Neglected Films No. 12: ‘Dreamchild’

Reading & Writing, The Arts

Alice in Wonderland always puzzled me. Plotless and picaresque, dreamlike but cold and uninvolving, it gained a foothold in the American heart because its author was embraced by a US university. In England it was considered by its critics as rather unsophisticated children’s fare despite its huge commercial success, but the endless reprints appealed to illustrators and interpreters. It was common at the time for even country vicars to be experts in many other subjects, so it’s no surprise that logic and mathematics figure heavily. Still, the book is peculiarly fascinating for the wrong reasons; one is tempted to try and impose order on it, to find meaning, to study it, to create a plot where none exists.

This astonishing and almost lost film (try finding a review on imdb) on the subject of Alice does create a plot. It was written by Dennis Potter, directed by Gavin Millar and starred Coral Browne, Peter Gallagher, Jane Asher and Ian Holm. It takes as its basis the Reverend Dodgson’s fascination with the coquettish Alice, hinging on her mother’s famously unexplained destruction of all the letters he sent to the girl. Ian Holm plays Dodgson, forever popping into the household to read from his book as the family start to lose patience with him and Alice, in the way of little girls, recognises his need and spites it.

There’s a breath-holding moment when Lewis Carroll sits in a punt reading to the girls and Alice starts to splash him. Stammering fiercely, he comes close to pronouncing his love for her as a look of dawning horror appears on Asher’s face.

But this is not just about Carroll and Alice. At the other end of her life, Alice Liddell, now Hargreave, is a querulous old woman of 80 (Coral Browne) travelling to New York with her carer and a reporter, on their way to Columbia University to receive accolades she neither wants nor understands. She detests the vulgarity of celebrity, the crush of photographers who want to touch history, and becomes lost in a confusion of memories and dreams.

Some of these bring forth the most surreal moments from the book (with creatures by Jim Henson) and have all of the terrifying power that Tim Burton’s version lacked. As the young Alice is bullied and questioned by the Mock Turtle and the Mad Hatter, the floodwaters of memory break and she is transported back to earlier times, when she is able to piece together the last parts of the puzzle she never fully understood.

Although the film was critically acclaimed, the acidic Potter probably won no friends by portraying the American frenzy of interest as crass and opportunistic, but it’s a brilliant and loving work, a meditation on memory, age, death and the creation of stories that is simply unique.

16 comments on “Neglected Films No. 12: ‘Dreamchild’”

  1. John Howard says:

    Thanks for reminding me about this one. I remember seeing it when it came out and loved it then not only because of the fact that it was a different take on the story but because of who the cast was and the writing and directing talent behind the camera. I had forgotten about it but will try and search it out just to enjoy again.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    I saw this film on TV a few years back and enjoyed it, but wondered at the time if it would be a money maker. Carroll, who was undoubtedly repressed, was depicted as too interested in young girls, which he may or may not have been in life, and the excerpts from the book (s) were somewhat abrasive. But he wrote quite well and his books always reminded me of Dada, Yves Tanguy, Dali and others; and I’ve always loved the surrealists. A lot of mysticism and physics and math in his writing and great quotable doubletalk.

  3. Roger says:

    ‘. In England it was considered by its critics as rather unsophisticated children’s fare ‘
    Hardly- the complexity, sophistication of the mathematical references, parodies and grim wit were recognised from its publication.

    ‘It was common at the time for country vicars to be experts in many other subjects, so it’s no surprise that logic and mathematics figure heavily.’
    Carroll wasn’t a country parson, but a life-long academic mathematician.

    ‘Alice Liddell, now Hargreave, …travelling to New York with her maid and a reporter’
    It’s a long time since I saw the film, but isn’t Alice escorted by a companion rather than a maid? The two are on more equal terms.

    ‘try finding a review on imdb)’
    More than thirty: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0089052/reviews

  4. Janet says:

    Just wondering, when will The Invisible Code be available in the U.S.?

  5. admin says:

    Thanks for this Roger, I should qualify – I looked at critical reviews not from the period but from my childhood. I think you’re right, Carroll’s level of intellect was never in dispute but its reputation seems to have grown far more in the US, where it was recognised as a unique work. Carroll was an academic, of course, but there’s a word missing – ‘even country’ vicars became experts’ – mea culpa.
    It’s been a while since I saw the film. I had remembered Nicola Cowper as a maid but you’re correct, she’s a ‘companion’.
    I use imdb Pro – I only ever refer to professional reviews – and there are just twelve from the whole world of print available online.

  6. admin says:

    Janet, I’ve heard that in the US the book won’t be out until September 13 I’m afraid. You could always start collecting the UK editions? (Just a thought there!)

  7. Dan Terrell says:

    Janet – The Invisible Code is available from Amazon as an audio book for a reasonable price. Amazon does not list a release date in the U.S. for the book, so I checked with Bantam-Dell and, unfortunately, they don’t appear to list it either … But it will be published eventually because B&M are popular here and you can’t buy a copy of the British edition book from Amazon.com, which is what happens when it’s to be published in the U.S.
    However, you certainly can buy it from Amazon.UK which is where I bought mine. Said softly: “It is a very good read. It is a very good read. It is a ve…ry gooood…..” Cheers.

  8. Mike Cane says:

    One of Dennis Potter’s gems.

  9. Roger says:

    ‘Carroll’s level of intellect was never in dispute but its reputation seems to have grown far more in the US, where it was recognised as a unique work. ‘
    I don’t know if that was true at first but Carroll is irretrievably associated with the great Martin Gardner now and has been for about fifty years. The Alice books were and are also very popular in Poland- I don’t know what the translations were like or whether the popularity was with children or adults.

  10. admin says:

    I wonder if different countries had different illustrators or whether they just took the original and its later incarnations? I can only think of Tenniel when I try to imagine Alice.

  11. Dan Terrell says:

    Right now, children’s books here in the States that are “classics” are being reproduced in many different formats. It is actually rather horrible. In yhe past the story and the illustrations were the same, but then should the copyright go, it’s

  12. Dan Terrell says:

    Right now, children’s books here in the States that are “classics” are being reproduced in many different formats. It is actually rather horrible. In the past the story and the illustrations were the same as together they made the book, but then when the copyright goes, it’s every publisher for themselves. The stories are shortened – butchered more like, words are cut or altered and the illustrations are redone. Baby’s first Alice, Alice for grade school, the Alice Pop-up, Alice and 20 Children’s Favorites in 100 pages, etc. To have read “all” the children’s classics by ten and not to have read any at all doesn’t create a life-time memory and all the scenes and words, words, words lost to the young reader.
    If a writer creates a great story, place and uses terrific words, and the story has for decades drawn readers into a special world, then it’s a crime to change it around in order to parcel it off.
    Aladdin woke up. He was in a big cave. Aladdin saw there was a treasure box in the back. I will be rich, he thought. He could steal the treasure and donate most of it to the Society for Sand Dune Preservation (no that last word is too big and maybe “Society, too)…
    To keep mum is not human, To rant is devine. Sorry.

  13. Dan Terrell says:

    The first post above was not posted by me. The PC done it, while I was away making a second cup of Arabian coffee. I came back and all appeared to be as I left it. Typical first effort. But I did hear an email come in.
    Strange, strange and stranger. May I have the mobile number for that lady with the stuffed cat, Admin?

  14. snowy says:

    Carroll was a mathematician, but Christ Church was at the time an odd place. It operated as a ‘closed shop’ and you had to take Holy Orders to remain as a tutor. He became a Deacon, but not a Priest. And being ordained in those days meant no ‘jiggy jiggy’.

    Sorry to lower the tone to matters of the flesh.

  15. Roger says:

    ‘Right now, children’s books here in the States that are “classics” are being reproduced in many different formats. It is actually rather horrible.’
    Carroll himself authorised The Nursery Alice, a simplified version, so he was asking for it.

    ‘Christ Church was at the time an odd place. It operated as a ‘closed shop’ and you had to take Holy Orders to remain as a tutor. He became a Deacon, but not a Priest. And being ordained in those days meant no ‘jiggy jiggy’.’
    No jiggy jiggy unless you were married, actually. That was the CofE. However, until 1868 Oxford fellows- members of colleges weren’t allowed to marry- except the head of the college, which was why MrsLiddell was so important. Fellows who did marry were usually given a living- charge of a church and parish- controlled by the college. It’s thought Carroll didn’t progress to priesthood, as several of his brothers did, because his stammer meant he couldn’t preach, which complicated things.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Did he lecture in Mathematics? or did he just tutor? I always feel envious when I consider the British system. The small group tutorial just seems so sensible.

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