Tuesday, 10 January 2012

GREAT ADAPTATIONS: DICKENS ON FILM

The bicentenary of the year of Charles Dickens' birth has proven a springboard to a multitude of events, and, appropriately enough for the man whose novels have been the most translated onto screen of any author, an inevitable surge of costume dramas for a market that seemingly can never get enough of it. Tonight, following up on yet another version of Great Expectations, arguably Dickens' best book, the BBC begins an adaptation of the Mystery of Edwin Drood, which he left unfinished at his death. It's appropriate that the television Dickens should be celebrated, considering how important the 1950s series of adaptations was to establishing the idea of families staying indoors and around the telly when they aired.

Cynicism and easy profits aside, there are reasons why Dickens is such a fruitful source of adaptation. Running the risk of being cruelly overlooked amidst the onslaught of high-scale productions on the terrestrial channels, BBC4 tonight offers a remarkable Arena programme, Dickens On Film, directed by Anthony Wall and written and narrated by Adrian Wooten and Michael Eaton. Launched to coincide with a three-month retrospective at the BFI Southbank, the documentary makes the case for Dickens as a pioneer of film, even though he died in 1870, before the medium was even born.

It's not a difficult case to make, because it has been made before, most notably by two of the giants of the silent screen. DW Griffith attributed his pioneering cross-cutting to Dickens' technique of moving between storylines to build suspense and increase narrative drive and tension. Sergei Eisenstein, in his 1944 essay 'Dickens, Griffith and the Film Today', retells the story of Griffith's persuading his backers such techniques could work in film, and goes a step farther, quoting a 1922 article by AB Walkely, the drama critic of the Times, in which he specifically claims Dickens as Griffith's inspiration, noting he might have seen the same thing in Dumas, or Tolstoy, or any other Victorian novelist—the point being that it was the way Dickens' used it, the power of his imagery and its motion, that was cinematic. Eisenstein also recognised Dickens' appeal to 'sentimental elements', an appeal made all the more moving by the juxtaposition of the sentimental and cruel. It's not just that Dickens uses such techniques, but that the way he used them virtually compelled adaptors to follow. That Dickens was often writing serial literature, and thus faced the same need to keep the audience coming back that the makers of cliffhanging serial movies or modern soap operas would, merely emphasises the point.

In the same sense that modern filmmakers learned their sense of narrative and story-telling from watching movies, on DVD or movie channels, and the previous generation might be said to have learned theirs from TV (and film schools), early-filmmakers learned their dramatic techniques from Victorian literature and the stage. As seemingly apart from Eisenstein as John Ford may appear, and as obviously Shakespearian in his approach to dramatic structure; Ford's sense of his cutting, his use of secondary villains to contrast his often more noble antagonists, has been obviously absorbed from Dickens, if perhaps in part via Griffith.

Yet beyond cinematic technique, it's worth considering Dickens' ability to project his audience into what is often a child's sensibility. He is certainly ruthless about sacrificing children and child-like characters to wring the emotion from that audience, but what makes his descriptions of the dark side of Victorian England so memorable is the way he frames them around the experiences of those whom we consider innocents. If you're looking for a modern equivalent in cinema, one who makes no bones about tackling 'big' issues but who always does so by exploiting their 'sentimental elements' you could look at Stephen Spielberg, whose camera often adopts the perspective of a child, looking up at adults, sneaking peeks into their world. If you're seeking a bridge between the early days of cinema and Spielberg's films, you might consider the work of Robert Stevenson, now much overlooked, but whose early films, like King Solomon's Mines, Tom Brown's School Days, and the Orson Welles Jane Eyre, are particularly Dickensian, and whose work for Disney in the 1950s, films like Johnny Tremain, Old Yeller, Zorro, or Kidnapped (though the last is not a patch on Byron Haskins' 1950 Treasure Island), are small masterpieces of the child's-eye point of view, and full of the picaresque supporting casts of which Dickens was the master.

The Arena programme shows clips from nearly two dozen Dickens adaptations, yet barely scratched the surface. Eaton pointed out that there are around 100 silent movie versions of Dickens that we know about, of which only about a third are known to exist. The earliest on offer is a 1901 Scrooge, called Marley's Ghost, six minutes long with special effects that have been echoed through the decades, even by The Muppet Christmas Carol. One of the silent gems is a version of Oliver Twist starring Jackie Coogan. The production was put together by Coogan's father, eager to capitalise on the talents of his seven-year old son, and features Lon Chaney as a memorable Fagan. Thought to have been lost forever when the original negative was melted down for its silver, a print was discovered in Yugoslavia in the 1970s, and certainly deserves wider exposure.

At the launch of the film, David Nichols, who has adapted the latest Great Expectations, with Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, and Rafe Fiennes as Magwitch, spoke of seeing the novel as something akin to Chinatown, as a film noirish crime story, complete with the 'visit to Hannibal Lecter' scene, though of coure that wasn't Chinatown. It reminds us that crime is at the heart of Dickens, and his catalogue of crime included abuses allowed by society. It's no coincidence that the trailer for the 2002 version of Nicholas Nickelby protrayed Christopher Plummer, as Ralph, as an embodiment of Oliver Stone's Gordon Gekko, 'greed is good'. Victorian values, as Mrs Thatcher might say, are good for us all today.

Yet it's also fascinating how Dickens, despite the wide spectrum of characters and settings, remains firmly nailed into his period, the early Victorian. Even that most (late) Victorian figure, Sherlock Holmes, has been transplanted, without too much shock, into the 1940s on film, and with some cleverness into the modern era, yet Dickens' stories resist it (as evidenced, for example, by Alfonso Cuaron's soapy 1998 Great Expectations, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke, or by Joao Bothelo's enigmatic 1988 Portugese version of Hard Times). Yes, Dickens' settings are alive, and yes much of his social drama derives from them. But even the Muppets need that Victorian setting (and A Christmas Carol is one of the most, and consistently best, adapted of all his novels, as if proving Eisenstein's point about sentimentality).

Otherwise the catalogue of films and television (including the Channel 4 broadcast of David Edgar's memorable 1982 eight-hour stage version of Nicholas Nickleby directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird) is spectacular, and the myriad adaptations remind us of the way even small characters provide opportunities for defining performances. In January I'd rush to see Claude Rains in the 1935 Mystery Of Edwin Drood, or, in a more familiar vein, Ronald Colman in A Tale Of Two Cities, directed by Jack Conway in the same year.

But don't miss the Arena programme, which above all else provides a counter-point to the somewhat self-congratulatory tone of the early entries into the Dickensian tribute sweepstakes. It is hard to avoid a certain chauvinistic self-congratulation, a tendency to over-priase well-made costume epics which adapt but don't add to our understanding of Dickens' brilliance. But of course, every time gets the Dickens it deserves, and if David Nichols' Great Expectations is somewhat more prurient and less picaresque, less outre, than previous versions, it may be because we shock less easily, and we are more easily offended.

Then again, if Dickens were alive today, he might take a similar attitude. He probably wouldn't be writing novels, but it is one thing to say his writing of novels as serials translates to the idea that he'd be doing East Enders now. We'd like to think he'd be working in the more creative reaches of the medium, though it's probably not out of line to suggest he might find producing more creative and much more profitable than merely writing. On the other hand, producers nowadays often seem get themselves tangled in the slippery net of trying to be ironic and superior to their material—which is dangerous when it's material as superior as Dickens.

This is material like the BBC's Christmas offering, Mrs Dickens Family Christmas, which seemed aimed at cutting Dickens down to size, since he hadn't gone from Cambridge Footlights to standup comedy to the BBC, which in our modern Victorian world appears to be the path which conveys instant expertise in virtually any field. It's one thing to complain of a lack of 'real women' in Dickens (!) while presenting Christmas recipes, and another to try to bring him down to the level of East Enders, or the Radio 4 News Quiz.

Luckily, Arena serves as an antidote to that, and even the smallest taster of the richness of serious adaptation serves as a reminder of his genius, and more importantly his inspiration. From WC Fields as Micawber to Diana Rigg as Honoria Dedlock, from Valerie Hobson in Great Expectations to Bill Murray in Scrooged, it's a catalogue of genius. All that remains, in this anniversary year, is for the inevitable bio-pic, based perhaps on Claire Tomalin's biography, to cast someone actorly as the writer himself.

Arena: Dickens On Film is broadcast 10 Jan on BBC4
Dickens On Screen is on through March at BFI Southbank

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