What the Dickens


My favourite author is Charles Dickens and there have Been a number of film and TV adaptations celebrating his great work. The thing about Dickens tales are the colourful characters which must be an actors dream. You can be as over the top as you want, never underplay a character from a Dickens classic as it just won’t work. My favourite story is Great Expectations and this was turned into one of my favourite films with John Mills taking the main role. There have Been many adaptations of this classic novel but I think David Lean has Been the only director to get it right. The biggest challenge is to find Mrs Haversham and its my opinion that most are found wanting when portraying this role. It was based on a real person who spent their life in a wedding dress for the very the same reason as Mrs Haversham. Martita Hunt is the original and best in my opinion, she really brought the sadness to the character as well as the dark control that she had over Estella and Pip. I found her to be particularly haunting, watching this as a young child. Helena Bonham Carter produced a good performance, but still didn’t convince me and I felt Gillian Anderson was completely miscast in the TV series.

John Mills was again the quintessential Englishman playing Pip battling against class and the love and brutality of Estella. I am yet to see an adaptation that has displayed the juxtaposition so well between Estella and Pip. Jean Simmons was perfect as the young Estella, cruel, spiteful and way above the cumbersome Pip. I never judge people by their looks, but Estella has to be absolutely stunning for the part to work and Jean Simmons couldn’t have been cast better. You have to feel the yearning that Pip has for her and the hurt that she causes with her sharp tongue. If the actress doesn’t have the looks that will make you feel that you are a piece of dirt in comparison, then it just doesn’t work. Valerie Hobson made a smooth transition as the adult Estella and added the melancholy that her character felt as she was forced to be the ice maiden by Mrs Haversham. The recent adaptation on film was particularly good, but I never felt that the actress playing Estella understood the part and made her too nice, making the relationship between Pip and herself too easy to come by.
The film was filmed in black and white and I think many of the Dickens adaptations work better this way. Black and white really brings the drearyness and sadness out, where as colour makes the story far too happy. I think for some where there are fun and outrageous characters, then colour really works. David Copperfield is an example of this, Mr Mcawber just wouldn’t look right in black and white, nor would Betsy Trotwoid as their characters are so eccentric and colourful. The next film I will talk of is Oliver Twist, which was also filmed in black and white when David Lean took the helm.


The first images set the scene as Oliver’s mother drags herself along the dark and misty moors, battling against the winds and the rain. The trees in darkness portray fear and the emotion of loneliness. She reaches the large black iron gates and you know that this place will not bring safety and care . From this point you understand that this for the most part is not a happy story. The casting is perfect again with Alec Guiness playing the cowardly Fagin with a Jewish accent which seems more credible then the London Cockney we hear in the 60’s musical. The makeup and hair are perfectly done as Alec brings the sniveling Fagin to life. Lean is able to show how dangerous life is and life is definitely not a sing and dance. It was a dog eat dog world and the gap between rich and poor was far wider than now. Robert Newton was pure evil as Mr Sykes and even worse when desperation becomes apparent. There was nothing held back when he turns on Nancy bringing the brutality of the man to life in a horrific way. The young Oliver was pure and white and Fagins boys were just trying to get by, but the fear of Sykes definitely drove them on. There was is some comedy between Mr and Mrs Bumble when it is all too clear who the boss is in the relationship despite Mr Bumbles size. There Is also the bright shades when entering Mr Brownlows house to portray the kindness and happiness of the house. This is truly a remarkable film which I could watch time and time again.
bill sykes
The musical is also a masterpiece of song and characters. It is a different stance and more for family entertainment. Ron Moody brings Fagin to life, but shows his character to be fun, kind and misunderstood. Oliver Reed is the brooding Sykes although far less scary then Robert Newton and of course Jack Wild steels the scenes as the Artful Dodger with his Cockney accent and famous song “Consider yourself”. Mark Lester plays the young Oliver who you just want to cuddle and look after especially when singing “Where Is Love”. The scenes were amazing and the colours really brought the story to life along with the unforgettable songs and dancing. It’s amazing that the story can be shown in completely different ways, but still be absolutely amazing. You can’t help yourself as you have to sing along. This film unlike the first gives you a warm and happy feeling even though it is of course less realistic.

David Copperfield has also been adapted a number of times but I have only seen the BBC version where a very young Harry Potter, Sorry I mean Daniel Radcliffe comes to our attention as a young David. I think the BBC create amazing period dramas and I was engrossed in the story as a young child, having not yet read the book. The casting was perfect, which is essential to any film but particularly in a Dickens story. I loved Nicholas Lyndhurst ad the ever so “umble” Uriah Heep who wormed his way up the ladder. Nicholas played him so well that he actually made your skin crawl. Bob Hoskins brought the lovable rogue Micawber out of the screen and into the living room as he made you laugh and cry at the same time. Maggie Smith was dotty, eccentric, caring and a lady not to be messed with who brought fun and laughter to poor Copperfields life. It is an amazing story as are the majority of Dickens’ books. I’m never sure whether you should read the book first or vice versa, but in the case of Dickens you should definitely do both.


A Christmas Carol is part of every Christmas and many will know the story extremely well. Dickens would read this out to large audiences who were engrossed by the way he brought to life his own imagination. You have to remember that TV did not exist and many of Dickens’ books were serials and you had to wait eagerly for the next part to come out a bit like soap operas today. Again Scrooge has been played by so many and I have to admit that not a Christmas goes by without me watching the Muppets Christmas Carol. Michael Caine must have had so much fun and it really worked well with each Muppet taking a different character. Bill Murray played the modern Scrooge with funny and scary effects. The weird fairy that liked to hit and blow raspberries to the horrible grim reaper that showed the horrible future. I think this was the first adaptations I had seen of this film? Alistair Sim was another great Scrooge, this being all the more bleak because again it was filmed in black and white. The list goes on and on as so many have taken on this part, even Ross Kemp at one point.

I am a massive fan of Dickens and I encourage you to read the books, but if reading is not for you then you must watch the numerous portrayals on film and TV.


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