The Wizardry of Boz: A Brief History of Charles Dickens on Screen
The New Great Expectations Series Has Big Shoes to Fill (About 400 Pairs of Them)
The announcement that a new TV adaptation of Charles Dickens’s coming-of-age story Great Expectations is shortly to air on FX, developed by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight and starring Fionn Whitehead as Pip and Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham, won’t have come as a great surprise to many viewers. It’s not just that few literary works have embedded themselves so firmly in the popular imagination, producing modern cultural offshoots that have included Peter Carey’s novel Jack Maggs (1997), episodes of television shows like South Park, a video dating agency (“Great Expectations Services for Singles”), and hundreds of shops with names like “Grape Expectations” (wine), “Baked Expectations” (cakes), and “Great Waxpectations” (candles).
The much simpler reason is that no other novelist has been adapted for the screen nearly as often—or as successfully—as Dickens. More than 400 films and TV series have been created so far, ranging from lavish costume dramas to spin-offs and spoofs including Scrooged (1988) and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), not to mention movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) that have lovingly ripped off his plots. Dickens’s stories run though the history of popular entertainment like the lettering through a stick of seaside rock.
It’s even possible to make a case for Dickens as one of the ancestors of modern cinema. In a famous essay published in 1944, the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein argued that “only very thoughtless and presumptuous people” believed in “some incredible virgin birth” of film, and that pioneering director DW Griffith found many of his storytelling tricks, including close-ups, dissolves, and cutting between parallel narratives in novels such as Oliver Twist. Like many origin myths, this all sounds a little too neat to be true, but Dickens was undoubtedly a key figure in the emergence of new ways of looking at the world.Dickens’s stories run though the history of popular entertainment like the lettering through a stick of seaside rock.
Stories such as A Christmas Carol had long been familiar through theatrical adaptations, meaning that far more people knew about Scrooge or Tiny Tim than had ever read about them, and many of the earliest films set out to woo the same audience. At a time when moving pictures were still treated largely as a sideshow novelty, Dickens added ticket sales as well as a sheen of cultural prestige. The surviving four minutes of Scrooge; or, Marley’s Ghost, an ambitious British film made by RW Paul in 1901, are clearly modeled on a popular play by JC Buckstone first performed that year. Paul may even have used the same painted sets, and every aspect of his film, from the overblown acting style to the use of a camera fixed in the front row of the stalls, seems to have been designed to give each member of the cinema audience the best seat in the house.
Yet even here there are clues that the film was trying to find a new way of telling an old story. Marley enters dressed in a sheet, but then dissolves into a phantom through some impressive trick photography. Later a series of tableaux depicting “Scrooge’s Visions of Himself in Christmases Past” are projected on to the living-room curtains, while Scrooge is powerless to interfere—a film-within-a-film that powerfully captures the experience of going to the movies and watching stories unspool to their inevitable end.
Further adaptations of Dickens made on both sides of the Atlantic show how quickly cinema developed. A nine-minute version of Oliver Twist (1909) again slims down Dickens’s crowded pages into a series of tableaux, ending with a scene of Fagin in the condemned cell that is closely modeled on Cruikshank’s original illustration to the novel. Far from speeding up the story, the main aim of director J. Stuart Blackton seems to have been to slow it down, as if nervous of a medium that operated at the speed of light.
Frank Lloyd’s 1922 Oliver Twist, by contrast, while it retains authentic fragments of the novel in its title cards, cleverly switches between scenes of slapstick and pathos to create a visual equivalent of the tragicomic narrative style Dickens once compared to “streaky bacon.” The film even finds a way of depicting Dickens’s conviction that Oliver represents “the principle of good” untouched by his surroundings. Playing Oliver for laughs as well as tears, Jackie Coogan is less like a waif than a little vaudeville comedian unleashed on 19th-century London. He is as invulnerable to genuine suffering as a clown receiving a custard pie in the face.Further adaptations of Dickens made on both sides of the Atlantic show how quickly cinema developed.
Having recently starred alongside Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1921), which had borrowed large chunks of its plot from Dickens’s novel, Coogan was perfect casting as the tiny but tough hero. His success set a trend: in the years that followed it became increasingly common for actors to reprise the same roles in different productions. Familiar stories required familiar faces. Francis L. Sullivan played Jaggers in Great Expectations in 1934 and 1946, while Donald Wolfit went one better, playing Sergeant Buzfuz in The Pickwick Papers three times—1952, 1955, and 1959.
Such tactics rarely produced thoughtful or challenging drama, especially when directors treated Oliver’s famous line “Please, sir, I want some more” as merely an invitation to give audiences more of the same. Probably the most startling example of this trend was Carol Reed’s musical Oliver! (1968), which reproduced several scenes from David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) almost shot for shot, but replaced Lean’s gritty realism with a Technicolor world in which nobody seemed to be capable of walking down the street without breaking into a complicated dance routine.
The development of TV costume drama in the 1950s and 60s created a more subtle version of the same phenomenon: an imaginary “Dickensland” in which fog swirled and bonnets bobbed along murkily lit streets. It was an all-purpose Victorian age that was no more authentic than the plastic beams in Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. Other adaptations tried to offer a window to Dickens’s world while also holding a mirror up to their own.
Today this can make for uncomfortable watching—or listening. Ralph Thomas’s version of A Tale of Two Cities (1958), for example, climaxes with a stirring scene in which Sydney Carton (a wonderfully laconic Dirk Bogarde) mounts the steps of the guillotine, but until then the film is largely a tale of two accents: Cockney for character actors and the crowd, and stiff-lipped Standard British English for everyone else.
Far more impressive—and the standard that this latest adaptation will inevitably be measured against—David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) opens with an attempt to capture a child’s vision, full of sudden close-ups and distorted perspectives, and ends with Pip (John Mills) ripping down the dusty blackout curtains in Satis House, crying out “I have come back to let in the sunlight!” In 1946 he might have sounded like a demobbed soldier returning home. In 2023, with a fresh adaptation about to hit our TV screens, he sounds more like screenwriter Stephen Knight picking up Dickens’s novel and getting to work.