Magic Lantern: Dickens200

Everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens this year, (and, alarmingly, it started in the last quarter of 2011, when the occasion wasn’t until 7th February 2012), so I’m adding my bit to the blacking pot.
To start with, I’m going to put this right out there, in big shiny glowing letters. I find it very hard to read Dickens, all and any of his books. I struggled through Oliver Twist because I was reading it for a school assignment, and while I enjoyed it to a degree, I just wanted to cut through all the verbosity and get through it. Actually, so far as I can recall, that’s the only one I’ve read all the way through, the whole thing. If anything, I find it easier to watch the television adaptations of Dickens’ books than to read them, and it’s not as strange as it sounds. Dickens’ books, by their nature and the way they were written and published, are rather complicated, convoluted and meandering: characters come and go as they please, disappearing for some good many parts, only to reappear at the end (when you’ve forgotten who they are, so you have to scramble madly back through the book to find them again) to get their comeuppance or reward and be sent on their merry way again; three or more plot lines run simultaneously so you have a hard time of remembering who every one of his exquisitely drawn characters are… Because of their length, and the way they were serialized with parts appearing in monthly installments, the television series format suits them perfectly, more so than film, and it comes without the forgetting of characters and the convoluted simultaneous plotlines.

Being in Australia, the land to which Dickens sent Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations, we don’t get the number of adaptations that appear in Britain, unless they are produced by the BBC, or screen on BBC1. Which, in a way, is a good thing; it separates the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. In 2006, we saw Bleak House, which, on the whole, was well done, even if the whip-pans, editing and crash-zooms got a bit too much (and Charles Dance is incapable of playing a ‘good’ character). In 2010, two years after it aired in Britain, we saw Little Dorrit, which remains my favourite adaptation of a Dickens novel; we also saw the most recent BBC adaptation of Oliver Twist which was alright, but Timothy Spall ain’t Fagin, nor Sophie Okonedo Nancy, no matter how good an actor they both are. In 2011, I saw the BBC’s Great Expectations as it aired in Britain, and that was pretty good. Despite this, I still maintain that the best Dickens adaptation is the film of the Oliver! with Ron Moody as Fagin; there’s something about the songs which amplifies the melancholy and misery tenfold, the hummable tunes counterpointing its Dickensianness.

But I digress.

Part of the allure of Dickens is, I think, the intricacy of his plots and his characters: nothing is truly forgotten about in his novels, nor are his characters ever half-sketched; they are always fully rendered creations, their accents and mannerisms observed to a tee (in a way, he was a sort of forerunner to Henry Higgins in Pygmalion), and they come alive in front of you, as you read (or watch) them. In his own words, he declared he had a mind like a “sort of capitally prepared and highly sensitive [photographic] plate,” able to remember even the most minute of details to incorporate into his novels. Dickens himself was also an insomniac, and after a day of writing would traipse the streets of London for twenty miles or more in the wee hours of the morning. He called London his ‘magic lantern,’ his guide and illuminator, his inspiration, touchstone. For Dickens, London was a city that “within its space everything, with its opposite extreme and contradiction” held together a “thousand worlds;” (Ackroyd:1990, 169) life and death went hand-in-hand, separated by the thinnest of knife-edges, where the elasticity between debt and getting-by was always just around the corner, where opportunity and abject poverty could exist on each’s doorstep. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he wrote in the opening of A Tale of Two Cities, and he wasn’t far wrong; even now his words echo through the streets and laneways in cities across the world, daily, nightly, hourly, by the minute, and it seems that now, Dickens is London’s magic lantern: the BFI Southbank has a three-month long celebration of screen adaptations of his works; the Museum of London has a four-month long exhibition called, unsurprisingly, ‘Dickens and London;’ the BBC screened the aforementioned adaptations of Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood over the Christmas period, and no doubt other institutions will add their two cents’ worth this year, not to mention the publishing and reissuing of countless biographies and books about Boz, the Inimitable.

Like Shakespeare, perhaps Dickens belongs not to his time, nor even our time, but to all time.

Fn: For the record, the oft-quoted phrase “what the dickens” does not refer to Charles Dickens, but rather comes from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (III.2).
Reference: Ackroyd, Peter. 1990, 2002. Dickens. Vintage: London

Originally posted by me at http://thespellofwakinghours.tumblr.com/post/17983109705

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