Dickens: From Page to Screen
By Robert Giddings
(Canadian Notes and Queries, November 1998)
Reprinted with permission of the author
Canadians have strong links with broadcasting history and with Charles Dickens. On the boat from Quebec to Montreal Dickens saw the courage and endurance of those emigrants who bravely to people Canada. He found wonderful words for them in American Notes 1842: "...far from home, houseless, indigent, wandering, weary with travel and hard living: and seeing how patiently they nursed and tended their young children...what gentle ministers of hope and faith the women were; how the men profited by their example...I felt a stronger love and honour of my kind come glowing on my heart..."
And Canadians were among the first to hear modern radio broadcasting. On Christmas Eve-a time heavily imbued with Dickensian sentiment-ships in the vicinity of Brant Rock, Massachusetts, who were used to radio communication by dots and dashes, were amazed to hear sounds of the human voice and music. They heard a message asking them, if they had heard these broadcasts, to contact Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, a Canadian engineer working at Brant Rock. The age of radio broadcasting had begun. Well, it's a truism universally uncontradicted that Dickens and the media were made for each other, so these Canadian connections are fortuitous. Canadians have never forgotten Dickens. One might mischievously add that chance might be fine thing, as the media show little sign of letting Boz alone. Like us in Britain, you in Canada continue to endure the combined onslaught of Hollywood and the BBC. This April the British had bravely to brace themselves for Tinseltown's updated Great Expectations, (with lascivious sex scenes which would send Mrs Joe on the rampage with Tickler) and this was only weeks after emerging from BBC-2's monumental Our Mutual Friend in four ninety minute episodes. We survive. Bloody but unbowed.
Thus we pay the price for the fallacy universally acknowledged that Dickens and moving pictures were made for each other. But in my view it needs to be insisted-despite these glib claims-that the genius of Dickens is essentially literary. The case presented by the media advocates is apparently simple and incontrovertible. It may be stated thus:
1. Dickens was essentially a visual author. We picture his world as we read his words.
2. Dickens's works were published in serial parts, each episode having its obligatory cliff-hanger, ("the soap operas of the day" as media blatherchat has it) therefore it must follow as the night the day, his novels were ideally suited for broadcasting serialization. And, as if it were proof positive, media folk will confidently go on to assert, that Dickens would be writing soap operas if he was alive today.
3. Dickens loved the theatre, and was influenced by it, consequently the theatrical quality of his fictions makes oven-ready as broadcast drama.
4. Dickens was a great storyteller, and media audiences today love stories.....
Well, this does all seem to build up a pretty strong case. Yet these arguments are not as bullet proof as they seem. To take these points seriatim.
1.They say he was a very visual author. Although undoubtedly true that Dickens's prose can be astonishingly and vividly visual, nevertheless this is by no means a consistent feature, and many of his most striking effects are realized by other than visual means. There is much that is not visualized, which we have to imagine for ourselves. The significant figure of Jaggers, for example. He is scarcely described and nowhere described completely. Great Expectations was published at a stage when Hablot Browne (Phiz) no longer did the illustrations. He it was who very largely put in circulation that influential graphic impression of the Dickens world. So we have no authenticated image of Jaggers, a major character in the novel. His lowering presence is nevertheless inescapable-but that is how literature works on the imagination. We create our sense of him from the fragments we get-he frequently bites the side of his finger, he has bushy eyebrows, he smells of scented soap. But many continue to circulate the assertions of the early film-makers D.W.Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein to the effect that his art was basically cinematic. It is considered enough to refer to the passage in A Christmas Carol where the last ghost's robe changes back:
"Holding up his hands in one last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom's hood and dress. It shrank, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost....Yes! and the bedpost was his own! The bed was his own, the room was his own...."
This, it is argued, demonstrates that Dickens was a film-maker before his time, and this the prototype of a film "dissolve". It is revealing to explore our attempts to accommodate Dickens to modern modes of production and consumption. Dickens stock in trade was words. Dickens was the first English novelist consistently to use symbols and images. This gives his novels not only a peculiar poetic power which haunts the imagination, and contributes to the unique quality of Dickens authorship, but it gives the novels certain individual qualities. Although Bleak House and Great Expectations are unmistakably Dickensian, they are also unmistakably different novels.
The atmosphere of Bleak House is tenebrous, musty, languid, oppressive:
"London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes-gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.... Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping.... Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights.....at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery".
Thus opens that masterpiece, Bleak House. Very visual. But typically of this author, impossible to visualise. The rich, suggestive, powerful imagery would be killed stone dead in moving pictures, as the very graphic specificness would immobilise symbolic life. Obviously the weather conditions are at once real and metaphoric. But what can film-makers do with that forty foot Megalosaurus? Writing like that outspielbergs Spielberg. And the fog is the fog of the law. Yes, OK. But how do we render in pictures the idea that the black snow-flakes are mourning the death of the sun. Impossible. But that's poetry for you. And-rather more to the point -- that's Dickens.
Great Expectations is quite different. This novel is held together with groups of contrasting images-the warmth and comfort of the fire associated with Joe and the forge, with the inhuman whiteness and cold, glistening stellar qualities of Miss Havisham and Estella, (whose name means a star )whom Pip sees as a star when she carries a candle down the stairs at Satis House, and who glistens with jewels in London society. Convicts and children are treated like animals. They talk at the Christmas table of Pip as a young squealer being slaughtered by Dunstable the butcher. Magwich eats his food like a dog. The soldiers call the convicts "wild animals". The prison hulk is likened to a "wicked Noah's ark". This is a society indifferent to human warmth and affection, where life is cheap and jewels are priceless......Dickens is a poet. His mind seems to work metaphorically. It may have come from his reading of Shakespeare. It may have been his response to the challenge and opportunities of serial publication. Symbolism and imagery might serve to give coherence and consistency to a narrative extended over weeks and months. Imaginatively suggestive imagery and symbolism of this powerful literary kind is very difficult to realise in moving pictures, whose great strength is specificness and vraisemblance. This is a basic problem in translating Dickens's imagining into film. You cannot visualize the effects of a poet.
Well, they will say, we can visualize his fictions because we can always fall back on the illustrations and contemporary photographs. But can we? Dickens did not really like all the illustrations for his books. And his books were not illustrated with photographs. Hablot Browne, who illustrated most of his early fiction, was a cartoonist by inclination, with a weakness for drawing fat or very thin characters. The tradition of film and television is realism, which goes against the grain of Dickens's fiction, which tends to the grotesque. This may explain why what we get on film or television screen is not Dickens. Browne was dropped after A Tale of Two Cities. Marcus Stone did Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend. He was a serious draughtsman, and his pictures mark a fundamental change from caricature to realism. This poses a serious problem of style. Which style should cinematographers attempt to recreate?
Well, we can always reconstruct the world of Dickens from photographic evidence. Dickens died in 1870. Most of the photographs we have of Victorian London are subsequent to this period. Never mind, we've got Gustav Dore's London. Well that also dates from after the novelist's death. When we examine things more closely, they are even more historically complicated. When is the action supposed to take place? Oliver Twist dates from after the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. Carol Reed's Oliver! has a fine routine showing a train passing Ludgate Circus, which not built at the time. The costume designs were obviously based on Mayhew's London, published in 1864. Great Expectations was written 1860-61, but when does it take place? Pip travels betwixt London and his village by coach, but by the 1860's he would have gone on the railways. In Dombey and Son 1847 Carker is killed in a railway accident on the Kent line. Magwitch was transported, but the transportation of convicts ceased in 1853. Pound notes are mentioned, but these were not in currency between 1826 and 1914. Pip as storyteller is contemporary circa 1860, but these events happened in the past. But he refers to well known prison riots which occurred in February 1861. Does Joe Gargery age between when we see him in Pip's childhood and when he visits Pip in London? Ten years may well have passed. How many Joes have you seen who have grown older by the time they embarrass Pip in posh company? Little Dorrit, it is always claimed, reflects the crises during the Crimean War 1854-56, which was in progress during its composition. But much of the action is set in the past. Dorrit is imprisoned in the Marshalsea, which actually closed in 1842. John Chivery composes his epitaph after he is rejected by Amy Dorrit: "Here lies the mortal remains of JOHN CHIVERY, Never anything worth mentioning, Who died about the end of the year one thousand eight hundred and twenty-six, Of a broken heart...." But the suicide of Merdle the swindler obviously shadows forth the death of John Sadleir MP, who committed suicide in 1856 after the failure of his Tipperary Bank.
2. Then there is the parrot cry from media people that as Dickens's fiction was serialized then it make ideal material for broadcasting as serial drama. But the fact is this would only make sense if the broadcasters serialized Dickens in exactly the same instalments as when the works were first published as texts, either in weekly or monthly parts, more often than not over eighteen months. This does not happen. In broadcast versions the fiction is carved up and rearranged to suit the requirements of weekly schedules and cast in the required number of broadcast episodes. The acclaimed cliff-hangers, hooks and development we hear so much about in these arguments are abandoned in the adaptation, dramatization and production. And as part of the self same media production processes much is removed (often with rather less than surgical delicacy) including whole characters-Podsnap disappeared totally from Our Mutual Friend. And while we are on this Dickens-is-ideal-for-broadcasting-serialization-because-his-works-were serialized argument, it must be said that exactly the same argument would apply to the novels of Bulwer Lytton, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, Harrison Ainsworth, William Makepeace Thackeray and others-whose work was also serialized. In fact, as any schoolboy knows, the serialization of fiction was a standard method of literary production in the mid 19th century. It ended only with the growth of monopoly capitalism in the publishing industry towards the end of the Victorian period. Its demise was indicated with the growth of organised labour (founding of the Society of Authors in 1883); the decline of the library market (Mudie's circulating library took no more three decker novels after 1894); control of the market (the Association of Booksellers of Great Britain and Ireland and the Publishers Association were founded 1895 and the Net Book Agreement established in 1899, and by 1914 included fiction). No, Dickens has always provided suitable material for translation to stage, radio, film and television for reasons wholly other than the fact that his works were serialized. If it were serialization alone that did the trick, then there would have been an endless floodtide of 19th century fiction. The fact of the matter is that Dickens-for a combination of reasons-made an immediate, wide ranging and lasting impact on the imagination.
His characters and stories-the whole Dickensian mythology -- rapidly became part of the permanent fixtures, fittings and furniture of our popular culture. The fact that 'Dickensian' exists as an English adjective rather supports this claim. And despite all the fluctuations of fashionable, intellectual or academic taste, people have always taken Dickens in regular and large doses.
Charles Dickens, in his 'Boz' days, was able successfully to launch himself on the swelling tide of popular printing, publishing and the increase in popular literacy. Ordinary people were taught to read in very large numbers by the Sunday School movement long before national legislators manifested sufficient interest to pass the Education Act in 1870. During the same period there were developments in the technology of literary production and an increasing market as a result of rapid developments in transport.
Additionally Dickens possessed from the earliest days of his authorship an ability to perceive and exploit current trends in taste and fashion. This meant right from the start, Dickens was more that just a literary phenomenon. His stories were adapted for the stage as soon as they appeared in print. He was a public figure, associated with social and political reform -- poor relief, education, saving fallen women, supporting ragged schools, literary charities, the treatment of lunatics etc.-in his fiction, by personally taking part in reforming efforts and by constantly speaking on public platforms. He acted on stage both privately and for the public as well as before royalty. He was a journalist and a public performer of his own works. His image, characters from his novels, jokes and puns about his name, personality and fiction became, from the very first, absorbed into popular discourse in advertising copy and iconography. "Blow me if that ain't Charles Dickens!" shouted a young boy recognising him in the crowd in rural Wales. Change the name to other popular writers-Bulwer Lytton, J.P.R.James, Harrison Ainsworth-and the point is immediately made. Dickens completely entered the bloodstream of our national culture at a very early stage, long before newspaper photographs turned people into celebrities. His death eclipsed the "harmless gaiety of nations".
This supra-literary immortality continued into the twentieth century. Bransby Williams, a professional actor and music hall performer, "did" his characters on stage for years and made more than a tidy living. Victorian and Edwardian stage productions, Christmas cards, films, radio serials, cigarette cards, Emlyn Williams' readings, musical shows, stage adaptations at the Royal Shakespeare Company, BBC TV classic serializations, endless paper-back editions of his works, his face on our very national currency-Charles Dickens cannot be assessed simply and solely as a novelist. He is undeniably so much more. Dickens means so much more than the sum total of his writing. His reputation was always furthered by his vitality in other aspects of our national and popular culture. He has achieved mythological stature in the national consciousness, and his characters continue to be universally recognisable. Consequently his works continue to be recycled by modern means of communication. To develop Clausewitz's dictum about war as the continuation of diplomacy by other means. what we have in the case of Dickens and the mead is the continuation of literature by other means.
3. Then we come to the familiar argument of Dickens's theatricality. Well, yes, it is certainly true that Dickens was keen on the theatre. As Sairey Gamp would say, "there's no denigin' of it". As a young wooer, Dickens wanted to impress Maria Beadnell by becoming an actor. He told his biographer, John Forster, that he was keen on the theatre, and went to the theatre nearly every night. He was even given an audition before Charles Kemble and Charles Mathews. However, on the day Charles had a very bad cold and wrote saying he was unable to come but would make another appointment. He never lost his love of the theatre and acting, and became a dazzlingly successful amateur actor and a mesmerising reader/performer of his own works in later life. But the theatricality is a disadvantage as far as making broadcast drama is concerned, as he so easily lapses into barnstorming melodrama in a way wholly inappropriate to the norms of today's television drama. Similarly, his pathos easily spills into mawkish sentimentality in ways far removed from modern broadcast dramatic style. There are problems in the dialogue which may pass muster on the page, but pose severe problems to media thespians. It frequently requires wholesale rewriting. The fiction is frankly not congenial to modern media narrative. Refresh your memory. Here is Rosa Dartle in David Copperfield at full cry, having heard of the liaison between Em'ly and Steerforth :
"I know that James Steerforth has a false, corrupt heart, and is a traitor. But what need I know or care about this fellow, and his common niece? .... I would trample on them all....I would have his house pulled down. I would have her branded on her face, drest in rags, and cast out in the streets to starve. If I had the power to sit in judgement on her, I would see it done. See it done? I would do it! I detest her. If ever I could reproach her with her infamous condition, I would go anywhere to do so. If I could hunt her to her grave, I would. If there was any word of comfort that would be a solace to her in her dying hour, and only I possessed it, I wouldn't part with it for life itself ".
This would not come easily from the mouth of a modern actress, nor would it sound congenial to modern television audiences. Those very qualities which Dickens obviously drew from his theatrical experiences actively work against their suitability for modern media dramatization. I'm not saying it can't be done, what I am saying is that the translation of Dickens's dialogue from page to television screen is by no means as easy as is frequently claimed.
4. Then there is the argument about storytelling. Yes, it is true, Dickens is a wonderful teller of marvellous stories. But you need to examine the nature of these stories, and the way he tells them. This brings us to the vexing question of narrative and verbal texture. What you get in these dramatizations may sound (at times) like Dickens. It may even look like Dickens. But Dickens it isn't. The overwhelmingly important thing is not the stories Dickens tells, but the way Dickens tells stories. It is a matter of verbal texture and point of view. This cannot be realized on screen. Many of the masterstrokes are achieved in words and can only be achieved by words-on the page and in the imagination.
Take Cornelia Blimber, who teaches poor young Paul Dombey his classics: "There was no light nonsense about Miss Blimber. She was dry and sandy with working in the graves of deceased languages. None of your live languages for Miss Blimber. They must dead-stone dead-and then Miss Blimber dug them up like a ghoul". When she attends Mr Dombey's wedding to Edith, Dickens says she looked resplendent "in a new pair of spectacles". When Bitzer arrests young Tom Gradgrind, the boy's broken father asks: "Bitzer, have you a heart?" And his former star pupil "smiles at the oddity of the question". No actor in the world can convey the poignant irony of this moment. Or there is Pip's stolen piece of bread-and-butter: "Conscience is a dreadful thing when it accuses man or boy; but when, in the case of a boy, that secret burden co-operates with another secret burden down the leg of his trousers, it is ... a great punishment". How could that be captured on film?
This brings us to a very seriously casualty, Dickens's comedy From the evidence of films and television it is frequently hard to credit that Dickens is one of the world's great masters of the comic. We have the impression that the Victorians were a miserable bunch. This may in large part be the result of those unsmiling time-exposure photographs, but we do approach Dickens somewhat solemnly. Pickwick Papers is one of the nation's supreme comic masterpieces, but much of the comedy arises not from the action-mistaken identities, confusion over bedrooms, false accusations of breach of promise and the like-but from the way things are narrated or described. Benjamin Allen asks Pickwick: "I say, old boy, where do you hang out?" and "Mr Pickwick replied that he was at present suspended at the George and Vulture". Comedy of this kind is untranslatable. No actor on earth could recreate the unctuousness of Pecksniff, given us in Dickens's matchless prose:
"It would be no description of Mr Pecksniff's gentleness of manner to adopt the common parlance, and say, that he looked at this moment as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. He rather looked as if any quantity might have been made out of him, by churning the milk of human kindness, as it spouted upwards from his heart". (Martin Chuzzlewit, Chapter 3)
Then there is Vholes, the sinister lawyer in Bleak House, who takes off his close black gloves "as if he were skinning himself" It is said that as his long thin shadow on the outside of the coach, passes over all the sunny landscape, it chills the seed in the ground as it glides along. This verbal felicity enables Dickens to be melodramatic and comic at the same time. When Marley's portentous ghost appears before Scrooge, his body is transparent, so that Scrooge "could see the two buttons on his coat behind" and "Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now". Dickens tells you that Wemmick did not so much eat his food as post it. How can you televise that? He makes you see things exactly as the characters he has created see things. But can we reasonably expect performers to recreate these visualizations? David in love with Dora sees her thus:
"I don't remember who was there, except Dora. I have not the least idea what we had for dinner, besides Dora. My impression is, that I dined off Dora entirely, and sent away half a dozen plates untouched. I sat next to her. I talked to her. She had the most delightful little voice, the gayest little laugh. the pleasantest and most fascinating little ways, that ever led a lost youth into hopeless slavery. She was rather diminutive altogether. So much the more precious, I thought".
The picture is sketched with exquisite detail, but can it be translated into the language moving pictures? Such is the very stuff of Dickens's genius, and it does not easily lend itself to realisation on screen. These are not bits of nourishing meat in a rich sauce. The meat and the sauce comprise a masterpiece. It is not the case that there are bits of comic or melodramatic action preserved in the aspic of Dickens's prose. The action and the prose in which it is embedded are one and inseparable, and have a life of their own which is uniquely literary:
"It was a numerous company, eighteen or twenty perhaps. Of these some five or six were ladies, who sat wedged together in a little phalanx by themselves. All the knives and forks were working away at a rate that was quite alarming; very few words were spoken; and everybody seemed to eat his utmost in self-defence, as if a famine were expected to set in before breakfast time tomorrow morning, and it had become high time to assert the first law of nature. The poultry, which may perhaps be considered to have formed the staple of the entertainment-for there was a turkey at the top, a pair of ducks at the bottom, and two fowls in the middle-disappeared as rapidly as if every bird had the use of its wings, and had flown in desperation down a human throat. The oysters, stewed and pickled, leaped from their capacious reservoirs, and slid by scores into the mouths of the assembly. The sharpest pickles vanished, whole cucumbers at once, like sugar plums, and no man winked an eye. Great heaps of indigestible matter melted away as ice before the sun. It was a solemn and awful thing to see. Dyspeptic individuals bolted their food in wedges; feeding, not themselves, but broods of nightmares, who were continually standing at livery within them...." (Martin Chuzzlewit, Chapter 16)
This is a comic scene, whose comicality comes to life only as we read it in his words. The scene is comic not only for what is depicted, but for being constructed in our imaginations through the extraordinary comic perspectives set up in the language, and the numerous ideas and associations conjured up. The idea of mortal conflict is suggested by the term phalanx, which is further developed in the idea of self-defence and human preservation in asserting the first law of nature. The conceit of the slaughtered and cooked birds having a life of their own, and taking flight down human throats is an enchanting touch, climaxing in the sublimely ridiculous suggestion that they flew in desperation. The humour becomes ghoulish with the idea of nightmares standing in livery in the guests' overloaded insides. The scene could be recreated visually in action in film or television terms, but devoid of its authorial voice, its comedy would be wholly different in kind. And that is the basic problem. Dickens stock in trade was words. He thought in words. He created and describes his world in words. His imagining will not really survive the translation into the language of film or broadcasting. Those who glibly assert, as I have heard the Literary Editor of The Guardian assert, "if Dickens were alive today he would be writing soap operas" ('Not as Good as the Book', Channel Four Television 1997) know very little about the nature of modern soap operas and even less about Dickens. But he would certainly give the Booker Prize finalists a taste of competition.
The claim for cinematic qualities simply lacks evidence. The zest seems to evaporate in film makers' hands. Nice sets, period costumes, and character actors working very hard for their money (sometimes, indeed, rather too hard) but to what minimal effect? But making them, and indeed going to see them, and speaking highly of them, seems to be a British quasi-religious ritual. The media have succeeded in creating a literary equivalent for Easy-Listening-the Beethoven Nine done by the James Last Orchestra.
There seems to be a failure of nerve when the media undertake filming or televising Dickens. Instead of using their means of production to tell us what Dickens wanted us to tell us, they settle for marketing something which is perceived as "Dickensian". This results, I believe, from confused ambitions. In aiming for literary, dramatic realization is often muffled. Like a surgeon hesitating to cut too deeply into a relative, they do not go in and get to the guts of the thing. That was what was so impressive about the BBC's version of the million word novel Clarissa. David Nokes (an academic expert in 18th century literature, as well as a distinguished writer for television) removed the living essentials of Samuel Richardson's masterpiece, and used television to tell Clarissa's story. It made gripping television drama. Whole sections of the recent Our Mutual Friend took on a life of their own-some scenes lasted over six minutes (very unusual in television drama) but you were glued to it.
There is no reason, no defensible aesthetic principle, why translating a novel into another medium should be considered trivialising it. Television is a language, with its own way of telling you things. It could be used to say a great deal what Dickens felt needed saying. Dickens's novels could be made into wonderful television drama (and indeed, several of them have they have). We should accept this in much the same way as we readily accept the fact that in the hands of a genius such as Verdi, several plays by Shakespeare, Dumas and Schiller have been made into wonderful Italian operas. Yet don't often hear conversations such as this: "Did you see 'Othello' last night?" "No. I prefer to read the story in Giraldi Cinthio's 'Hecatommi' actually..." But in recent years there have been hopeful signs -- recent BBC productions as Clarissa, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice and Our Mutual Friend are very encouraging and reassuring symptoms. Too often, in the past, by failing to go the whole hog, by straining to be loyal to something perceived as literary quality, many adaptations simply failed to come to life. This reveals a great deal about class, education and the production and consumption of culture. The imperatives of capitalism and cultural imperialism cause a packaging of the classics which renders them lifeless. They are not past masterpieces brought to life, but classics lying in state. Apparently, they sell well abroad-especially in the USA and the old colonial countries. But we should stop thinking "Dickensian" and start thinking Dickens.
Robert Giddings teaches in the School of Media Arts and Communications at Bournemouth University, Poole, Dorset