Monday, 12 May 2014


"Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures." - Jessamyn West

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was a prolific Victorian British author who wrote some very successful novels. Who does not know “Oliver Twist”, “David Copperfield”, “A Tale of Two Cities”, “A Christmas Carol”, “The Old Curiosity Shop”, etc, etc?

For Movie Monday today I am highlighting some film adaptations of Dickens novels, which have had great appeal for film-makers from the earliest days of the movies. The richness of the plots, the unforgettable characters and the excellent images that Dickens paints in his prose have begged for a cinematographic treatment, so this perhaps explains why his novels have been so popular with film-makers.

If one looks up the International Movie Data Base, reveals that there are over 340 films made of Dickens’ novels, from the 1890s to the present time!

“Oliver Twist” alone has engendered over 30 films/TV series. The latest is the 2005 version by Roman Polanski. This is up to Polanksi’s usual standard, as good as his “Tess” the adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’ Urbervilles”. Ben Kingsley does a great job as Fagin and the rest of the cast are well chosen. The cinematography is wonderful and Polanski tells the story true to Dickens’ vision.

An immediate comparison is that of David Lean’s classic 1948 version of “Oliver Twist”. This is a masterly motion picture made by a very famous director. Alec Guinness is the Fagin that most people have in their mind as they read Dickens’ novel. The black and white cinematography is so attuned to the story telling that one could perhaps imagine the screen to abound in colour, as viewed by the mind’s eye. It is interesting to note that this film sparked a riot in Berlin in its first showing in 1949 and that it was banned for two years in the USA as it was thought of being anti-Semitic (it was only released after significant cuts of 10 minutes had been made)…

“Oliver!”, the 1968 musical version by Carol Reed, one would have thought to be doomed from the start. How could someone make a musical out of such a poignant, dark story, which has social criticism written on each of its pages? However, the film works! It won the best picture Oscar at the 1968 Academy Awards and for a musical it is surprising as almost all of the musical numbers are charming (as opposed to the one-hit wonder musicals that we are used to). Here is a YouTube trailer.

I have chosen this novel by Dickens as it highlights one side of the man that was exceedingly important and is essential to his make-up. Dickens was very much influenced by a childhood where he had first hand experiences of poverty and feelings of abandonment. At 12 years of age, Dickens’ father was put into debtors’ prison and young Charles was taken from school and sent to a boot-blacking factory so as to help his family by earning six shillings. This made the author to grow up having very strong views on social reform.

Although Dickens was no “Socialist” in the modern sense of the word, as G.K. Chesterton says in his essay on Dickens, “Dickens had sympathy with the poor in the Greek and literal sense; he suffered with them mentally; for the things that irritated them were the things that irritated him. He did not pity the people, or even champion the people, or even merely love the people; in this matter he was the people. He alone in our literature is the voice not merely of the social substratum, but even of the subconsciousness of the substratum. He utters the secret anger of the humble. He says what the uneducated only think, or even only feel, about the educated.”  This essay of Chesterton’s is delight to read and can be found on line here.

No comments:

Post a Comment