A Dickens of A Time!
By Kristin Battestella
My sister the English Teacher and I are always discussing classic books and their various film adaptations and their use in the classroom. I may love Charles Dickens, but she does not. So then, for all those forced to read or teach the Victorian master, here’s a quick list of favorable, family friendly adaptations.
A Christmas Carol – Of course, I’d have to include at least one version of this timeless holiday classic, so why not all? That would be a fun marathon to occupy the endless week between Christmas and New Year’s Day indeed! Modern youths may not appreciate the 1951 Alastair Sim version, nor perhaps the recent 2004 Kesley Grammar A Christmas Carol: The Musical is not for everyone. So, unless you’re about to show Mickey’s Christmas Carol to the pups or the new Barbie in a Christmas Carol (There’s a scholarly study for ya!), that leaves the fine 1984 television tale starring George C. Scott- now on blu-ray- or the worthy 1999 Patrick Stewart TNT edition. Then again, you could always just read the book.
Great Expectations – This Masterpiece Theatre presentation starring Ioan Gruffudd (Horatio Hornblower) and Bernard Hill (The Lord of the Rings) captures the spirit of what I must say is my favorite Dickens book. Hill is menacing as Magwitch, but has his care for Pip. Likewise, Charlotte Rampling (The Verdict, Swimming Pool) as Miss Havisham is delightfully demented and Justine Waddell (Wives and Daughters) is the wonderfully cruel girl of Pip’s affection, Estelle. Director Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane, Brideshead Revisited) handles the progression from the bitter childhood circumstances to mature romance swiftly, and Gruffudd looks the Victorian part in this delightfully dressed production. Perhaps this is a story that can’t be made wrong, but this installment is dang fine film, too.
Martin Chuzzlewit – So much attention is given to his more famous material, but this 1994 BBC serial pulls off another Dickensian tale of Victorian finances, scruples, and hypocrisy. The late Paul Scofield (A Man for All Seasons, Quiz Show), Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty, Michael Clayton), Pete Postlethwaite (Sharpe, The Usual Suspects) and Julia Sawahla (Absolutely Fabulous) are a wonderfully period troop of rich and poor on both sides of the pond trying to connect the dots on who is closest to wealthy old Chuzzlewit’s prosperity. Who doesn’t have money-grubbing relatives like this? (If you had to stop and think about it and decided that you don’t have any money grubbing relatives, then it’s you!) It’s a little slow to start the tale, and the American angles are ho-hum and stereotypical; but in some ways, it’s amazing how little our perception of class and money has changed since Dickens’ time. Once again, Boz strikes gold with some perfectly named Pecksniff and Pinch characters- if only we were so aptly or ironically named in this currently growing gap of excess and belt tightening. That would be very interesting!
Nicholas Nickleby – This 2002 adaptation from writer/director Douglas McGrath (Emma, Bullets Over Broadway) hails an all-star cast along with all the charm of Dickens’ source material. The music, wonderful locations, and lovely performances from Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music),
Nathan Lane (The Birdcage), Juliet Stevenson (Mona Lisa Smile), and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) combine with this timeless story of fortunes, family, and loss in a delightfully authentic English atmosphere. The idealistic Dickensian style, however, does not let us forget the semi-autobiographical analysis of the poor and disenfranchised lost in the corrupt system. Indeed, in light of recent economic downturns, Nicholas Nickleby might again be too relevant for comfort. Read the book again or spend the evening with this bittersweet fair. Thankfully, the proper DVD set includes a wealth of behind the scenes features for the Dickensian fan or the scholarly classroom. Although its length is condensed by necessity, I’m surprised this movie didn’t find more acclaim upon its release.
Oliver! – This is the award laden 1968 musical that brought ‘Please sure, I’d like some more.’ to the masses. Even if you consider today that the retrospective stage musical style and design isn’t what it used to be or if you remember how frustrating it was to stay awake while watching this in your Music Appreciation class in high school; this sing-a-long-able fair is still fun for the musical loving family. Stars Ron Moody (A Kid in King Arthur’s Court), Mark Lester (Melody), Jack Wild (Pufnstuf), and Oliver Reed (The Three Musketeers) look the Dickensian part and sing and dance with plenty of joy, sadness, tenderness, and timeless charm. Despite the somewhat depressing and socially heavy-handed source material, director Carol Reed (The Third Man) and writers Lionel Bart (From Russia with Love) and Vernon Harris (Three Men in a Boat) latently keep the sentiment and lessons in the simplest, youthful, innocent manner. Skip the cartoons and introduce the little ones to Dickens here.
Our Mutual Friend – This lengthy 1998 BBC adaptation of Boz’s final novel is not for the Dickensian layman. Director Julian Farino’s (Entourage) complex, ensemble piece starring Keeley Hawes (MI-5), Paul McGann (Hornblower), Steven Mackintosh (Underworld: Evolution), and Anna Friel (Pushing Daisies) deals deeply with wealth, poverty, and the fact that who you know means everything in getting anywhere. The English high society is colorful and lofty, shiny and satin; but the impoverished lows look the proper down and dirty underbelly. Who wouldn’t disown their family and sell their marital status for money and prestige after such crippling workhouses and despair? Unfortunately, there are no subtitles on this set, which would have been a great help just to see everyone’s names. The ensemble is quite large, but everyone has his or her purpose and all concludes in perfect Dickensian coincidence, justice, and irony. Amen.
Sometimes in our modern world of texting and internet slang, I’m afraid the English language will further divide- scarily to the point where Dickens won’t just be a bother to some students, but truly unreadable! We can’t allow the wealth of literary thesis and education from Dickens to fade away. So long as we aren’t forced to grow up on the dreadfully obvious and trying too hard Hard Times (ugh!), I’m all for Dickens remaining in the classroom through great books and fine film.