Dickens in Film, Dickens as Film: Why ‘Realism’ Gives Boz a Bad Name
Written by: Jon Mee
Obviously, there have been zillions of films adapted from Dickens novels; in fact, they were a very popular subject for early films. Not only were his novels translated into films from the very beginning of cinema, but also the most exciting scenes often made for sensationalist shorts (much as he had translated the most melodramatic scenes in his public readings). There’s even an early mock-umentary – Dickens’ London (Frank Miller and Harry B Parkinson, UK, 1924, 12 mins) – that takes its viewers on a tour of Dickens sites in London that have fallen into disrepair or that have disappeared. Several of the places literally dissolve before the viewer’s eyes.
What intrigues me about the relationship between Dickens and film, though, is the light many of these adaptations throw back on the cinematic quality of the novels themselves – an issue the Soviet film maker Sergei Eisenstein drew attention to in his essay ‘Dickens, Griffiths, and the Film Today’ (1944). At one point, Eisenstein reckons he can even spot a dissolve in A Tale of Two Cities, where the tumbrils bumping Sydney Carton toward his fate on the guillotine give way to entirely different scene:
Six tumbrils roll along the streets. Change these back again to what they were, thou powerful enchanter, Time, and they shall be seen to be the carriage of absolute monarchs, the equipages of feudal nobles, the toilettes of flaring Jezebels, the churches that are not they father’s house but dens of thieves, the huts of millions of starving peasants!
Eisenstein’s essay allows us to the think about the usefulness of film vocabulary when discussing questions of point of view and narrative perspective in the novel, and, more importantly, about the way these effects work to shape the reader’s sympathies.
Take, for instance, the trial scene at the end of Oliver Twist, where initially we seem to have a removed vantage point from high in courtroom on Fagin’s trial, before it becomes apparent that we are also going to be looking out with Fagin at the eyes around the court staring at him. The novel doesn’t often give us Fagin’s point of view, but here it does develop a sense of the vulnerable individual looking at and also being subjected to hundreds of scrutinizing eyes. If not exactly woven into the narrative method of this novel more generally, which generally spares little thought for Fagin, it does alert us to the question of who is looking at whom that is constantly at issue in Dickens.
In the mature fiction, those issues are part of a constant cross-cutting of perspectives that often contributes to the sense of London as a kind of phantasmagoria, what Eisenstein called the ‘head-spinning tempo of changing impressions’. It is also one of the reasons I continue to be surprised whenever anyone discusses Dickens in terms of realism, a term that only gives him a bad name, and misses his ambition to emulate ‘thou powerful enchanter, Time’ in its work of endless conjuration. Ironically, many film and TV adaptations, perhaps right up until the recent BBC versions of Bleak House and Little Dorrit, have aimed for ‘realism’ when it comes to the task of bringing Dickens to the screen, thinking that slopping as much as mud around as possible will transport their viewers to London c. 1850, rather than aiming to use the camera, as Miller and Parkinson used it in 1924, to give us a sense of the instability and uncertainty of that rapidly changing metropolis.
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