by Rachel McMillan, guest blogger
One of the highlights of my year was the Dickens on Screen festival at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. This particular event, organized to coincide with the bicentenary, had several stops and was curated by Adrian Wootton, the chief executive of Film London and an avid Dickensian and film historian in his own right.
Wootton infused his pre-screening lectures and talks on “Dickens on Film” and “Dickens and Crime Cinema” with a deep knowledge of the Dickensian characters and worlds, as well as the inimitable impact Charles Dickens has on the history of Cinema.
Wootton believes that Dickens’s work is a precursor for the invention of film. Adapted for television and cinema more than any other novelist, Dickens’s stories, his succinct visual illustrations, and his passion for his pulsing, beating city as well as his cornucopia of vivid characters, inspire numerous filmmakers in their craft. As soon as the visual medium of storytelling was transported from the stage to the screen, Dickens was an easy choice for adaptation.
According to Wootton, the Dickens aesthetic had a profound influence over the creation of cinematic language. Dickens’s stories have a picaresque quality that lends itself well to filmmaking and the narrative of film, as well as the quality of fairytales. There is dark and light, love and sadness, cliffhangers, suspense, and lessons learned.
More so, Dickens makes for splendid theatrical melodrama. He was, as is well known, a great lover of the stage. The theater was one way in which Dickens was able to seep into the popular consciousness. While the upper and middle classes could sink their teeth into Dickens’s weighty novels, the poor and illiterate (the very people he wrote so poignantly about) learned of the Boffins and the Micawbers and the Scrooges and the Nicklebys through popular songs and ballads, waltzes and staged productions—sometimes illegally taking a snippet of a recent serialization by Boz and presenting it in full light and color for all to see.
The stage was also the perfect environment for supreme melodrama. Dickens loved the larger-than-life world he could create onstage and thus encapsulate into the confines of his novels. With the inception of film, actors were eager to play his grotesque characters and his wily villains. They are the types of characters every actor yearns to play—partly, as Wootton says, because you simply can’t over-act them.
Dickens provided an imaginative store-hold of plots and characters and scenes and humour for the new medium of film. And so, as soon as film was being screened, Dickens was being told on screen, and those who attended Wootton’s informative and delightfully engaging lectures and presentations were offered clips: an early 1901 silent of Marley’s Ghost and the 1909 Cricket on the Hearth, for example. Dickensians familiar with the works of Havelock Brown and George Cruikshank understand well the impact of Dickens when visually aided by illustrations.
Wootton also showed the shift of cinematic development while the source material remained largely the same. He included clips of three different presentations of Nancy’s death in Oliver Twist. The first is broad in movement and sentimentality, with the murder taking place off-camera so as to abide by the film regulations of the day. The second infused the screen with more sets and the appearance of Bull’s Eye. It used the effect of visual overlay to present Nancy haunting Bill after the dirty deed had been done. Finally, the 1948 David Lean presentation of the same scene: a marvelous and psychological realization of the devastation of Sikes’s crime.
These stories, in short, are told time and again and with the influx of new technology, they are explored further still in broader, more colorful brushstrokes, though the themes and greater nuances remain the same.
With cinema well-established, the era of televised adaptations was explored, from the 1950s BBC Sunday television hour forward, showing the deep and painstaking work that went into adapting these mammoth works while appreciating the new medium that allowed for the inclusion of finer plot points and more of the original story. The miniseries we are so familiar with today are born of those of their ilk which went before: costume dramas, lavish for their time, created to bring families together at teatime and inspiring a renaissance in Dickens and his work.
I was fortunate enough to attend several screenings with introductions at the event, including Great Expectations (1946, David Lean, director), Little Dorrit (1988, Christine Edzard, dir).; Nicholas Nickleby, (1948, Cavalcanti, dir.) as well as a screening of Wooton’s production of Dickens on Film (BBC) and his previously mentioned lectures The backstory Wootton provided for these films, his passion for their timeless nature, and his knowledge of Dickens’s prevailing literary canon were appreciated.
As long as there is a medium for storytelling, I, like the esteemed Adrian Wootton, believe that there will be a need for Dickens. His understanding and comprehension of the light and dark as they batlle in human nature, his sweeping love stories and small mysteries, his trifles and sundries and elaborate plots, his intricate mysteries and grand climaxes and expositions are a film maker’s dream. Dickens will always, no matter the mode or medium, find an audience.
Rachel McMillan blogs at A Fair Substitute for Heaven.