Today, Feb. 7, 2012, is the novelist's 200th birthday, and there are an awful lot of movie and television producers who should be very, very grateful for the man's talent and output. As a body of work, Dickens' novels are as rich in incident and character (the very meat and drink of movie narrative) as those of any other half-dozen authors in English -- and there are hundreds of screen adaptations to prove it. Directors ought to be grateful, too. Dickens didn't just provide the who and what for so many movies. He helped provide the how for many, many more. As Eisenstein first pointed out, in his essay, "Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today," D.W. Griffith took the concept of cross-cutting and straight out of Dickens. Dickens also excelled at the closeup, montage, and the creation of (and reliance on) atmosphere. Throw in the very strong "optical quality" of his fiction and his special genius for colorful minor characters (try to imagine the Hollywood movie without character actors), and you have a prescription for filmmaking.
What's memorable from Dickens' novels are the characters, and what's most memorable from the movies have been certain perfect pairings of actor and part. None of the movies is as good as the novels -- which says more about the novels than about the adaptations -- not even the most celebrated ones, like the 2005 BBC "Bleak House," with Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, left, and a 20-year-old Carey Mulligan; the musical "Oliver!," which won a best picture Oscar; the two David Lean-directed adaptations from the 1940s, "Great Expectations" and "Oliver Twist"; or the 1935 "Tale of Two Cities," with Ronald Colman setting up a generation of mimics as Sydney Carton.
No, what's most Dickensian about Dickens movies is Eddie Marsan as Pancks, in the 2008 BBC "Little Dorrit" (or Roshan Seth as Pancks in the 1988 theatrical version); or Bill Murray's yuppie Scrooge Frank Cross in "Scrooged" (a movie which holds up a lot better than you might think); or John Howard Davies in the title role of Lean's "Oliver Twist" (has any child actor had a more haunting face?), with Francis L. Sullivan's simultaneously comic and terrifying Mr. Bumble and Anthony Newley's "Artful Dodger"; or "Alec Guinness' enchanting Herbert Pocket and Jean Simmons' beautiful/monstrous Estella in Lean's "Great Expectations"; or -- truly, in a realm of its own -- W.C. Fields' Micawber, left, in George Cukor's version of "David Copperfield." Few, very few, are the human beings whose flesh-and-blood reality might be said to have exceeded what the imagination of Charles Dickens was capable of coming up with. William Claude Dukenfield was one of them.
Below, Marsan, as Pancks; Davies,as Oliver Twist; Sullivan, as Bumble.
About Movie Nation
ContributorsTy Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.
Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.
Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.
Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.
Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.
Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.
Glenn Yoder is an Arts & Entertainment producer at Boston.com.
Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.
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