Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Dickens on Film

Interesting Arena documentary yesterday evening on film adaptations of Dickens. These have been pouring out from the earliest days of the cinematograph, and the production line is as busy as ever. The phenomenon is hardly surprising. Dickens considered himself a man of the theatre, and initially wanted to be an actor - a talent he was able to exercise in his stage readings. The novels themselves are composed of theatrical scenes and characters: somehow Dickens makes popular melodrama into high art. The programme was ingeniously made, cutting unexpectedly from one vintage clip to another, sometimes using voiced commentary, sometimes words on screen. In a clip from a lecture, novelist Angus Wilson explained that Dickens was a 'simple New Testament christian' whose novels distinguish clearly between good and evil, but also juxtapose these forces continuously. The ugly and beautiful, the demonic and angelic, constantly cohabit in the same sentences and paragraphs: Fagin and Oliver, Squeers and Smike, Quilp and Little Nell.  Film can recreate the half-real half-phantasmal world that Dickens's stories move in, and film and TV adaptations can rebuild something like the world which Dickens's readers knew but which has long gone now. For Our Mutual Friend, the Thames and its drab docklands had to be rebuilt in Cardiff. We were taken through silent treatments, early talkies, paused to admire the greats (David Lean), and thence were taken into the world of TV. This medium opened up the larger sprawling novels, which had been resistant to the compact sapce of a movie. Apparently Dickens at 5 on a Sunday afternoon was once a national institution (is there any reason why tapes of these can't be put online?). I didn't know that the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein on 'Dickens, Griffith and the Film Today' (in Film Form), praising Dickens's prescient use of montage and cutting between narrative threads to heighten mood. It's one thing to say a writer is cinematic, it's another to have it said by a genius of the cinema.