From the very outset of his career, Dickens’s plays were dramatised for the stage. There were frequently several versions of his novels running in the London theatres before he’d even finished writing them, so that kind of adaptation was there from the very start. In the last twelve years of his life, he spent more time performing his own work than he did writing new work and so that kind of performance is also important too.
"There is a whole performative side to Dickens and that's at the centre of the kind of books he writes: they are intrinsically theatrical."
It has followed since that – and Simon Callow is the most recent incarnation – people would do one-man shows based on Dickens’s writings. There is a whole performative side to Dickens and that's at the centre of the kind of books he writes: they are intrinsically theatrical.
Seminal director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein said that Dickens has a cinematic vision. Many people have argued that his use of montage, zooming in and out of scenes and his sense of tempo were proto-cinematic. "A large proportion of early silent films were based on Dickens’s writings, and then there are people who have the pulse of what kind of writer Dickens is, the most famous of whom are David Lean with his ‘Oliver Twist' and 'Great Expectations'. Then there's the Alistair Sim ‘A Christmas Carol’ and the George Cukor ‘David Copperfield’.
"Dickens has a cinematic vision. Many people have argued that his use of montage, zooming in and out of scenes and his sense of tempo were proto-cinematic."
There's a famous story about W.C. Fields who played Micawber in Cukor’s film, and whether it's apocryphal or not it's very telling. On set, Cukor said to Fields, “What you just said, Dickens didn't write that.” Fields is supposed to have replied, “Well he would have written it down if he'd thought about it.” That is to say, it’ s an appropriately Dickensian thing for that character to say. One of the things that many theorists on cinema have written about for decades is that it’s not being literal-minded in copying the events and characters and furniture and so on – that kind of wooden adaptation of a book – that necessarily captures the spirit of a book. Maybe changing names or settings or any variety of details can get to the pith of the kind of books Dickens writes.
There are some I think that do that marvellously – the Alistair Sim ‘A Christmas Carol’ is one, and parts of Alberto Cavalcanti's ‘Nicholas Nickleby' as well. There are so many adaptations that it's invidious to pick out one as the best, but they succeed to the extent that they're able to realise Dickens' vision and that's made easier by the fact that the same vision of his is so cinematic.
Dr Paul Schlicke’s five favourite Dickens adaptations:
Scrooge (1951) (distributed in the United States as A Christmas Carol) Directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring Alistair Sim as Scrooge and Michael Hordern as Marley’s ghost.
The most faithful and perhaps the best of the vast cornucopia of films based on Dickens’s much-loved Christmas tale. It offers a psychologically probing depiction of a tormented Scrooge, who lacks the wit and miserliness of Dickens’s character, but by adding motivation to his self-imposed isolation – both his mother and his sister are imagined to have died in childbirth – the film presents a coherent and complex portrait. The character of Mrs Dilber (played by Kathleen Harrison) is considerably expanded from the minor character in Dickens’s text to provide an image of the women Scrooge has rejected. It is an imaginative and highly satisfying cinematic depiction of Dickens’s Carol.
Oliver Twist (1948) Directed by David Lean.
Arguably the greatest of all Dickens films, although controversial on account of the racism evoked in Alec Guinness’s lurid embodiment of the villainous Jew Fagin – based on the original illustrations by George Cruikshank. The inventive use of montage as the film cuts between scenes in the workhouse and in the London streets, and the hallucinatory image of the bridge leading to Fagin’s den marvellously capture the essence of the unique fusion of realism and fantasy in Dickensian artistry in cinematic terms.
David Copperfield (1935) Directed by George Cukor, starring Freddie Bartholomew as young David, Basil Rathbone as Murdstone, Edna Mae Oliver as Aunt Betsey, and W.C. Fields as Micawber.
With an all-star cast, this was the first great feature length Dickens film. Distinctive characterisation, vividly realised setting, comedy, pathos and vigorous plotting are among Dickens’s key strengths, which this film triumphantly translates onto the screen. Fields’s remark that an incident he interpolated in was something Dickens would have written had he thought of it, neatly encapsulates the film’ s achievement of capturing cinematically the essence of Dickens rather than woodenly reproducing textual details, and Field’s portrayal of Micawber is truly memorable.
Nicholas Nickleby (1947) Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, with Derek Bondas Nicholas,, Bernard Miles as Noggs, Cedric Hardwicke as Ralph, Stanley Holloway as Crummles, and Sybil Thorndike as Mrs Squeers.
The film packs in the full range of Dickens’s book, but loses some of the individuation of character as a result. Less well known than the David Lean films and currently unavailable, it is nevertheless highly watchable and true to the spirit of Dickens.
Great Expectations (1946) Directed by David Lean, with John Mills as Pip, Jean Simmons as Young Estella, Valerie Hobsonas adult Estella, Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham and Francis L.Sullivan as Jaggers.
One of the classic Dickens films, winner of two Academy Awards, with a terrifying opening scene in which the convict Magwitch looms up from behind a gravestone, and a lurid evocation of Miss Havisham’s decayed wedding room. My own favourite performance in a Dickens film is Alec Guinness as young Herbert Pocket. But I consider the interpretation of Pip’s education as “a snob’s progress” misguided (rather, Dickens’s tale is one of Victorian cultural emergence from Regency roughness), the omission of Orlick a serious diminishment, and the happy-ever-after ending a fundamental falsification of Dickens’s story.