“Curious Alice”: The 1971 Lewis Carroll-inspired, government-endorsed anti-drug film is quite a trip

By on November 11, 2015

Author Lewis Carroll first told us about Alice’s journey down the rabbit hole 150 years ago, and since November 1865 marks anniversary of the original publication of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” we thought we’d take a look at Curious Alice, the National Institute of Mental Health’s short film from 1971.

This was an educational, semi-industrial U.S. government-sponsored film which was intended to warn young people off drugs, only it’s psychedelicized visual effects probably subverted its stated purpose and intention.

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Curious Alice is an animated fantasy based upon the characters in Alice in Wonderland, and originally it was meant to show to 8-10 year old students to dissuade them from being “curious” about drugs

The film shows Alice as she tours a strange land where everyone has already made their choice, forcing Alice to ponder whether drugs are the right choice for her too.

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At first, Alice is show reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland before she suddenly finds herself going “down the rabbit hole,” so to speak, into an altered sense of reality represented as a wonderland of drugs.

We’re talking about drugs of all types, only she’s exposed to medicine and kitchen cabinets in her own home first, all of which she can find dangerous substances: cigarettes, liquor, and medicines, which we suppose are meant to represent the gateway drugs (where’s the coffeemaker?).

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When she sees the “Drink Me” bottle, we’re to understand, as Alice does, that the liquor it contains is also a drug, so she of course drinks down its entire contents and thereafter enters psychedelic new fantasy world, where she is exposed to more and more drugs, which she may take based on her impaired judgment from the initial drug use.

We’re soon treated a sequence of her disturbing encounters with symbolic examples of these dangerous drugs, including the Mock Turtle, smoking marijuana from a hookah; the King of Hearts, who offers sweet Alice a taste of heroin; and the March Hare, a fidgeting tweaker who beats his foot on the ground constantly: “You oughta have some pep pills! Uppers! Amphetamines! Speed! You feel super good.”

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The tripping “Mad Hatter” character represents Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), in the film (we mentioned Curious Alice in our earlier post about LSD propaganda films, here), and the “Dormouse” represents barbituates.

Ultimately, Alice concludes that drug abuse is senseless, and she lectures the characters, saying “You live in this beautiful place. It could be wonderland! And all you do is … take drugs!”

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Curious Alice was probably made due to the runaway success of a young adult novel Go Ask Alice, which was a first-person diary account (written by Beatrice Sparks). It was released around the same time, in March 1971, and purported to be from the first-person perspective of an anonymous teenage girl, who, after being dosed with LSD, then describes her colorful and rapid descent into the nightmare of drug addiction, leading to her eventual overdose after she got too far In with the Far-Out Crowd.

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The novel’s title itself was taken from a snatch of lyric in the 1967 Grace Slick-penned Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit” (“go ask Alice/when she’s ten feet tall”), which was obviously itself a reference to the scene where Alice eats one side of a mushroom that makes her grow large.

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Lewis Carroll’s celebrated story is often connected to any kind of drug experimentation, particularly since the late 1960s and early 1970s, and from being referenced in songs like “White Rabbit,” and it was not unexpected today to see mentions of the song’s lyrics in articles about “Alice,” particularly about “feeding your head.”

In 1972, the National Coordinating Council on Drug Education reviewed the film (you can see the review here, on the National Archives’s blog Media Matters) in which they said that Curious Alice may actually have the opposite effect from what might have been intended, noting that younger viewers “may be intrigued by the fantasy world of drugs” after watching it, calling it confusing and counterproductive.

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After seeing the film, it’s fun to remember that its source characters were penned 150 years ago, by Lewis Carroll, the pen name for one Charles Ludwidge Dodgson, who was apparently a natural storyteller who regularly invented new stories to entertain his young friends, making a young child the main protagonist so that his readers would be able to put themselves into the story so they too could experience the adventures therein.

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“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is said to to have been created on the spot by Dodgson, on July 4, 1862, in Oxford, England, while taking a relaxing boat trip down river with Reverend Robinson Duckworth, and the three young daughters of Henry Liddell, the Dean (sometimes Vice Chancellor) of Christ Church, Oxford, the college at which Dodgson was a lecturer in Mathematics. The girls were named Lorina Charlotte Liddell (aged 13, born 1849, “Prima” in the book’s prefatory verse); Alice Pleasance Liddell (aged 10, born 1852, “Secunda” in the prefatory verse); and Edith Mary Liddell (aged 8, born 1853, “Tertia” in the prefatory verse).

As they floated downstream, from Folly Bridge to Godstow, five miles away, Dodgson entertained all that were present with a story about young girl named Alice (the same name of the Liddell’s middle daughter), who went looking for an adventure. The girls, of course, loved the story, and young Alice asked if Dodgson would agree to write it down for her, which he said he would.

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It took him two and a half years to complete, however. On November 26, 1864, he gave Alice the handwritten manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, with illustrations by Dodgson himself, dedicating it as “A Christmas Gift to a Dear Child in Memory of a Summer’s Day,” but the completed manuscript was such a delight that he was already thinking it should be published for others to enjoy.

He sent another hand-made copy of it to a publisher, Alexander Macmillan, and they struck an agreement for Macmillan to publish it under Dodgson’s pen name, Lewis Carroll, rejecting titles until settling on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

In the earliest known letter between Dodgson and Macmillan that has survived, dated November 11, 1864, the author discusses his preference for the book’s cover (he asks that his book be covered in “bright red” rather than the usual Macmillan “green” (Macmillan had sent a copy of an earlier children’s poetry book, The Children’s Garland, edited by Coventry Patmore (1862), as it was covered in “a red cloth such as I fancy you want”).

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The entire print run — featuring those classic illustrations by Sir John Tenniel, and additional episodes about the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Tea-Party — sold out quickly, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland went on to become a much-loved classic story for both young and old readers. It has never gone out of print and has been translated into at least 176 languages.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.