Many think Carroll must have been really high or under the effect of some drug to create this extremely bizarre tale. Is this what happened with Svankmajer's version?
It isn't strange to describe Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as creepy. I mean, besides the fact that it’s a classic of English literature, it’s true that it’s not really your heartwarming bedtime story. And still, it’s amazing how it’s considered one of the most important children books out there, but we’re not going to focus on that right now. Let’s go back to the creepy stuff.
For decades, the story of the young girl traveling to this mysterious land where logic is nonexistent and the inhabitants are all mad has been revisited too many times. Among the long list of adaptations that have tried to capture that surreal and trippy aspect of the story, there’s one, in particular, that might that take the trophy for literally the weirdest and most sinister film adaptation ever made. This film puts the classic Disney animation, Tim Burton’s failed attempt, and so many other versions to shame in the creepiness scale, and that’s the 1988 film by the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer. Seriously, if you like movies that are sure to make you say "WTF?!," you should watch this.
When Svankmajer has been asked about why he decided to make his own version of the story, he’s always said that for him “Lewis Carroll’s Alice is one of the most important and amazing books produced by this civilization.” Moreover, he believes that most of the adaptations don’t really understand the story. It’s a dream-like experience, meaning that it’s connected to the exploration of the unconscious part of the mind. However, all of them treat it like a fairy tale with a moral learning, which, in his opinion, is an irrelevant aspect of the narrative. He wanted to explore that bizarre realm of the dreams.
Now, among the many commentaries Carroll’s story has received, it is often believed that he must have been really high or under the effect of some drug to create this extremely bizarre tale. However, many of these versions often leave out one of the most important parts of Carroll's novel: the complex mathematical concepts he introduces. So, although Wonderland is all about nonsensical situations and surroundings, it’s actually planned with precision and logic. In Svankmajer’s film, we can’t deny that this principle is rescued, but there’s also a huge possibility that drugs worked as the main inspiration to develop his own version of Wonderland.
As the filmmaker has explained in interviews and even on an article for The Guardian, in 1972 he participated in a military test of LSD in Prague. Accompanied by his wife, and other artists belonging to the surreal movement of the time, he agreed to be injected with pure LSD. As he narrates, at first the experience was quite pleasant; he explains how he had some sort of regression to his childhood while being intoxicated with happiness. Every time he moved his arm, it looked like part of those high exposure photographs colored with different bright tones. Everything was going great until they were asked to stand up and walk through the room; he felt sick, paranoid, and even afraid these military psychiatrists would want to test something else with him. He became aggressive and had to be injected with something else (he’s not even sure what it was) to calm down. The experiment didn’t end there; a couple of days later they were asked to come back to the hospital and inhaled what he calls a “tomato gas” that also had toxic effects.
This experience marked him forever. Svankmajer has explained how many years after he had an inexplicable anxiety attack and how horrific these regressions where. However, for the rest of his companions, the experience wasn’t that terrible. Since then, he has been suffering from depression, and his relationship with his wife was on the edge of falling apart. But the experience made him ask himself, "where does creativity come from?" For him it was certainly not found on drugs, but a part of the unconscious mind, wanting to come out and explore another dimension of reality.
Now, in this article where he narrates his horrific experience with LSD, he claims that this has never been an important part or inspiration for his work. If you take a look at his trajectory you could even say that all his works belong to the surreal in his very own style. However, it’s kind of impossible not to see how drugs can have a huge impact on someone’s creativity and artistic vision. Leaving the visual elements of the film aside (which are, indeed, consistent with his previous works), the anxiety and baffling sensations that the movie produces in the spectator are quite similar to his experiences with LSD. When you go on strong experiences like these, it’s very hard to detach them from your work and thinking process. Whether you’re an artist, a mathematician, or a doctor, the experience becomes a part of you. So, if you ask me, it doesn’t matter what he says or believes, I do think that directly or indirectly this experiment with LSD played a central role in the creation of the film.
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