Top 10 Charles Dickens TV Shows and Movie
Charles Dickens Stories are Perfect for Television and Movie Adaptations
This year, we commemorate the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens birth on 7th February 1812 in Longport in Portsea, (now usually acknowledged as Portsmouth).
When Charles Dickens died on 9th June 1870, he was the most famous man in the world. That seems difficult to imagine but it is absolutely true.
Before the days of mass communication, the educated man and woman relied upon newspapers, books, novels and public speaking to learn about people and Charles Dickens was an incredibly hard-working man who was charismatic, philanthropic and well-travelled - as likely to be found speaking on behalf of a noble cause to any gathered crowd as he was to be found in his study, pen in hand.
He believed in a multitude of good causes and spoke on behalf of the unfortunates of nineteenth century industrial England. Dickens travelled abroad widely and had a devoted following at public speaking events in the United States.
His own life experiences were what first influenced his writing and in time, he learnt to use real life around him on the streets of London as inspiration for his novels.
It is incredible to think that his early novel writing under the pen-name, Boz were devoured by his readers in instalments in a newspaper. He certainly knew how to keep people reading every day.
Charles Dickens was a prolific writer, always busy. Indeed whilst writing the novel Pickwick Papers, he also started to write Oliver Twist and completed The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby, 3 very different books. It is inconceivable today to think that a writer might have 3 novels being created at the same time - even though technology might make that much easier in our day and age, but Charles Dickens was no ordinary writer, he was a master storyteller - driven to tell his stories, desperate to pass on his tales of London's people to his readers.
It is not surprising then to discover Charles Dickens stories as an inspiration for movies, more or less from the start of movie production.
Charles Dickens At The Movies
Charles Dickens died of a stroke in 1870 aged just 58. He was around during the early days of photography, indeed some photographs of him exist (and are included in this hub) but the creation of the first movie occurred a mere 8 years after his death with Eadweard Muybridge's 'The Horse In Motion'.
In 1878, the same year as Muybridge's breakthrough movie, Charles Dickens was still widely read. Indeed, his Collected Works had been published in 1875 and he was still considered a popular author even after his death. This is not really surprising considering his output.
So it is not surprising that once movie-making had moved on from a concentration on presenting images to the watching public in an almost scientific manner, that it would become a medium for other ways to reach the public, including as a means for storytelling.
The first representation of a Charles Dickens story on film appeared in 1897 in a short entitled, 'The Death of Nancy Sykes' (from Oliver Twist). By then, Dickens had been dead less than 30 years. I think this shows how popular his stories were. Oliver Twist's Nancy Sykes is perhaps one of his strongest female characters and her death scene is one of the most memorable in a Dickens novel, fitting to find it in film so early.
Top 10 Charles Dickens Novels On Film
So without further ado, here is my Top 10 of Dickens novels captured on film. I have not limited my choices to the movie theatre because over the last 3 or 4 decades there have been a number of excellent TV adaptations of Dickens. Many millions of people across the world have enjoyed these TV productions so I think it is only fair to include them.
10 - A Tale of Two Cities
The movie version of 1935 made me cry when I first saw it in the early 1970s. I was completely pulled into this amazing story of a man sacrificing himself for another during the height of the French Revolution. Ronald Colman is wonderful in his role as Sydney Carton, a complicated, selfless man.
It was David O Selznick's 'last shout' for his MGM before leaving to form his own company.
The crowd scenes set in the streets of revolutionary Paris are second to none and no expense is spared by Selznick in creation what is actually a sort of 'revolutionary epic'. Shame for Colman that he was overlooked for the Oscar for a performance which really showed his great range as an actor. Selznick would go on to bigger and better but A Tale of Two Cities has never been remade as well as the original movie.
9 - Our Mutual Friend
The BBC production of Our Mutual Friend was made in 1998 and starred Paul McGann, Keeley Hawes and Steven Mackintosh. There is also a wonderful performance by David Morrissey as the creepy teacher, Bradley Headstone chasing after poor Lizzie Hexham and having nosebleeds every time he is angry with her.
All of the main performances are excellent, particularly those of Timothy Spall, Kenneth Cranham, Peter Vaughan and Pam Ferris.
It was a real slow burner, spread over 5 episodes but well paced enough to keep UK audiences watching from start to last. When, finally, the Victorian gentleman gets his working-class waterman's girl - we all felt like cheering, but dear me, he took his time!
8 - David Copperfield (TV Movie 1999)
An all-star cast gave us a wonderful treat in this 1999 offering of one of Dickens' most popular novels, David Copperfield.
It stars Maggie Smith, Bob Hoskins, Ian McKellen, Emilia Fox, Pauline Quirke, Trevor Eve, Michael Elphick and a young Daniel Ratcliffe (later to play Harry Potter) as the young David Copperfield.
It is a visually spectacular production with good performances by many of its lead actors. Adrian Hodges does a sympathetic job with the script, lots of excellent dialogue and the production sticks to the story to the letter. David Copperfield is one of Charles Dickens most descriptively pleasing novels with a multitude of 'big' characters like Peggarty and Mr Micawber. From the outset, we are rooting for the young man who has been badly neglected by his own folks and is cared for by people so full of goodness, you wish they were members of your own family.
There have been lots of good TV and movie versions of David Copperfield but the one I've chosen is one of the best ITV Dickens movies.
7 - Oliver Twist (1948)
There is something very satisfying in seeing this much darker version of Oliver Twist, in contrast with 'Oliver' the adaptation of Lionel Bart's musical from 1968.
The fine performance of Robert Newton as Bill Sykes and Alec Guinness' brilliant Fagin is what makes this movie so special - these Dickens' characters are amongst his greatest creations and in the musical, although Sykes is still the cruel, sinister rogue, Fagin is lifted to a caricature in some scenes - only at the end do we get Mr Nasty back again.
Alec Guinness' Fagin is a more complex portrayal. It looked like an old movie but the cinematography is very good; David Lean never lets us down with his scene set up - we feel like we inhabit the same space as the boys, dark, squalid, filthy Victorian hovels - you feel like you are going back in time.
6-Martin Chuzzlewit (1994)
This BBC production is another star-studded affair starring Paul Schofield (Schofield will forever be known for his portrayal of Sir Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons) in a rare TV appearance.
I'm sure what attracted Schofield was the excellent script by David Lodge, a novelist in his own right. Lodge does not veer much from Dickens' novel and this novel has some of his best character names:
I could go on.
This was the novel Dickens' considered one of his best but it was not particularly popular. Martin Chuzzlewit was serialised in 1847-48 but Dickens' altered the main plot when it transferred to novel by sending the young Martin Chuzzlewit to the United States which he had recently visited. Martin Chuzzlewit loses every penny he owns in a bad property venture and returns to England as a broken man, without any money or kin to care for him.
As always, Dickens' provides us with an excellent villain in the person of Jonas Chuzzlewit; excellently played by Keith Allen in this adaptation.
Philip Franks is wonderful as the likeable Tom Pinch and there are other good performances from Maggie Steed as Mrs Todgers and Pete Postlethwaite as the interesting ne'er do well, Tigg Montague.
The story is the last of Dickens' picaresque novels and although not popular in its day has a certain resonance with people today who have tried and failed to seek their fortune abroad.
5 - Little Dorrit (2008)
We Brits certainly do love our period drama and the 2000s have provided us with some absolute crackers.
Little Dorrit starred Claire Foy and Matthew McFadyen (who played Mr Darcy in the movie version of Pride & Prejudice) and was watched by millions. It exudes quality and if you are new to Victorian drama, it is a good one to start with since its story of Amy Dorrit earning money to save her dear father as he lingers in the debtors prison gives a good representation of how easy it was for even good families to fall on hard times and of how merciless the Victorian courts were on anyone in debt.
One of Dickens' 'social injustice' novels, it is more pleasing because it places a young girl at the centre of the action.
4 - Scrooge
This is one of Charles Dickens' most popular stories, A Christmas Carol which might explain why it has been made so many times.
There have been a number of movie versions of A Christmas Carol, including one starring the Muppets and also a few animated versions.
The 1951 edition starring Alistair Sim is my favourite version but I'm happy to be talked around because a film can't really fail with this story, can it?
Alistair Sim is wonderful, London looks amazing and this tale rattles along like a train.
It has become a staple of most people's Christmas viewing and there's a good reason for that, it's just a wonderful movie.
3 - Oliver
Well, it couldn't be a top 10 of Dickens' novels on film without this wonderful movie being a part of it. I've included the dark version of Oliver Twist, now here's the slightly lighter (only slightly mind you!) with great songs.
Yes, Oliver Twist is a desperately unhappy tale of a young orphan's torrid time in Fagin's underground world of pickpockets and villains so that anyone ever considered making a musical of it is amazing. Lionel Bart did just that and provided us with a true screen gem - still admired today as one of the greatest musicals ever made - winner of Best Picture and Best Director Oscars in 1968, it has quality written all over it from start to finish.
Directed by Carol Reed, a gifted director most famous for The Third Man, Oliver delivers on every level as a fantastic piece of cinema - I have watched it about twenty or thirty times and still find much to admire every time I see it.
I could wax lyrical for hours about this movie, enough to say, great acting, great songs, great cinema!
2 - Bleak House (2005-BBC TV)
If you haven't seen this series - you should!
The BBC took a huge chance and made Bleak House as a Dickens' dramatisation to be shown in half hour instalments over 15 episodes. This was unheard of in 2005. In general, costume dramas are shown in sizeable time chunks of at least one hour, preferably two hours.
The BBC decided to give us Bleak House in small doses and it had an amazing effect - we were all dying to see the next episode! Half an hour of Bleak House written by Andrew Davies, in my opinion, the unrivalled king of period drama adaptation was amazing. Every episode ended wanting to make us want more.
Davies gave us Dickens in fast episodes, just like Dickens gave Bleak House to his readers - in cliff-hanging instalments.
We also had some amazing performances from some unusual sources - Jonny Vegas plays Krook, who spontaneously combusts in front of his fire after a bottle of 'good' gin.
Charles Dance is unpleasant as Tulkinghorn, the wily, murderous solicitor looking to undermine Lady Deadlock (played by Gillian Anderson with an amazing English accent til I found out she lived here from the age of 2 to 11).
Anna Maxwell-Martin gives an outstanding performance as Esther Summerson, the young lady with a secret past and there are good turns too from Carey Mulligan (recently Oscar-nominated for An Education) and Denis Lawson.
The scenery in the series is wonderful, you really feel that you are inhabiting the narrow, dirty streets of London and Andrew Davies script is perfection - not a wasted word.
1 - Great Expectations
Could you guess that I might pick this movie, given my love of David Lean movies?
This movie begins with one of the most memorable movie scenes, a young boy accosts a fugitive and is at first afraid but then kind to him, little knowing that this prisoner, Magwitch will change his life forever.
Charles Dickens' takes our young hero on a bit of a hero's journey. He is out of his surroundings and has to make his way in the world.
Many of Dickens' novels follow this sort of path but his parade of other characters always make all of his novels different. The storytelling in this one gives us an old maid still in her wedding dress, a recluse once rejected by her beau who has been unable to move on in her life.
Miss Haversham's death by fire in this movie still has the power to shock me; David Lean has a tendency to grab audiences by the throat!
Some great performances from young actors who would become great stars in their own right, John Mills, Alec Guinness, Jean Simmons make this a good movie to watch and there is the usual expensive David Lean gloss, even in black and white. Lean's cinematography is still in its developmental phase here but it is still very watchable.
Great Expectations has been remade a number of times and was also made in a modern form in 1998 starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke but it isn't a patch on the David Lean version. It might have been more exciting if we'd seen Gwyneth and Ethan in Victorian garb but hey ho, too late now,
Well thanks for reading, this was my homage of sorts to Charles Dickens.
I am a reader and I have read some Dickens novels but I have preferred access to his storytelling through dramatisation. His stories lend themselves well to being brought to life on stage and screen, long may that continue to be the case.
Another version of Great Expectations was shown at Christmas and it was another corker; I'm guessing it won't be the last Dickens drama I will see.
In February, the earliest known Dickens character rendered to film was found and released to the public in the UK, the BBC showed the story of its discovery on March 9th, read all about it here - First Dickens Character On Film.