BY MIKE HUGHES
Gannett New Service
In some circles, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was your standard British mathematician.
He was a hesitant lecturer, troubled by a stammer. He was a writer of such now-forgotten books as the 1879 Euclid and Modern Rivals.
At times, however, he assumed an alternate reality. Under the name Lewis Carroll, he wrote the 1865 fantasy, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
The book has been made into several movies with the latest, called Alice in Wonderland, Sunday on NBC.
The film mixes fancy sets, odd visuals, and the wordplay that Mr. Carroll seemed to savor.
"It's really going to ask the audience to kind of feast on this beautiful imagery," says Martin Short, who plays the Mad Hatter.
Gene Wilder, who plays the Mock Turtle, agrees. "All of Lewis Carroll's wonderful words, I found in it. And great puns, wonderful ones."
For a time, it looked like such words would be abandoned by modern Americans and the networks, which weren't interested in old literature.
Or were they? Producer Robert Halmi is neither modern nor American-born. He's 74, fought with the Hungarian Resistance in World War II and brings an old-world viewpoint.
"I thought it was time to really stick to the books, stick to the words," Mr. Halmi says. "They've been around for hundreds of years; there was a reason for it."
So Mr. Halmi has perfected a formula for his TV films. He starts with a story that's far-flung and fanciful. To date Mr. Halmi has done Gulliver's Travels, Merlin and The Odyssey for NBC. Then he uses big budgets, sometimes as much as $10 million an hour. That's allowed special effects and offbeat casting.
In Alice in Wonderland, Mr. Halmi has pulled some casting surprises.
"Lots of people don't associate Ben Kingsley (with being) a caterpillar," he says. "But... he can be anything."
Yes, Mr. Kingsley-an Academy Award winner (Gandhi) and a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company-plays the rude Caterpillar.
Other include Whoopi Goldberg as Cheshire Cat, Sir Peter Ustinov as Walrus, Christopher Lloyd as the White Knight and Miranda Richardson as the Queen of Hearts. Then there's Mr. Short and Mr. Wilder-not to mention Robby Coltrane and George Wendt, as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.
In roles like this, actors don't have to worry much about nuance.
Consider Mr. Short, playing the Mad Hatter. "It's so wildly over the top," he says. "He is insane."
Or Mr. Wilder as Mock Turtle. "I loved...having the emotions of a very sad man, and then suddenly bursting into song and dance."
While they did their big-and-brief bits, Tina Majorino as Alice has the longer duty.
"It was my favorite book when I was younger," she says. "So it was a very magical thing to sort of be able to re-create it in a movie."
Just entering her teens, Tina has already worked with some big names, including Oprah Winfrey (Before Women Had Wings) and Kevin Costner (Waterworld). She even performed with a seal in Andre.
This time, she walks in a fanciful world as the English girl who steps through a looking glass and into an alternate universe.
"It was a little overwhelming," Tina says, "because they had such gigantic creatures and beautiful things and great sets."
At other times, however, she had no sets at all. She was working in front of a bare, blue screen, with the effects to be added later.
"We were on the blue screen with the Mad Hatter for two weeks," she says, "which was hard because you couldn't really see what was going to be around you.
"But I think that's the whole point of being an actor, is to be able to imagine your surroundings."
The imagination rules in Alice in Wonderland. This is the idea that anything is possible, that Academy Award-winners can become a walrus, a caterpillar, and a Cheshire cat.
It's also the idea that strange ideas-including those of a 19th-century mathematician-turned-wit-can be put onscreen.
"We are trying to do programs that adults enjoy as much as children," Mr. Halmi says. "There's something to talk about. It's literature, it's entertaining, and it's bringing people together."
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