Charles Dickens Stories are Perfect for Television and Movie Adaptations
This year, we commemorate the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens birth on 7th February 1812 in Longport in Portsea, (now usually acknowledged as Portsmouth).
When Charles Dickens died on 9th June 1870, he was the most famous man in the world. That seems difficult to imagine but it is absolutely true.
Before the days of mass communication, the educated man and woman relied upon newspapers, books, novels and public speaking to learn about people and Charles Dickens was an incredibly hard-working man who was charismatic, philanthropic and well-travelled - as likely to be found speaking on behalf of a noble cause to any gathered crowd as he was to be found in his study, pen in hand.
He believed in a multitude of good causes and spoke on behalf of the unfortunates of nineteenth century industrial England. Dickens travelled abroad widely and had a devoted following at public speaking events in the United States.
His own life experiences were what first influenced his writing and in time, he learnt to use real life around him on the streets of London as inspiration for his novels.
It is incredible to think that his early novel writing under the pen-name, Boz were devoured by his readers in instalments in a newspaper. He certainly knew how to keep people reading every day.
Charles Dickens was a prolific writer, always busy. Indeed whilst writing the novel Pickwick Papers, he also started to write Oliver Twist and completed The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby, 3 very different books. It is inconceivable today to think that a writer might have 3 novels being created at the same time - even though technology might make that much easier in our day and age, but Charles Dickens was no ordinary writer, he was a master storyteller - driven to tell his stories, desperate to pass on his tales of London's people to his readers.
It is not surprising then to discover Charles Dickens stories as an inspiration for movies, more or less from the start of movie production.
Charles Dickens At The Movies
Charles Dickens died of a stroke in 1870 aged just 58. He was around during the early days of photography, indeed some photographs of him exist (and are included in this hub) but the creation of the first movie occurred a mere 8 years after his death with Eadweard Muybridge's 'The Horse In Motion'.
In 1878, the same year as Muybridge's breakthrough movie, Charles Dickens was still widely read. Indeed, his Collected Works had been published in 1875 and he was still considered a popular author even after his death. This is not really surprising considering his output.
So it is not surprising that once movie-making had moved on from a concentration on presenting images to the watching public in an almost scientific manner, that it would become a medium for other ways to reach the public, including as a means for storytelling.
The first representation of a Charles Dickens story on film appeared in 1897 in a short entitled, 'The Death of Nancy Sykes' (from Oliver Twist). By then, Dickens had been dead less than 30 years. I think this shows how popular his stories were. Oliver Twist's Nancy Sykes is perhaps one of his strongest female characters and her death scene is one of the most memorable in a Dickens novel, fitting to find it in film so early.
Top 10 Charles Dickens Novels On Film
So without further ado, here is my Top 10 of Dickens novels captured on film. I have not limited my choices to the movie theatre because over the last 3 or 4 decades there have been a number of excellent TV adaptations of Dickens. Many millions of people across the world have enjoyed these TV productions so I think it is only fair to include them.
10 - A Tale of Two Cities
The movie version of 1935 made me cry when I first saw it in the early 1970s. I was completely pulled into this amazing story of a man sacrificing himself for another during the height of the French Revolution. Ronald Colman is wonderful in his role as Sydney Carton, a complicated, selfless man.
It was David O Selznick's 'last shout' for his MGM before leaving to form his own company.
The crowd scenes set in the streets of revolutionary Paris are second to none and no expense is spared by Selznick in creation what is actually a sort of 'revolutionary epic'. Shame for Colman that he was overlooked for the Oscar for a performance which really showed his great range as an actor. Selznick would go on to bigger and better but A Tale of Two Cities has never been remade as well as the original movie.
9 - Our Mutual Friend
The BBC production of Our Mutual Friend was made in 1998 and starred Paul McGann, Keeley Hawes and Steven Mackintosh. There is also a wonderful performance by David Morrissey as the creepy teacher, Bradley Headstone chasing after poor Lizzie Hexham and having nosebleeds every time he is angry with her.
All of the main performances are excellent, particularly those of Timothy Spall, Kenneth Cranham, Peter Vaughan and Pam Ferris.
It was a real slow burner, spread over 5 episodes but well paced enough to keep UK audiences watching from start to last. When, finally, the Victorian gentleman gets his working-class waterman's girl - we all felt like cheering, but dear me, he took his time!
8 - David Copperfield (TV Movie 1999)
An all-star cast gave us a wonderful treat in this 1999 offering of one of Dickens' most popular novels, David Copperfield.
It stars Maggie Smith, Bob Hoskins, Ian McKellen, Emilia Fox, Pauline Quirke, Trevor Eve, Michael Elphick and a young Daniel Ratcliffe (later to play Harry Potter) as the young David Copperfield.
It is a visually spectacular production with good performances by many of its lead actors. Adrian Hodges does a sympathetic job with the script, lots of excellent dialogue and the production sticks to the story to the letter. David Copperfield is one of Charles Dickens most descriptively pleasing novels with a multitude of 'big' characters like Peggarty and Mr Micawber. From the outset, we are rooting for the young man who has been badly neglected by his own folks and is cared for by people so full of goodness, you wish they were members of your own family.
There have been lots of good TV and movie versions of David Copperfield but the one I've chosen is one of the best ITV Dickens movies.
7 - Oliver Twist (1948)
There is something very satisfying in seeing this much darker version of Oliver Twist, in contrast with 'Oliver' the adaptation of Lionel Bart's musical from 1968.
The fine performance of Robert Newton as Bill Sykes and Alec Guinness' brilliant Fagin is what makes this movie so special - these Dickens' characters are amongst his greatest creations and in the musical, although Sykes is still the cruel, sinister rogue, Fagin is lifted to a caricature in some scenes - only at the end do we get Mr Nasty back again.
Alec Guinness' Fagin is a more complex portrayal. It looked like an old movie but the cinematography is very good; David Lean never lets us down with his scene set up - we feel like we inhabit the same space as the boys, dark, squalid, filthy Victorian hovels - you feel like you are going back in time.