Adrian Wootton Curated Lists: Charles Dickens on Film

Latest 8 Jul 2020

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This month, I wanted to bring a special focus to the work of Charles Dickens (1812–1870); and in particular, his profound cultural impact on the worlds of cinema and TV.

In 2012, I — and indeed the whole of Film London — was involved in the massive worldwide celebrations of the bicentenary of Charles Dickens birth. I felt it was also important to recognise and commemorate this year’s anniversary, 150 years since his death.

Charles Dickens is obviously known as a great novelist, perhaps the greatest of the English language — and with good reason. He revolutionised literature. Dickens’s stories and characters are part of the very DNA of English life, literature and letters.

In novels and short stories such as such as Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations and Bleak House Dickens became the most popular and acclaimed novelist of his age, the first global celebrity, creating unforgettable stories and a gallery of memorable characters that remain in the public consciousness.

Hugh Laurie, Dev Patel & Tilda Swinton in The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

It’s perhaps less well known that he was also a revolutionary when it came to cinema. He lived and died before cinema had even been invented, but his language, his powers of description and the way he told, edited and intercut his stories all provided the inspiration for the very beginnings of the form.

The earliest filmmakers, greats like DW Griffiths and Sergei Eisenstein, talked openly about being directly influenced by Dickens as they learned to tell their cinematic stories. It’s also no surprise that Dickens continues to be the most adopted and adapted novelist for film and television in the history of those mediums.

I’d love to encourage you to either discover or rewatch these extraordinary films, and to understand a little bit more about the importance of Dickens to the history and the ongoing story of cinema. These films also cast a particular light on the cinematic London — Dickens’s home and his greatest source of inspiration. I hope you’ll be inspired to discover other Dickens adaptions, to read Dickens, and to visit the places he wrote about and lived in.

I’d also encourage you to visit the Charles Dickens Museum on Doughty Street (re-opening on 25 July), where the author lived and wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, among others, and which definitely needs our support at this time.

Adrian Wootton OBE

Chief Executive of Film London and the British Film Commission

1. Great Expectations (1946) — dir. David Lean

I’ve chosen the 1946 adaptation of Dickens’s amazing novel Great Expectations by the legendary British filmmaker David Lean. Lean had been working with Noel Coward — in fact, this film came hot off the heels of the wonderful romance Brief Encounter — and chose Dickens as his way of becoming his own man, rather than Coward’s collaborator.

This film has an extraordinary authenticity, and an extraordinary sense of Dickens. It’s widely, and quite rightly, regarded as one of the greatest British films of all time, and won cinematographer Guy Green an Academy Award (the first ever for a British cinematographer).

Great Expectations is the story of a working-class boy parachuted into a new world, a world where he faces all sorts of new notions of class and prejudice. It’s also a beautiful and poignant romance. And in some ways it’s a grotesque almost-horror film, as Pip, the young character at the centre of the novel, is forced into the strange, strange world of the jilted Miss Havisham.

For me, this remains the finest adaptation of Dickens. David Lean went on to make many magnificent films, most notably Laurence of Arabia. But did he make a finer one than this? For me, this is his greatest achievement as a filmmaker. It’s haunting, positive, poignant and deeply romantic, and deserves to be revelled in.

Watch: Britbox (included with subscription)

2. Oliver! (1968) — dir. Carol Reed

An adaptation of Lionel Bart’s stage musical, based in itself on Oliver Twist, Oliver! brought together an absolute top-flight cast and crew, helmed by the brilliant Carol Reed, director of The Third Man.

It features a quite incredible cast, led in many ways by Ron Moody as Fagan, reproducing his performance from the stage musical, and a young Oliver Reed — Carol’s nephew, though he insisted this didn’t help him get the part — as well as amazing performances from the very young Jack Wild and Mark Lester, as the Artful Dodger and the young Oliver, respectively.

Oliver! retains much of the notions Dickens was focused on, including child poverty, criminality and the underworld of London — but puts it into a musical context, bolting on a new kind of optimism. There’s a joy, an exuberance that radiates from every frame. It’s a wonderfully life-affirming film, based on a grim subject matter. It stands up brilliantly.

Watch: Amazon (from £2.49)

3. Little Dorrit (1987) — dir. Christine Edzard

Christine Edzard’s adaptation of Dickens’s amazing panoramic novel was a hugely personal project for the director, and she was determined that every facet of the production was as authentic and as true to the grain of Dickens as it possibly could be. Every frame of the film was shot here in London, at Sands Films in Rotherhithe — a company set up by Edzard, her husband and a group of collaborators, which still exists today.

This is one of the longest Dickens adaptations for cinema — over six hours — with what may be the largest cast — 211 cast members — and features incredible performances from some of the great British movie stars, including, most notably, Alec Guinness, but also the likes of Derek Jacobi and Joan Greenwood.

The production design and costume design, elements to which Christine had direct input, are astonishing, and they help to tell Dickens’s story with such humanity, poignancy and truth. This is one of the true landmarks in Dickens cinema, one that just gets better with age, and deserves to be celebrated.

Little Dorrit is a story about origins, poverty, prison, the corruption of the law — it’s an incredible social satire about the class system in the 19th century which still resonates today. Christine’s incredible achievement is put to put this all on screen, to make you care, to immerse you in Dickens’s world in an extraordinary way. It absolutely pays for your attention.

Watch: Sands Films (DVD available to purchase)

4. The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) — dir. Armando Iannucci

I wanted to cover the very latest Dickens adaptation, from the author’s most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield. Armando Iannucci, along with co-writer Simon Blackwell (Avenue 5, The Thick of It), has preserved the authenticity of a period novel set in the first half the 19th century, but has injected into it contemporary notions, and a diversity, an inclusivity — particularly in the casting.

Using colourblind casting, Iannucci has assembled a brilliant set of performers — led by the wonderful Dev Patel in the title role — and managed to make something that is not in any sense unfaithful to Dickens, but still feels modern, absolutely contemporary, and reflects our society.

The film retains Dickens’s savage social satire, his wit and the grotesque brilliance of his characters — adding up to an extraordinary modern Dickens achievement, and a brilliant introduction to the world of Dickens on screen. The joy of what Armando Iannucci has done for Dickens is to make David Copperfield relevant for today, whilst also bringing out the beauty of the original novel.

Watch: BFI Player(£4.50)