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Great adaptations: The tricky art of channelling Charles Dickens


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Best of times: Dev Patel  in Armando Iannucci's inspired The Personal History of David Copperfield

Best of times: Dev Patel in Armando Iannucci's inspired The Personal History of David Copperfield

John Mills as Pip, Martita Hunt as Mrs Havisham and Valerie Hobson as Stella in Lean's 1946 version of Great Expectations

John Mills as Pip, Martita Hunt as Mrs Havisham and Valerie Hobson as Stella in Lean's 1946 version of Great Expectations

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David Lean watches as Alec Guinness is transformed into the role of Fagin in Lean’s 1948 adaptation of Oliver Twist

David Lean watches as Alec Guinness is transformed into the role of Fagin in Lean’s 1948 adaptation of Oliver Twist

Getty Images

Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge holds up Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman) on Christmas morning in Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol

Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge holds up Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman) on Christmas morning in Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol

Corbis via Getty Images

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Best of times: Dev Patel in Armando Iannucci's inspired The Personal History of David Copperfield

Armando Iannucci is better known for his TV work than film, but in recent years has been branching out into cinema. In 2017 he released the fine satirical drama Death of Stalin, and his latest film is even better.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is a lively, funny and thoroughly delightful adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel that manages to be both innovative and faithful. Dev Patel is David, a resourceful little boy whose cruel stepfather sends him off to work in a London bottling factory.

As he grows up he will enter the orbit of a gallery of colourful characters, from the charming conman Wilkins Micawber to his dashing classmate Steerforth and the odious Uriah Heep. The casting is inspired: Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie are superb as Betsy Trotswood and Mr Dick, and Peter Capaldi brilliantly catches the lovable scattiness of the eternally optimistic Micawber.

In fact, I think this is one of the greatest Dickens screen adaptations of them all, and that is really saying something because over the years there have been a tremendous amount. More than 400 films and TV series have been directly inspired by Dickens' stories, which with their vivid descriptions and larger-than-life characters do have a uniquely visual and cinematic quality.

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John Mills as Pip, Martita Hunt as Mrs Havisham and Valerie Hobson as Stella in Lean's 1946 version of Great Expectations

John Mills as Pip, Martita Hunt as Mrs Havisham and Valerie Hobson as Stella in Lean's 1946 version of Great Expectations

Corbis via Getty Images

Some commentators have even suggested that the writer was a kind of forefather of cinema. He performed his works in public repeatedly, and sometimes did so to the accompaniment of a magic lantern. Many of his novels were adapted for the stage almost as soon as they had been written, and stage shows remained popular into the late 19th century. So it was inevitable that Dickens would feature heavily in the early years of cinema.

More than 100 silent Dickens adaptations were produced, and one of the era's master directors acknowledged the writer's influence. DW Griffiths was inspired to experiment with close-ups, dissolves and parallel narratives by reading Oliver Twist, and in 1919 experimented with montage in a 14-minute version of Dickens' novella The Cricket on the Hearth.

After sound arrived, Hollywood producer David O Selznick pumped out two well-regarded adaptations, and his David Copperfield (1935) was a glossy and satisfying affair, with comic actor WC Fields giving it socks as Micawber. Subtle, however, it was not, and after World War Two an unimpeachable benchmark was set by a magnificent string of British Dickensian adaptations. David Lean is best known for big-budget epics like Lawrence of Arabia, but for me his early films are superior, and none better than Great Expectations (1946).

Lean decided to make it after watching a stage adaptation written by a skinny young actor. Alec Guinness would reappear as Herbert Pocket in the film, which starred John Mills as Pip, the orphaned blacksmith's apprentice who comes into a fortune thanks to a mysterious benefactor. From the chilling opening sequence where young Pip is confronted by the runaway convict Magwitch in a lonely Norfolk graveyard, to a magnificent boat chase across the Thames, Lean's film perfectly caught the energy and emotion of Dickens' sprawling adventure.

It's a tremendous film, and Lean's Oliver Twist (1948) wasn't bad either. The lowering skies of the East End bore down on poor Oliver (John Howard Davies), a runaway orphan who enters the orbit of Fagin, the criminal svengali who orchestrates a small army of child pickpockets. The famous scene where Bill Sikes (Robert Newton) murders Nancy (Kay Walsh) while his poor dog Bull's-eye tries frantically to escape is one of the most celebrated and brilliantly edited scenes in cinema history.

But Guinness' portrayal of Fagin caused controversy: the heavy make-up and hooked prosthetic nose he wore were intended to echo the original illustrations of George Cruikshank but instead summoned the ugly spectre of anti-Semitism. This, remember, was just three years after the discovery of the death camps: the film was banned in Israel, and not released in the US until 1951.

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David Lean watches as Alec Guinness is transformed into the role of Fagin in Lean’s 1948 adaptation of Oliver Twist

David Lean watches as Alec Guinness is transformed into the role of Fagin in Lean’s 1948 adaptation of Oliver Twist

Getty Images

It's a great film nevertheless, as for me is the often overlooked 1947 Ealing Studios version of Nicholas Nickleby, Cavalcanti's delightful, surreal interpretation of Dickens' tale about a young man whose charitable instincts are thwarted by his avaricious uncle. And Brian Desmond Hurst's Scrooge (1951) is one of the best loved Dickens adaptations of all.

Dozens of films of A Christmas Carol have been made, but Hurst's Scrooge best captures the dark magic of Dickens' novella. Alastair Sim was brilliant as the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, whose late conversion to goodness is irresistibly moving.

That postwar series of inspired British adaptations set a standard that has rarely been reached since. I did like the vulgar energy of the hit musicals Oliver! (1968) and Scrooge (1970), but they traded on a twee pastiche version of Victorian London that would for a time become the norm.

Movie adaptations were drying up in any case, because Dickens had migrated to the small screen, where the BBC in particular would produce often definitive versions of novels like Hard Times, Bleak House and Martin Chuzzlewit in an episodic form that better suited their original structure.

Filmmakers hoping to distil these complex and digressive stories into a two-hour feature are always up against it, particularly when it comes to catching Dickens' 'streaky bacon' narrative style of veering back and forth between comedy and tragedy, and the less said for instance about Alfonso Cuaron's ghastly 1998 version of Great Expectations, the better.

But if a director and his writers can balance the competing forces of comedy and pathos in these rich and action-packed tales, something special happens, and Iannucci's David Copperfield has managed this trick.

Indo Review