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“Dickens on Screen”

An overview of screenings and other events celebrating the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens.
The Daily

Charles Dickens won't officially turn 200 until February 7, but the Dickens 2012 extravaganza — festivals, theater, exhibitions, readings and so on — is well underway. And today, the BFI series Dickens on Screen opens at BFI Southbank in London for a run that'll last through February.

"No other novelist has been adapted for the screen so often or to such popular acclaim. Around 400 films and TV series have been made so far," writes Robert Douglas-Fairhurst in the Guardian. "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 cinema, and that the film pioneer DW Griffith found many of his storytelling tricks, including close-ups, dissolves and cutting between parallel narratives, in novels such as Oliver Twist. Griffith admitted as much himself. One of his first films was a 14-minute version of Dickens's The Cricket on the Hearth (1909) that featured some early experiments with montage, and when he was criticised by his cameraman for employing the technique in a later film ('How can you tell a story jumping about like that?'), he is said to have replied: 'Well, doesn't Dickens write that way?' 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."

Douglas-Fairhurst's Becoming Dickens is one of two newish books you're likely to have read about in the run-up to the Christmas shopping season, the other being Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life. "Douglas-Fairhurst notes that 'it is a sign of Dickens's greatness that there is almost nothing one can say about him of which the opposite is not also true,'" writes Dinah Birch in the TLS. "Dickens's restless energy makes him an untidy and sometimes paradoxical subject, but it is what gave his writing its lasting power. The strength of Douglas-Fairhurst's book Becoming Dickens lies in its exploration of these contradictions as they are embedded in early Victorian culture. He is especially sharp on the tensions of social class."

As for Tomalin, she's "a biographical big-game hunter, having already bagged Austen, Hardy, Pepys, Wollstonecraft and Mansfield," writes John Sutherland in the Literary Review. "The shelf of prizes she has won testifies to her ability not just to write 'lives' but to bring the authors she writes about to life…. It is the forensic acuteness of Tomalin's account that is her peculiar strength." More on both books: Michiko Kakutani (New York Times, where Simon Callow reviews four more books on Dickens, these written for children), Michael Sims (Washington Post), Jenny Uglow (Guardian) and Francis Wilson (Telegraph).

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, William Powell Frith, 1859

"Dickens's satire of dark and serious subjects is still surprisingly fresh," writes Armando Iannucci in the Telegraph. "In Little Dorrit he caricatures the way the nation was run by giving us the Circumlocution Office whose 'finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart.' His description of bureaucracy run riot set the template for any satire of government since, paving the way for Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984, Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister and even the Ministry of Magic in the Harry Potter novels. He's certainly been a subconscious influence on my work including The Thick of It and the new American series I'm filming for HBO called Veep."

Back for a moment to the notion that Douglas-Fairhurst brings up. In 2004, Ken Mogg wrote about Grahame Smith's Dickens and the Dream of Cinema for Senses of Cinema: "Smith isn't just saying that Dickens had a filmmaker's eye; he is suggesting that Dickens helped shape and focus the conditions that were conducive to film, and thereby hastened the cinema's coming. It might even be said that Dickens actively 'dreamed' the birth of cinema." More from Brian McFarlane in Screening the Past: "The great strength of this often brilliantly resourceful and wide-ranging study is in its way of gathering up the threads of pre-cinema and weaving them into a fascinating narrative. Another strength is in the capacity for close reading of passages that seem to bespeak a 'cinematic' imagination at work in Dickens."

As more Dickens-related items appear in the coming weeks, I'll be pointing them out here.

Update, 1/7: Susan Salter Reynolds in the Los Angeles Review of Books on Jane Smiley's brief biography: "Smiley believes in Dickens wholeheartedly…. His true legacy is his 'vast intuitive grasp of the possibilities of urban capitalist life. His works explore and touch upon almost every facet of modern life (public sanitation, education of the masses, proliferating litigation, social tensions brought about by class fluidity, waste management, high-speed transportation, dislocation of traditional neighborhoods, divorce, the alliance of religion and economic exploitation, governmental incompetence and corruption, the commodification of family and social relationships, even addiction and colonialism).'"

Update, 1/8: In one of his final columns for Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens argues that Dickens "can't have modeled a villain like Sikes, or a heroine like Nell, on his own character. No, he was drawing on much wider and deeper sources of potency. The main one was the sheer stubborn existence of so many people whom the system had disregarded. Begin thinking about it and you start to whisper a list to yourself: the pathetic Jo, the crossing sweeper; Smike; Mr Micawber; Amy Dorrit; Mr Dick — all of them with pain to feel and a life to lead, and many of them kept going (like poor Dick Swiveller) only by a certain unique sense of humor and the absurd. Dickens was able to mine this huge resource of London life, becoming its conductor and chronicler like nobody since Shakespeare himself, and always remembering, as he noted in the last stages of The Old Curiosity Shop, to 'keep the child in view.'"

Update, 1/15: "As I write this," begins Luke McKernan, "in Rochester, Kent, I can look out of my window at the corner of St Margaret Street where, ninety-nine years ago, John Bunny drove past in a carriage, dressed as Mr Pickwick for the turning camera handles of the Vitagraph Company of America. And yesterday and today, on BBC television, we saw a fevered The Mystery of Edwin Drood, much of it filmed fifty yards away in the grounds and centre of Rochester cathedral. Here is the heart of Dickens, and the heart of a grand cinematographic tradition…. As a contribution to the Dickens bicentenary, and by way of demonstrating his great importance to early film, we have put together a filmography for Dickens and silent cinema. It may be the most extensive yet published; it certainly tries to clear up some of the confusion to be found in listings elsewhere, though there are still problematic corners, and doubtless films still to be identified." Emphasis mine.

Updates, 2/1: John Wyver posts a robust Dickens roundup.

Radhika Jones is counting down the top ten Dickens novels for Time.

In the Telegraph, Martin Chilton lists his favorite Dickens character and Neil McCormick explains why Pip (Great Expectations) is his.

Update, 2/5: "Simon Callow does not claim to be a Dickens scholar, but he is steeped in Dickens's writing, and he knows Dickens inside out," writes Catherine Peters in an overview of recent books on Dickens for the Literary Review. "He has spent years performing in Dickens adaptations, recreating Dickens's readings, and as much as anyone can, becoming Dickens. His Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World is a comprehensive biography as enthralling as one of his own performances."

Updates, 2/7: On the big day itself, I just thought I'd point out the special sections in the Guardian and the Telegraph.

Open Culture offers a guide to free films, eBooks and audio books.

Updates, 2/8: The New Republic runs a 1940 piece from Edmund Wilson on the "Two Scrooges."

Viewing. John-Paul Pryor talks with Ian McKellan about Dickens for AnOther.

Updates, 2/9: "Who Was Charles Dickens?" is the title of Robert Gottlieb's piece on seven books on the author for the June 10, 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books. Via Let's Get Critical.

Ralph Fiennes will play Dickens in his own adaptation of Claire Tomalin's The Invisible Woman, her nonfiction book on Dickens's affair with the young actress Nelly Ternan, to be played by Felicity Jones, reports Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist. And Kristin Scott-Thomas will play Ternan's mother.

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