The First-Ever Film Version of Lewis Carroll’s Tale, Alice in Wonderland (1903)

Once lost, this 8‑minute, very dam­aged, but very delight­ful silent ver­sion of Alice in Won­der­land was restored sev­er­al years ago by the British Film Insti­tute. It is the first film adap­ta­tion of the 1865 Lewis Car­roll clas­sic. And, at the time, the orig­i­nal length of 12 min­utes (only 8 min­utes sur­vive today) made it the longest film com­ing out of the nascent British film indus­try.

After about a minute, the eye ignores the dam­age of the film, like the ear ignores a scratched 78 rpm record. View­ers can expect sev­er­al vignettes from the nov­el, not a flow­ing nar­ra­tive. It starts with Alice fol­low­ing the White Rab­bit down the hole, the “eat me” and “drink me” sequence, the squeal­ing baby that turns into a piglet, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Tea Par­ty, and the Red Queen and her play­ing card min­ions. The col­or­ing of the neg­a­tive is a BFI recon­struc­tion of the orig­i­nal col­ors, by the way.

The film was pro­duced and direct­ed by Cecil Hep­worth and Per­cy Stow out of their Hep­worth Stu­dios in Wal­ton-on-the-Thames, near Lon­don. They show knowl­edge of the cam­era trick­ery pio­neered only a few years ear­li­er by Georges Méliès, like the shrink­ing and grow­ing Alice and the appear­ance of the Cheshire Cat. That cat, by the way, was the Hepworth’s fam­i­ly pet. Hep­worth him­self plays the frog-head­ed foot­man, and his wife played the Red Queen.

May Clark, who played Alice, was 18 at the time, and had already worked on sev­er­al Hep­worth pro­duc­tions, and not just act­ing. Accord­ing to her bio at the Women Film Pio­neers project, she did a bit of every­thing around the stu­dio, “from spe­cial effects and set dec­o­ra­tion to cos­tume design and car­pen­try.” The ear­ly days of film have a real “stu­dent project” feel about them, no pigeon­holed roles, just every­body chip­ping in.

As for Cecil Hep­worth, he appeared des­tined for a career in film, as his father ran mag­ic lantern shows. Cecil worked for sev­er­al com­pa­nies before set­ting up his own and wrote one of the first books on the sub­ject, Ani­mat­ed Pho­tog­ra­phy: The ABC of the Cin­e­mato­graph. His com­pa­ny con­tin­ued to make films in this ear­ly style through 1926, but even­tu­al­ly ran out of mon­ey. To pay off debts, the receiver­ship com­pa­ny melt­ed down his films to get the sil­ver, which was the rea­son most schol­ars thought his films were lost. In 2008, one of his films was dis­cov­ered, and then “Alice.” There may still be oth­ers out there.

You can find Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land list­ed in our oth­er col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2014.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lewis Carroll’s Clas­sic Sto­ry, Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land, Told in Sand Ani­ma­tion

Curi­ous Alice — The 1971 Anti-Drug Movie Based on Alice in Won­der­land That Made Drugs Look Like Fun

The Orig­i­nal Alice’s Adven­tures In Won­der­land Man­u­script, Hand­writ­ten & Illus­trat­ed By Lewis Car­roll (1864)

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the FunkZone Pod­cast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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