Film Exploration: Alice (1988) and the Unconscious

by Film

A dream is half the dreamer, half collective symbols and half nonsense. 


       Jan Švankmajer, a Czech surrealist director who specialized in stop motion cinema, created what could be described as the most authentic cinematic portrayal of Charles Dodgson’s classic children’s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with his live-action Alice (Něco z Alenky, 1988). This article shall discuss how Švankmajer’s film portrayed the story of Alice’s Adventures in relation to the state of the human unconscious. The key to this exercise rests in the very fact that Dodgson intended his novel to be “like a grand dream”1, a quote which Švankmajer took very seriously towards his approach to the movie.

       A number of disclaimers must first be mentioned before any material can be discussed in order to establish basic expectations for the material of this article. Firstly, the backdrop of this piece, being rendered from a psychological point of view, will not be concentrated on the psyche of either of the two creators hitherto mentioned. The discussion of any personal details that may be extracted from the works of Dodgson or Švankmajer (which can be numerous, specifically of Dodgson), would render an unfaithful exercise in an objective psychological analysis of the content of either works. To put it simply, as Carl Jung said in regards to the problem of art and artist:

We should do well, I think, to bear clearly in mind the full consequences of this reduction of art to personal factors, and see where it leads. The truth is that it deflects our attention from the psychology of the work of art and focuses it on the psychology of the artist. The latter presents a problem that cannot be denied, but the work of art exists in its own right and cannot be got rid of by changing it into a personal complex. 2

       Instead, we shall lead our psychological exploration of the collective meanings and symbols that can be inferred between the two works. This route will keep us from the marshes of controversy that may be discovered in the exploration of artist to art. Secondly, no other material, other than Něco z Alenky and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, will be discussed in this article.


Logic of the Unconscious


       One of the most elusive faculties that humanity possesses is the very one stored within the cranium: mind. We have striven to understand ourselves from the beginning of our existence with the numerous cave paintings left behind by our ancestors, in any and every civilization across the globe, which reflected an up and coming psychic existence that tried to discover itself through an artistic medium, rather than what might be described by the cynic as “simply the scrawlings of a subspecies of man.”

       All activity we undertake in our lives is, within some capacity, a search for self-identity. This is quite the undertaking as the road-map of our minds uses laws and languages far different to what, in conscious life, we understand as rational. The unconscious is all but rational. If that is the case, how could anyone undertake a mastery of a dimension that cannot be fully understood to the rational mind? The answer lies within our never-ending curiosity of the psyche, of dreams, of fantasy, that transcends any and all rational answers. We must simply use the tools and data we have created over the last 10,000 years in our excursion of the unconscious, knowing them to be flimsy to criticism, and simply take to heart that the unknowability of ourselves is simply an a priori principle of this mental odyssey.

       By far, no other children’s fiction written in the last 200 years has intrigued the masses as much as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It has wormed itself into culture, becoming the dominant figure of all surreal/alternative nomenclature, such as the famous idiom of “going down the rabbit hole” and being a benchmark for any and all exploratory narratives not wanting to be bound by conventions. The story of Alice is purposely confusing and open-ended – to some, nonsense literature at its best, to others, a political and philosophical masterpiece. Whether viewed as a masterpiece or a farce, witty or dull, purposeful or random, one thing that is most definitely evident is the dream-like structure inherent within the tale. This is where Jan Švankmajer makes his entrance with his Alice film. Let us look at the beginning scenes of Alice and the first chapters of the book it’s based off, to see the dreamlike structuring so paramount to the foundations of the narrative.

       The film begins with a cut between Alice and her sister reading a book at a stream and Alice throwing pebbles into a tea cup in her room. This latter scene is then used as the genesis of the entire story, for the white rabbit is shown to be a taxidermied figure within a glass box, who soon breaks out and escapes. It runs away to a hill that appears out of nowhere, seeming to be a part of Alice’s bedroom, as is the case with dream logic, where one can be in many places at once. The first article of interest is that Alice embarks on her adventure through boredom, suggesting that the fantasy elements soon to play out are more so a product of her imagination, conscious and unconscious landscape, than they are of miraculous happenings. There is also something intriguing with the white rabbit being a prior object fitted within a glass box, rather than being a live animal. The stagnant state of Alice in her bedroom and the awakening of the live rabbit point towards a compensative function, wherefor the animal instinct, or power of the unconscious (the white rabbit), has been rendered into a conscious understanding and stuffed (integrated) into a fragile cage.



       The stuffing of the rabbit could very well be rendered as a metaphor for the whole Alice in Wonderland literature that has surfaced in the last 150 years, as the concepts of the story have been overly saturated with fallacies made to concretely explain the story’s details. The explanations given to the story have been, on the whole, eyebrow raising3 and many readers have taken these theories to be fact, stripping the narrative away from any further thinking. If one were to see the portrayal of this scene as from the psychological and cultural perspective given hitherto, then it gives the entire film by Švankmajer an objective in showing the story of Alice through a refreshing lens, giving to his audience an Alice they never thought possible.

       Every creation that is made by humanity, prior argued, has the potential of being a direct invitation to discover oneself. Human nature dictates that, when a white rabbit is spotted and runs away, you are very likely to inquire about its existence because it stimulates our natural curiosity. This could very well be an inquiring of one self’s lack of knowledge rather than the external subject itself that produces the reaction of curiosity. In terms of Alice, the white rabbit acts as the agent to draw Alice into her unconscious – the animal has always had this role in regards to the discovery of the human soul, as in the Indian concept of the marga, the path to enlightenment, as the root of the word marga is derived from mrg,4 which refers to the steps left behind by an animal that a person is following.



       And so the white rabbit disappears into what looks like a school desk at the top of a hill, whereby Alice runs to follow it. This confirms the objective of self exploration through the imagery of the school desk, an article associated with learning, education and perhaps even order: the fact that this desk serves as the only gateway, portal to Wonderland, suggests that the journey ahead is constructed through an instructive cause, as dreams are associated as being visual lessons of ourselves through a language we cannot understand.

       When she opens the draw it is filled with protractors, rulers and compasses, the last of which pricks her finger. This could be a sign of what’s to come: the path into oneself breaks and remakes who you are, as a serious inquiry into the confines of the unconscious will reveal what the personality does not want to see. That is why the pursuit of learning dream logic is a serious undertaking, as it is learning the unknowable parts of oneself that cannot be grasped by rationality alone. It is almost like the situation of Plato’s Cave, whereby one must unshackle the chains of the reality one is bound by and pursue the truth outside of it all, for if not, then one is content with the shadows of figures standing as their reality because they did not know any better.

Stages of the Unconscious

       In the book, Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole and floats down its descent for some time, passing by shelves of curious items; Jan Švankmajer interprets this scene by Alice falling through a silver washbasin and landing in an elevator headed to the bottom floor. What distinguishes Dodgson’s and Švankmajer’s character within Alice’s descent is the allotted importance and purpose of the content therein. The reader is shown that down the rabbit hole are “cupboards and bookshelves,” but Dogson’s purpose of this scene was to demonstrate some of Alice’s character as the transition from reality and Wonderland takes place in the background. Švankmajer shows the viewer through an elevator the different ‘Patro’ (floors) that Alice passes by – this is a short scene which demonstrates a lot of psychological significance to our cause, so we shall look at it in detail.

       Carl Jung once had a dream5 describing different levels of a house he was in and each level representing different time periods: first Rococo, then Medieval ages, then Roman ages and finally to the primordial past of our first ancestors. This dream was one of the influences in Jung’s theory of the ‘Collective Unconscious’ (a part of our psyche that is based on a matrix of collected symbols, memories, feelings and ideas that influence our daily experiences) and the structures of our minds being made up of ‘levels’. Taking this dream in the case of Alice, we see that the different floors of the elevator point directly to ever descending levels of consciousness, that is, Alice’s consciousness.

       We see when Alice first goes down the elevator a number of cogs and gears spinning, which is a great cue for our discussion; the inner workings of her mind lower Alice down into the bottom parts of herself. The first floor or ‘shelf’ have many old fashioned toys and Victorian knickknacks one would expect of a 19th-century child. Without being too unoriginal and obvious, this can very well be the ego or perhaps personal unconscious of Alice. It may be said that children can be notoriously selfish and greedy as well as overwhelmingly needy of their parents; their base desires can rest in an escape from the overbearing sensibility of adult life, encapsulated in the amusement of toys and fantasy laden content. The child’s psyche is an important point to the entirety of this article, so it shall frequent our discussion.

       It may be said that when a child (or adult) is stripped away of the most notorious symbols of childhood, what would be the next foundational level of their being? Quite simply, food. The next floor of the elevator and indeed of Alice’s descent in the book is a shelf laden with jarred conserves, most famously holding the ‘ORANGE MARMALADE’. Dodgson’s Alice is mildly disappointed to find the jar empty and simply puts it back onto another shelf as she descends. Švankmajer makes the jar full and sealed, prompting Alice to stick her finger inside and discover a thumbtack in the conserve. Another potential prick but she managed to avoid it.



       We may take this floor of the elevator (it is not distinguished in the book, the marmalade and cupboards are all in the same area) as the instinctive, pure unconsciousness. This is visually seen by the unusual, almost freakish jars that the shelf contains: bread full of nails, jars of ‘shrinking’ cookies and many other oddities. The pure unconscious is based on contradicting elements that seem to somehow harmonize with consciousness through the function of dreaming.

       Here the ‘drives’ (to use a Freudian term) of our species coexist with one another, all bound by the instinctual goal of survival. What can be discerned from this instinctual level and all proceeding levels from this point on is a relational tie that gives meaning to subsequent levels: for example, the desire for fantasy and play is preceded by the more paramount powers of survival, but it also gives the surface level of consciousness its will to live and explore, discover and create – without such forces governing the upper layers of mind, the human psyche would lose its central biological objective: to live and to survive.

       Crossing down to the last patro and before fully entering Wonderland, Alice sees shelves decorated by animal specimens, stuffed hares and skeletons of many creatures. Many chimeras can also be noticed just before she lands on the piles of leaves and twigs. This floor could be seen to represent the ancestral level of human consciousness, not quite the archetypal collective unconscious, made up of symbols and mythological motifs (this is what wonderland would be made up from), but instead, the more so bestial contents that correlate with man’s instinctive soul. It is interesting to think that before a descent into another world occurs, there is normally an animal, or many animals, guarding or simply present at the entrance to such a place. Cerberus guards the entrance to the underworld, as do the three beasts of Dante guard the hill he ascends in his Inferno, the Sphinx guards the road to Thebes in the myth of Oedipus, ad infinitum.


Transformation of the Self

       Upon dropping on the leaves and twigs, Alice is free to roam the little room that she is contained within (this is using Švankmajer’s space, not Dodgson’s corridor). She is then subjected to shrinking and growing in order to gain access into the rose garden door, but to no avail. This may be developed into the archetype of the whale, wherefore in order to cross the threshold from the old world into the new world, the hero must be swallowed into the belly of a beast and undergo an act of self annihilation in order to be reborn into the stronger agent (this is but a surface description). Dismemberment or change in physiology is usually accompanied in the myths of the swallowed hero, ala Osiris and his scattered body parts or the corpse of Christ rising from the tomb the third day (both examples do not feature a beast, but the cave or casket is a suitable manifestation of the archetype). Thus, an applicable explanation may be given to Alice’s change in size throughout the story, as they are the needed transformations that assist Alice towards what Carl Jung argued to be the center objective of our psychic lives: individuation. It is interesting, as a side note, how these transformations are initiated by the eating of food within the story, argued prior as the essential force to human survival, so it may be granted that the food of the story acts as the chief agent for her metamorphosis.



       Then, the famous scene of Alice crying as a giant begins, causing the flood of tears. This scene shall serve as the basis of a crucial subject previously mentioned, that is, the subject regarding the psyche of children. Throughout both the original novel and movie, the creatures are portrayed as having business to attend to, quite outside the interests of Alice, who makes it her aim to follow and learn about them. The trouble is that she muddles in their business and is surprised to find them reacting against her interference; for example, in the film it is shown that Alice reaches for the white rabbit in the rose garden and is then struck by the creature before running off to the next room. This is when Alice bangs on the big door as a giant and begins to cry.

       The child could be characterised as thinking that they are the centre of the universe (after Jean Piaget6 )and so it disturbs them when they find themselves in situations where they are not wanted or valued, creating what one could say is a loss of self, or temporary death of the self. Before crying at the door, Alice undergoes a transformation into a small doll by eating one of the cookies thrown out of the desk within the room she’s in. This could be seen to be the little self, the size of her ego, that is later on threatened in the story with the situation of the white rabbit’s house. The fear of annihilation of the child could stem from the risk of losing their small sense of self to the bigger world full of danger and mystery – that is why, as everybody was once children, dreams of that age could range from monsters trying to eat you or being in a place absent from your home, your parents and everything else you recognise.



       The child is always the victim of whatever situation they find themselves in, as they can sometimes lack the will to own up to responsibility, a virtue attained and learned through experience. Švankmajer’s vision of this story does well to make one think about the potential psychological elements that are part of the whole Alice in Wonderland narrative, as he made the subject of dream logic in his film believable and thought provoking. This concludes the exploration of the first part of Alice and so shall be carried forth into the next article where the subject will be more so on the mythological/collective elements inherent within Wonderland.


To be continued in Part II.



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1. “While a fairy tale has got an educational aspect – it works with the moral of the lifted forefinger (good overcomes evil), dream, as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realisation of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure. My Alice is a realised dream.” (Jan Švankmajer, Electric Sheep Magazine Interview)
2. Carl Jung, On Psychological and Visionary Art
3. One only needs to read one of the many Freudian theories out there about this story to know how far one can take their interpretations.
4. Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, page 45
5. Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, page 182
6. Jean Piaget, Play, dreams and imitation in childhood