trip set within the charming ambience of an Eastern bloc TV fairytale. It is a strikingly original attempt to wound the skin of the story and to reveal its body by almost entirely stripping it of Carroll’s language and converting it into a an eerie and unsettling dreamscape.


In the beginning of the film we see Alice (played by Kristyna Kohoutova) in her room, which contains a taxidermied rabbit that comes to life and breaks through the glass vitrine that’s supposed to keep him out of children’s reach. Alice chases the rabbit across a deserted and rocky wasteland until she reaches the entrance of the rabbit hole. Also known as the entrance to Wonderland, it is a desk drawer filled with tools invented by mankind to measure the world, such as rulers, squares, and compasses.


What follows is an astonishing, dangerous, and Kafkaesque adventure through the subconscious, in which we rejoin with modified versions of some of Carroll’s characters. Just like in the original, Alice eventually wakes up from her nightmare — only to realize that the rabbit’s display case is shattered to pieces and its inhabitant missing.



Svankmajer’s Wonderland is as difficult to describe as Carroll’s, or any space of the subconscious for that matter, for it is not a place that is mapped geographically, but rather topologically, being just as incoherent as the plot itself. It’s a collection of rooms of ever-changing proportions, filled with a menagerie of grotesquely animated clay, toys, and meat.


Svankmajer created a masterpiece of cinema that has reached cult status. Though he remained true to the absurdity of Carroll’s original, his film, which is a combination of live-action and stop-motion animation, leaves room for plenty of imagination. After its premier in 1988, his adaptation was denounced as visually grotesque, perverted, and disturbing, but also strangely alluring. Especially the figure of the white rabbit, who, in the beginning of the film, suffers a fissure in his chest and is forced constantly to eat spoonfuls of sawdust to keep himself “alive.”


Author Bio:

Karolina Swasey is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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