Dickens on screen – movie adaptations

Today I decided it was the day to sit down and immerse myself in the wonderful world of Dickens on screen. Encouraged by the success I had with The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, I was looking forward to watching David Copperfield and The Old Curiosity Shop. Perhaps I hoped too much.

DC David Copperfield (2000) started with an overly dramatic melody that seemed to try too hard to set the mood for the coming story. Having gotten a taste of the wonderful acting in Nicholas Nickleby, I was hoping for more of the same. Sadly, it was not meant to be. The acting seemed too theatrical and stiff, the characters uninspiring and after one hour I just decided to give up watching it. I couldn’t help laughing watching Michael Richards (who will forever be associated in my mind with the role of Kramer he played in Seinfeld) who just seemed odd in the role of Mr. Wilkins Micawber, as did Sally Field who portrayed Aunt Betsey Trotwood. Maybe I just picked the wrong version to watch.

OCS The Old Curiosity Shop (2007) was better. The story of young Nell and her grandfather trying to escape from the hands of the greedy creditor, Mr. Quilp, was a little more interesting. Derek Jacobi (who also played a part in Gladiator) in the role of the grandfather, and Toby Jones (acted in The Hunger Games) in the role of Quilp, were the most interesting characters to watch. Extra points go to the latter for giving an excellent performance of a greedy, disgusting, manipulative character.

After watching two and a half (well, almost half) movies based on Charles Dickens’s novels, to which I can add Great Expectations (even if that was years ago), it all seems like a formula to me: a funeral, a wedding, a chief villain, suffering children, the mysterious benefactor and various kind hearted characters here and there. There is the forever bleak London in which gray seems to be the predominant color, the persistent mud, and the accent which can be a challenge to understand at times.

Great Expectations is the only Dickens novel I have read so far. I remember watching the movie (the 1998 version starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow), thinking it was great, then reading the book and thinking the movie was awful by comparison, then watching the movie again years later and thinking it wasn’t too bad. Mrs. Havisham (or Ms. Dinsmoor in this version) was by far my favorite character. Apart from her brilliant performance, what I remember most from it was the dusty, desolate house and one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard in a movie. That song is imprinted in my memory – it still gives me goose bumps when I listen to it.
Perhaps it’s too hard to expect from a movie the same depth of feeling a book can give, the emotions, the carefully placed words that can mean so much in a story. Perhaps it calls for a deeper understanding of Dickens’ fictional world to fully appreciate the movie. Perhaps one day, after reading the books and watching the movies again, I will be able to see them with different eyes. Perhaps. As of today, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and Great Expectations remain my favorites.

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14 Responses to Dickens on screen – movie adaptations

  1. Vishy says:

    Wonderful review, Delia! Sorry to know that you didn’t like the movie version of ‘David Copperfield’ much. I have an old movie version (1935) of ‘David Copperfield’ directed by George Cukor. I am hoping to watch it soon. Glad to know that you liked ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ and ‘Great Expectations’. I found it interesting what you said about a typical Dickens novel – how it had formulaic elements. I guess that is true. I found the same thing about Jane Austen too. Thanks for this wonderful review!

    • Delia says:

      Maybe I should watch the 1935 version. I haven’t read many Dickens novels, only one in fact, but the movies I’ve seen seem to have this formula. Then again, maybe I need some time between the movies to fully appreciate them.
      David Copperfield is 3 hours long! Maybe if it was shorter I would have watched it all.
      I’d like to read more books by Jane Austen because Emma didn’t leave a very good impression. Did you like her books?

      • Vishy says:

        I liked what you said about having time between movies. I agree with you. On Jane Austen books – I have read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ a few times and I liked it very much though the re-readings didn’t create as strong an impression as my first read. I have also seen the movie version of ‘Mansfield Park’ and liked it very much. Hope to read the book sometime.

        • Delia says:

          There aren’t that many books I would re-read a few times. Pride and Prejudice must have been quite the book! 🙂
          I have seen a few adaptations of Austen’s novels and liked them a lot, as for the books…maybe someday.

  2. Priya says:

    I just finished reading The Old Curiosity Shop, can’t wait to watch the movie. I haven’t read many Dickens or seen any movies, except Oliver Twist, which I saw recently – so I don’t quite know what to expect. Also, having heard that there are many adaptations, I am not sure which ones to look for. I guess I’ll start with these 🙂

    • Delia says:

      Great, I’ll come visit to read your review.
      That’s the problem with having so many versions to choose from, you never know which one you’re going to like until you try and watch them. If you get to watch the movie based on The Old Curiosity Shop, it would be interesting to know how it compares with the book.

  3. Caroline says:

    I’m really looking forward to rewatching Great Expectations. I saw it a long time ago and loved it but now that I’ve read the book. I think I liked the colors very much. I remember them to have been very strong.
    I want to hear that song now!
    Too bad the others were not that good but there are still so many versions to discover.

    • Delia says:

      Great, I’d like to see what you make of it now that you’ve read the book.
      That song is beautiful, isn’t it…
      That’s true, there are so many versions to choose from, and soon there will be a new adaptation of Great Expectations. I look forward to seeing Ralph Fiennes in the role of Magwitch.

  4. TBM says:

    Great Expectations is one of my favorite novels. When I saw the Ethan Hawke version I was surprised by how much I liked the movie since it obviously strays from Dickens’ novel. Sometimes you can’t compare apples and oranges and have to appreciate them separately.

    • Delia says:

      Some adaptations from novels are that good that even if they don’t follow the book religiously, you still end up enjoying the movie. I give a lot of credit to the actors (and the music, too), I think they really brought the characters to life and made the movie a pleasure to watch.
      I was a little disappointed in the movie when I read the book, but then I realized it was a very good adaptation and what matters is how you feel at the end of it, and not that the movie follows the book to the letter. Apples and oranges, I like them both. 🙂

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  6. Rachel says:

    It’s good to hear you liked the movie of Old Curiosity Shop. I read the book last month, but wasn’t able to watch the movie. I know there are several versions. I’ll try to look this version up in February for Fanda’s Dickens celebration. 🙂

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