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.
6-Martin Chuzzlewit (1994)
This BBC production is another star-studded affair starring Paul Schofield (Schofield will forever be known for his portrayal of Sir Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons) in a rare TV appearance.
I'm sure what attracted Schofield was the excellent script by David Lodge, a novelist in his own right. Lodge does not veer much from Dickens' novel and this novel has some of his best character names:
I could go on.
This was the novel Dickens' considered one of his best but it was not particularly popular. Martin Chuzzlewit was serialised in 1847-48 but Dickens' altered the main plot when it transferred to novel by sending the young Martin Chuzzlewit to the United States which he had recently visited. Martin Chuzzlewit loses every penny he owns in a bad property venture and returns to England as a broken man, without any money or kin to care for him.
As always, Dickens' provides us with an excellent villain in the person of Jonas Chuzzlewit; excellently played by Keith Allen in this adaptation.
Philip Franks is wonderful as the likeable Tom Pinch and there are other good performances from Maggie Steed as Mrs Todgers and Pete Postlethwaite as the interesting ne'er do well, Tigg Montague.
The story is the last of Dickens' picaresque novels and although not popular in its day has a certain resonance with people today who have tried and failed to seek their fortune abroad.
5 - Little Dorrit (2008)
We Brits certainly do love our period drama and the 2000s have provided us with some absolute crackers.
Little Dorrit starred Claire Foy and Matthew McFadyen (who played Mr Darcy in the movie version of Pride & Prejudice) and was watched by millions. It exudes quality and if you are new to Victorian drama, it is a good one to start with since its story of Amy Dorrit earning money to save her dear father as he lingers in the debtors prison gives a good representation of how easy it was for even good families to fall on hard times and of how merciless the Victorian courts were on anyone in debt.
One of Dickens' 'social injustice' novels, it is more pleasing because it places a young girl at the centre of the action.
4 - Scrooge
This is one of Charles Dickens' most popular stories, A Christmas Carol which might explain why it has been made so many times.
There have been a number of movie versions of A Christmas Carol, including one starring the Muppets and also a few animated versions.
The 1951 edition starring Alistair Sim is my favourite version but I'm happy to be talked around because a film can't really fail with this story, can it?
Alistair Sim is wonderful, London looks amazing and this tale rattles along like a train.
It has become a staple of most people's Christmas viewing and there's a good reason for that, it's just a wonderful movie.
3 - Oliver
Well, it couldn't be a top 10 of Dickens' novels on film without this wonderful movie being a part of it. I've included the dark version of Oliver Twist, now here's the slightly lighter (only slightly mind you!) with great songs.
Yes, Oliver Twist is a desperately unhappy tale of a young orphan's torrid time in Fagin's underground world of pickpockets and villains so that anyone ever considered making a musical of it is amazing. Lionel Bart did just that and provided us with a true screen gem - still admired today as one of the greatest musicals ever made - winner of Best Picture and Best Director Oscars in 1968, it has quality written all over it from start to finish.
Directed by Carol Reed, a gifted director most famous for The Third Man, Oliver delivers on every level as a fantastic piece of cinema - I have watched it about twenty or thirty times and still find much to admire every time I see it.
I could wax lyrical for hours about this movie, enough to say, great acting, great songs, great cinema!
2 - Bleak House (2005-BBC TV)
If you haven't seen this series - you should!
The BBC took a huge chance and made Bleak House as a Dickens' dramatisation to be shown in half hour instalments over 15 episodes. This was unheard of in 2005. In general, costume dramas are shown in sizeable time chunks of at least one hour, preferably two hours.
The BBC decided to give us Bleak House in small doses and it had an amazing effect - we were all dying to see the next episode! Half an hour of Bleak House written by Andrew Davies, in my opinion, the unrivalled king of period drama adaptation was amazing. Every episode ended wanting to make us want more.
Davies gave us Dickens in fast episodes, just like Dickens gave Bleak House to his readers - in cliff-hanging instalments.
We also had some amazing performances from some unusual sources - Jonny Vegas plays Krook, who spontaneously combusts in front of his fire after a bottle of 'good' gin.
Charles Dance is unpleasant as Tulkinghorn, the wily, murderous solicitor looking to undermine Lady Deadlock (played by Gillian Anderson with an amazing English accent til I found out she lived here from the age of 2 to 11).
Anna Maxwell-Martin gives an outstanding performance as Esther Summerson, the young lady with a secret past and there are good turns too from Carey Mulligan (recently Oscar-nominated for An Education) and Denis Lawson.
The scenery in the series is wonderful, you really feel that you are inhabiting the narrow, dirty streets of London and Andrew Davies script is perfection - not a wasted word.
1 - Great Expectations
Could you guess that I might pick this movie, given my love of David Lean movies?
This movie begins with one of the most memorable movie scenes, a young boy accosts a fugitive and is at first afraid but then kind to him, little knowing that this prisoner, Magwitch will change his life forever.
Charles Dickens' takes our young hero on a bit of a hero's journey. He is out of his surroundings and has to make his way in the world.
Many of Dickens' novels follow this sort of path but his parade of other characters always make all of his novels different. The storytelling in this one gives us an old maid still in her wedding dress, a recluse once rejected by her beau who has been unable to move on in her life.
Miss Haversham's death by fire in this movie still has the power to shock me; David Lean has a tendency to grab audiences by the throat!
Some great performances from young actors who would become great stars in their own right, John Mills, Alec Guinness, Jean Simmons make this a good movie to watch and there is the usual expensive David Lean gloss, even in black and white. Lean's cinematography is still in its developmental phase here but it is still very watchable.
Great Expectations has been remade a number of times and was also made in a modern form in 1998 starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke but it isn't a patch on the David Lean version. It might have been more exciting if we'd seen Gwyneth and Ethan in Victorian garb but hey ho, too late now,
Well thanks for reading, this was my homage of sorts to Charles Dickens.
I am a reader and I have read some Dickens novels but I have preferred access to his storytelling through dramatisation. His stories lend themselves well to being brought to life on stage and screen, long may that continue to be the case.
Another version of Great Expectations was shown at Christmas and it was another corker; I'm guessing it won't be the last Dickens drama I will see.
In February, the earliest known Dickens character rendered to film was found and released to the public in the UK, the BBC showed the story of its discovery on March 9th, read all about it here - First Dickens Character On Film.
Joseluis on February 18, 2015:
a0a0a0a0a0a0 This review is from: Oliver Twist is one of Dickens' early noevls he worked on The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby simultaneously and one of his best loved. It has what you would expect from him: memorable characters, evocative descriptions, melodrama, pathos (more often bathos) and a plot that relies on completely incredible coincidences. These latter are sometimes explained away by the characters themselves as being ordained by Fate, benign or otherwise, and must have been more acceptable to a Victorian readership than to one of the present day, who are likely to groan at each who should it be but' revelation. The crossovers with Pickwick and Nickleby are noticeable. For example, The Artful's court appearance is clearly intended to be as funny as Sam Weller's, although it pales by comparison. The most famous character is of course Fagin, and Dickens' casual anti-Semitism in his treatment of him is another thing that might discomfit the modern reader. He references him as The Jew, always in a derogatory manner. That this is a reflection of contemporary attitudes can be seen from Scott's Ivanhoe, in which Jewish characters are treated with similar hostility and contempt. But it is not the main characters that are most successful and especially not the title character himself, who is innocent and bland beyond belief but the supporting cast; Mr. Bumble and his lady, the servants in the house that gets burgled, the old bachelor who keeps threatening to eat his own head, and many others. They make the book a delight. As always, Dickens is the master of descriptive narrative and he conjures a grim and compelling view of Victorian London's underside. If you have not yet read any Dickens, this is not a bad book with which to start, although for younger readers (teens) I would recommend Hard Times as their first. Either book will probably leave you, like Oliver, wanting more.
Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on August 15, 2013:
tracykarl99, many thanks for your kind comment. They are the types of shows I return to again and again - you can't beat a good story and Dickens was the king of the storytellers.
Tracy from San Francisco on August 14, 2013:
A great hub ~ I recently saw Little Dorrit with Claire Foy and loved her as Amy, so now I'm reading the novel, which is even better! Thanks - voted up and very interesting :)
Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on July 05, 2012:
Audra, many thanks for your kind comment - I am terrible at reading Dickens (too many words!) but I do love adaptations of his books because he really is one of the best storytellers in the English language.
iamaudraleigh on July 05, 2012:
Jools, I am very interested in seeing David Copperfield movie, especially with Maggie Smith...looks like a great cast!/I have never heard of Martin Chuzzlewit ...looks intriguing!/Matthew McFadyen was in "Death at a funeral"? He was so great in that! would love to see him in "Little Dorrit"!/ Scrooge is always a classic...seen so many versions...liked this one too!/The X-files' Gillian Anderson...really??
"Great Expecttions was a great book and so was the film!!!
I can tell you enjoyed writing this! Your passion shows in your words! I voted this up! I think it is my favorite piece of yours!!!
Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on June 14, 2012:
SueLynn, I also hope you find the time to write :o)
Have a lovely weekend!
Suelynn from Manitoba, Canada on June 14, 2012:
Jools, I noticed that my views and score have been going down also and not sure I understand the whys and wherefores... seems like a lot of new people have joined but also, the format and etc. has changed. My life is about to change though, and I do hope I have time to write... have a great weekend!
Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on June 14, 2012:
SueLynn, what a great comment! Many thanks for that. I enjoy both English and American authors (and also quite like more international authors like Marcus Zusac) and Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night' I could watch over and over again but I usually don't get my bearings until the end of the first act :o), many thanks for the vote up etc, I need all the help I can get, views plummeting :o(
Suelynn from Manitoba, Canada on June 14, 2012:
Outstanding hub about Dickens and the shows that sprang from his writing. You also taught me a new word, Jools, as I had not heard the term "Picaresque" before! Bravo for a wonderfully presented "Top 10 Best Charles Dickens Novels adapted into Movies and TV shows." I wish I could find where to rent some of these as I have not seen many of the shows you've recommended and would like to do so. I have been thirsting for some British fare, having been educated and read English authors. I was with some friends last week and I was raving about Shakespeare. They commented that they had never studied English authors in America. I had not thought about that, and what a shame. Mind you, I had not been much educated about American authors, but movies do reach the masses. I loved "Oliver!" and enjoyed the clip, also one of my favourites.
I loved "The Tale of Two Cities" and had much the same reaction as yours - thoroughly 'enjoyed' that movie too!
Love your hub, Jools99. Voted Up, interesting, awesome and useful. I look forward to reading more of your hubs soon.
Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on February 27, 2012:
MM, my idea of a great night in on my own would be either a Dickens TV drama or Pride and Prejudice (with Colin Firth of course!), I love a good period drama.
Movie Master from United Kingdom on February 26, 2012:
Hi Jools, thank you for an excellent, well written and researched hub. Oliver will always be my favourite, but Christmas would never be the same without watching 'Scrooge' on the TV!
Voting up, best wishes Lesley
Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on February 22, 2012:
Judi thanks for commenting, Oliver never ages does it? Great Expectations - I missed it which I was furious about so going to get it on DVD instead or try to find it on iplayer.
Judi Brown from UK on February 22, 2012:
Hi Jools - seen a few of the films. I saw the musical Oliver! at the cinema and had the programme, or a brochure about the film, for years afterwards. I was terrified by Oliver Reed and though Nancy was beautiful.
My daughter really enjoyed the latest adaptation of Great Expectations, which was on TV at Christmas. It was pretty good, but not quite as atmospheric as your No. 1.
Voted up etc.
Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on February 05, 2012:
Rob, as always, many thanks for your comment. Dickens is a great writer but I admit I need to persevere when I'm reading him from a book - I prefer to do it the 'lazy' way through film or audiobook.
Rob from Oviedo, FL on February 05, 2012:
Hi Jools; You've got to love Dickens. Incredible writer. "Oliver" is my favorite of the films of the list, although "Great Expectations" was a terrific film, too. (Both made it onto my "Top 300 films" hub.) I haven't seen the 1999 "David Copperfield" adaptation you mentioned but I've seen older versions. I haven't seen "Little Dorrit" either. I liked the Alec Guinness version of "Oliver Twist". "A Tale of Two Cities" is a classic, too.
Well done hub,
Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on February 05, 2012:
Flora, what a shame your practised Cockney accent never came into play. All of the songs in Oliver are good though and it is always an audience favourite - a solo shows your talents, I can carry a tune but that's about it, I would have been at the back on the chorus!
FloraBreenRobison on February 04, 2012:
I played Mrs. Bedwin, the housekeeper who sings "Where Is Love" to Oliver briefly after tucking him in bed. The character is a lot older than I am, but that seemed to always happen with my roles. Funny. I spent hours trying to perfect a fake cockney accent for my audition and then I'm cast in a high-class role so I spoke proper English. Haha! When I wasn't needed as Mrs. Bedwin I was in the chorus. Our company often had people playing double duty.
Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on February 04, 2012:
Flora, Thanks for your comment and your list - I had a feeling you would have seen a lot of these on film. I'm intrigued - who did you play in the stage version of 'Oliver'?
FloraBreenRobison on February 03, 2012:
The films I've seen in the order and version you list them:
A tale of Two Cities
little dorrit (I didn't care for it, but I think I am just not a fan of the book)
Scrooge (my favourite)
Oliver! (I was in a production of this on stage)
Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on February 02, 2012:
Steve, Thanks for your comment. The musical Oliver is also my favourite but I still quite enjoy the dark version because of Guinness and Newton. I am a period drama nut so have seen most of the TV ones ever shown and the Victorian period is my favourite.
Steve Lensman from Manchester, England on February 02, 2012:
"Hand it over, you avaricious old skeleton." Oliver Reed in Oliver! He was my favourite Bill Sikes and Ron Moody my fave Fagin, and I prefer the musical Oliver! to David Lean's classic, shock horror! But my favourite Dickens movie is Lean's Great Expectations, a fantastic movie, so I'm happy to see it top your list Jools. :)
I've only seen 5 of the 10 movies/series you've listed, I have to confess to not watching many TV adaptations. A fault of mine.
Excellent job writing this Jools, this is the year we all go Dickens crazy. Books and programmes about the writer everywhere I look.
Voted Up and Interesting.