26 January 2012

More Dickensian Celebrations

More Dickensian Hits!
By Kristin Battestella

You can bet your imaginary hoop skirt I’m going to spend some time talking about a Charles Dickens’ adaptation or two this winter!  It is after all, the bicentennial of the celebrated Victorian author’s birth.  And guess who else was born on February 7th? Yep, that’s right. Me!

Biography: Charles Dickens – Why not start with this 45-minute spotlight from the longstanding A&E series? Dickens experts and historians shed light on the more uncommonly known aspects of his 19th century superstar life, from the novelist’s poor early years filled with stifling workhouses and family shame in a debtor’s prison to the darker adult depressions, marital losses, and his would-be inspiring infidelities. Despite having such a heavy, complex subject in a short television window, the focus remains on Dickens’ rising above social and personal difficulty and turning his pains into literary magnitude. While some of the stuffy interviewees and scholars might be 1995 dated, yes, (Gasp! 1995 is dated?) this streamlined but no less insightful documentary is perfect for a classroom conversation.

David Copperfield (1999) – Not only do we have all the heart breaking, cord striking 19th century lows and sadness expected from this highly autobiographical Dickens tale; but this 2 part adaption boasts an all-star who’s who and interconnected Potter cast. Seriously, a fun Maggie Smith as Betsey Trotwood, Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), Emilia Fox (Merlin), Pauline Quirke (Birds of a Feather) as Peggotty, Ian McKellan (Gandalf, people!), and the little HP himself, an utterly endearing Daniel Radcliffe.  And did I mention Madame Hooch and Viserys Targaryen? Forget any presumed nineties television datedness, the production values- ranging from Regency thru Victorian styles- are excellent.  Colorful characters are wonderfully stuffy, charming, or tongue in cheek over the top as needed in contrast to the loathsome Trevor Eve (Waking the Dead) as Murdstone. Dickens’ innate distinctions between high - or those who pretend to be upstanding but are cruel- and those who are poor but rich in character come across perfectly.  Again, though immediately autobiographical and of its time, it is also a little tragic how incredibly relevant David Copperfield still is. Today’s good-natured are still punished by the ruthlessness of others above, and the scenes of little David in pain could be too close for many or at the least, too upsetting for the classroom.  Naturally, there are changes due to the relatively short 3-hour length against the heft of the novel, but there’s still a lifetime’s worth of sacrifice and pathetic-ness to go around and then some. The second half, unfortunately, does drag a bit with the adult Trot Ciaran McMenamin (Primeval) as all goes ill. However, even in that darkest advantageous hour above love or happiness, Dickensian hope wins out in consummate fashion.

Oliver Twist (1948) – This restored adaptation written and directed by David Lean (also helmer of the 1946 version of Great Expectations) opens in frigid black and white fashion and continues the cruel, depressing youth impoverishment and desperate criminal childhood throughout.  Oscar Winner Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Star Wars) gives a lovely performance as Fagin- unrecognizable and unlikeable but witty and twisted all the same- though the work is nevertheless jaded by the stereotypical makeup of the time and Dickens’ off color style. Some of the accents and forties screaming women might be annoying to contemporary audiences as well. Thankfully, John Howard Davies is so tiny and touching as Oliver. Today we often mock the ‘Please, sir…’ line- and the snotty dark humor of the material is here, make no mistake.  However, Oliver’s is such a heart-breaking request; no child should ever have to ask for food with such trembling necessity and mistake the humblest slop as indignation. We think we need more and expect to have everything handed to us because it is owed to us.  By contrast, itty-bitty Oliver is a sickly little starving thing- and yet he wants more. Suffice to say his want is not the indulgent desire as we perceive it in the 21st century, and in one line Dickens’ encapsulates all that was wrong with the establishment of the day.  Strangely, in some ways, we have become the opposite- rewarding those who circumvent the system to their advantage while the hard working, rule-abiding poor go without.  Corners are cut of course, but social and literary critics might enjoy a new study on this relatively saucy post-war America subject matter. The anti-Semitic controversies of the novel and the subsequent delaying and editing of the film also provide plenty of material for modern analysis. Although charming in Oliver’s boyish innocence, this edition is too old and mature for kids. Younger schooling should stick to the Oliver! musical instead.

Scrooge (1970) - Golden Globe winner Albert Finney (Tom Jones, Murder on the Orient Express) stars as the titular miser along with Sir Alec Guinness (yes him again) as the chain rattling Jacob Marley in this acclaimed first musical adaptation.  Many lines from the book are faithfully retained despite the addition of a few questionable song selections.  We don’t really need this extra sentimentality, the thoroughly Cockney kids’ singing, or a begrudgingly tuneful Ebenezer to further heighten this quintessential holiday turnaround.  Actually, the cranky tunes and somber notes seem counterproductive for what is such a serious and scary ghost tale- the dark imagery and freaky effects are indeed superior to the would be musical fervor.  Having said that, the music is great for introducing A Christmas Carol to younger audiences- the locales are glorious, the costumes and Victorian d├ęcor enchanting. Yes, some sequences might be too scary for super youngins even with the upbeat tunes, but Albert Finney is an absolutely delight as both Scrooge the grump and the younger Ebenezer.  His almost unrecognizable dual portrayal makes viewers wonder why this seemingly obvious casting route is the exception rather than the norm for this oft told Dickensian tale.

I do mention Dickens in the classroom a lot, simply because I think such literary exercise is an essential part of today’s education.  Instead of bemoaning the difficult language and changed reading structures of modern audiences, we need to study Dickensian circumstance and irony, and continue to learn how we can make more strides and better changes in the next 200 years.

“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.' cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. 'Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.'
'Have they no refuge or resource?' cried Scrooge.
'Are there no prisons.' said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. 'Are there no workhouses.'”

We spend up all of our educational resources and efforts on red tape, finances, and technicalities that either put away our youth in constant downward spirals or dismisses them to the humdrum of Working for the Man where they can never rise above.  Dickens’ manuscripts and their numerous adaptations still show us there is so, so much more.  Amen.


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