Charles Dickens is, without doubt, one of the world’s best-loved writers. He was a literary genius, the greatest novelist of the Victorian era, a keen social critic, and a very popular entertainer.
His novels made a huge impact through their wit, passion and unforgettable characters. Think of The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, and A Tale of Two Cities, books which have retained their relevance and all have been filmed a number of times.
I have watched every single book-to-short-film adaptation available on DVD, countless times, so I thought I would share a list of some fantastic viewing. If you haven’t already seen any of these classic adaptations, you are truly missing out. It is a challenge to pick a favourite but the ones that really stand out for me, personally, are Bleak House, Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol.
Bleak House is one of my favourite Charles Dickens novels. The novel has many characters and several sub-plots, and the story is told partly by the novel’s heroine, Esther Summerson, and partly by an omniscient narrator. At the centre of Bleak House is a long-running legal case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which came about because someone wrote several conflicting wills. Dickens uses this case to satirise the English judicial system. Though the legal profession criticised Dickens’ satire as exaggerated, this novel helped support a judicial reform movement, which culminated in the enactment of legal reform in the 1870s. This BBC adaptation stars Gillian Anderson, Patrick Kennedy, Denis Lawson, Natalie Press, Liza Tarbuck.
The novel is set in Kent and London in the early to mid-19th century and contains some of Dickens’s most memorable scenes, including the opening in a graveyard, orphan Pip has a terrifying encounter with an escaped convict. Pip’s innocent act of kindness towards this man is to have far-reaching consequences for them both. Meanwhile, Miss Havisham, the reclusive owner of the grand and dilapidated Satis House, has requested Pip’s presence as a playmate to her beautiful but cold-hearted daughter, Estella. Then Pip’s life is suddenly transformed by the generosity of a secret benefactor. Pip abandons his loving home on the marshes for the life of a London gentleman, hoping to win Estella’s hand. But the encounters of his childhood are to haunt him and shape the man he becomes. This BBC adaptation stars Ray Winstone, Gillian Anderson, David Suchet, Douglas Booth.
A Christmas Carol
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol at a time when the British were examining and exploring Christmas traditions from the past, such as carols, as well as new customs such as Christmas trees. He was influenced by experiences from his own past, and from the Christmas stories of other authors. Dickens had written three Christmas stories prior to the novella, and was inspired to write the story following a visit to the Field Lane Ragged school, one of several establishments for London’s half-starved, illiterate street children. The treatment of the poor and the ability of a self-interested man redeeming himself by transforming into a more sympathetic character are the key themes of the story. A Christmas Carol has been in print since its release and is one of Charles Dicken’s most popular story. There have been several adaptations over the years but my favourite to date is the Alastair Sim version which in my opinion has not been topped.
The story centres on orphan Oliver Twist, born in a workhouse and sold into an apprenticeship with an undertaker. After escaping, Twist travels to London, where he meets “The Artful Dodger”, a member of a gang of juvenile pickpockets led by the elderly criminal, Fagin. As Oliver is drawn deeper into the dark and murky underworld, he remains unaware that the kind Mr Brownlow is searching for him, while others such as the brutal criminal Bill Sikes, the manipulative Fagin and the mysterious Mr Monks are all trying to ruin and destroy his life. This BBC adaptation stars Timothy Spall, Rob Brydon, Gregor Fisher, Edward Fox, Tom Hardy.
Many elements of the novel follow events in Dickens’s own life, and it is often considered his veiled autobiography. It was Dickens’ favourite among his own novels. In the preface to the 1867 edition, Dickens wrote, “like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.” The novel describes the journey of the protagonist David Copperfield; modeled after Dickens himself, from impoverished and miserable childhood to becoming a successful and famous author. Like some of his other novels, it contains disturbing descriptions of child abuse. This BBC adaptation stars Bob Hoskins, Thelma Barlow, Michael Elphick, Alun Armstrong, Emilia Fox.
It satirises the shortcomings of both government and society, including the institution of debtors’ prisons, where debtors were imprisoned, unable to work, until they repaid their debts. The prison in this case is the Marshalsea, where Dickens’s own father had been imprisoned. Dickens is also critical of the lack of a social safety net, the treatment and safety of industrial workers, as well the bureaucracy of the British Treasury, in the form of his fictional “Circumlocution Office”. In addition he satirises the stratification of society that results from the British class system. This BBC adaptation stars Claire Foy, Russell Tovey, Judy Parfitt, Rosie Cavaliero, Sebastian Armesto.
The Old Curiosity Shop
Little Nell Trent lives with her devoted grandfather (Jacobi) in his London shop, a magical place filled from wall to wall with dust-laden treasures. Grandfather keeps his nocturnal gambling activities a secret but is deeply in debt to the evil profiteering loan shark Quilp (Jones). When he gambles away what little money they possess, The Old Curiosity Shop is seized by Quilp as payment and Nell and her grandfather are forced to flee London and seek refuge elsewhere. On the run, and with Quilp on their tails, the pair fall in with a number of colourful characters, some friendly and some villainous. This Carnival Film adaptation stars Derek Jacobi, Toby Jones, Gina McKee, Adam Godley, Martin Freeman.
The 20-part series, created and co-written by Tony Jordan, brings characters from many Charles Dickens novels together in one Victorian London neighbourhood, as Inspector Bucket investigates the murder of Ebenezer Scrooge’s partner Jacob Marley. This BBC production stars Stephen Rea, Anton Lesser, Omid Djalili, Caroline Quentin, Pauline Collins.
The novel centres on the life and adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, a young man who must support his mother and sister after his father dies. In desperation, he turns to his uncle for help, but this only leads the family into even more of a mess. This TCF adaptation stars Charlie Hunnam, Jamie Bell, Christopher Plummer, Jim Broadbent, Anne Hathaway.
Our Mutual Friend
Our Mutual Friend, written in the years 1864–65, is the last novel completed by Charles Dickens and is one of his most sophisticated works, combining savage satire with social analysis. It centres on, in the words of critic J. Hillis Miller (quoting from the character Bella Wilfer in the book), “money, money, money, and what money can make of life.” In the opening chapters a body is found in the Thames and identified as that of John Harmon, a young man recently returned to London to receive his inheritance. Were he alive, his father’s will would require him to marry Bella Wilfer, a beautiful, mercenary girl whom he had never met. Instead, the money passes to the working-class Boffins, and the effects spread into various corners of London society. This 2Entertain adaptation stars Paul McGann, Keeley Hawes, Anna Friel, Steven Mackintosh, Peter Vaughan.