Films based on popular source material often perform well at the box office; therefore, it makes sense that Charles Dickens – one of the most iconic English language writers of all time – has drawn in his share of cinematic crowds. In a structural sense, Dickens’s work is exceptionally well suited to the medium of film. While his stories are often long, his plots are fast passed – they jump from scene to scene, from eccentric comedy to deep tragedy, much in the way of a camera’s rapid cutting.
Quintessentially British, with larger-than-life characters that leap off the page and settle in the public imagination, Dickens’s writings have kept Victorian London vividly present – almost alive – in the popular conscience and defined its depictions in media. Additionally, aside from Shakespeare and possibly Agatha Christie, Dickens has arguably created some of the most popular and culturally recognisable worlds and peoples of any English language writer. From Fagin’s delightful villainy and Madame Defarge’s baleful knitting to Miss Havisham’s wedding dress and Tiny Tim’s ‘God Bless Us, Every One’, even those who have not read every sentence know the gist of these figures.
Apart from A Christmas Carol (seemingly re-adapted at least once every decade for the big and small screens), the works of Charles Dickens have been more frequently adapted for film in the first half of the twentieth century than in recent decades. Between 1906 and 1946 there were three adaptations of Great Expectations, four of David Copperfield, five of A Tale of Two Cities, five of A Christmas Carol, and seven of Oliver Twist – five between 1912 and 1922 alone. In total, the most adapted Dickensian is (unsurprisingly) A Christmas Carol, with forty-five screen versions of varying faithfulness to the source material; Great Expectations comes second with twenty.
Continuing Scrooge’s indefatigable reign, The Man Who Invented Christmas is in cinemas this holiday season. Chronicling a young Dickens’s (Dan Stevens) writer’s block as he develops one of the most cherished holiday tales of our time, it falls after Dickens has written Oliver Twist but before he had produced the majority of his classics, including A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and his ‘favourite child’ David Copperfield. With Dickens himself currently portrayed on our screens, it is time to look back at the top five adaptations (ordered chronologically) inspired by the works themselves.
A Tale of Two Cities (1935)
This Jack Conway- and Robert Z. Leonard-directed adaptation features title cards, hammy villains, and an overdramatic score – and it holds up eighty years later. Since the story is largely centred around a love triangle, a family mystery, and the French Revolution, a larger-than-life melodrama approach ages better than expected. Ronald Coleman’s masterful portrayal of Sydney Carton, however, elevate this film beyond the standard period piece. His alcoholic lawyer, despite pining over a woman he can never have, never sinks to sentimentality or parodies romanticism; instead, he is a clear-headed cynic whose selflessness – driven by low self worth – carries the film’s emotional centre. This honesty creates a truly great tragic performance, recognisable and sympathetic to this day.
Great Expectations (1946)
David Lean’s legacy may rest on Lawrence of Arabia and his later epics, but its foundations were built on his smaller-scale 1940s pieces, where some argue he perfected his craft. Alongside Brief Encounter, his first Dickens adaptation may be one of his finest pieces – not to mention essential viewing for any Dickens devotee. Despite the fact that John Mills is far too old to be the adult Pip, the casting – from Alec Guinness making his first notable screen appearance as Herbert Pocket to Jean Simmons, picture perfect as the ice queen Estella – is superb, bringing the humanity out in each familiar character. Additionally, Lean’s superb skill in the editing room enhances the unsettling atmosphere pervading the film’s first half, from Magwitch surprising Pip in the graveyard to Miss Havisham’s Sunset Boulevard-esque abode.
Released as A Christmas Carol in the United States, this is arguably the gold standard to which all other Christmastime Dickens adaptations are compared. Calling a piece of art or film old fashioned is not always a compliment, but in the case of Scrooge, old fashioned is a treat. This is a classic tale of nostalgia, love, loss, and Christmas – a black and white Victorian setting, played straight and true to the original narrative, satisfies all nostalgic holiday cravings. At its centre is an immensely sympathetic Scrooge, humanised by Alastair Sim’s focus on the armour the famous miser has built around himself, which begins to crack as his past is explored. Sim’s touches are masterful, and much like Coleman’s Sydney Carton, this misanthrope and his redemption arc is relatable across the decades.
Starving orphans and (mostly) lovable pickpockets are always improved by some rousing ensemble numbers, broad Cockney accents, and a bloodthirsty final act – right? In the case of Lionel Bart’s musical, directed for film by Carol Reed, the answer is a resounding yes. This version is somewhat lacking in Dickens’s original social commentary and allows Fagin (more lovable and less an egregious racist stereotype here, as played by Ron Moody) to escape at the end; however, as Roger Ebert notes, an undercurrent of ‘bite and malice’ prevents full sanitisation of the titular orphan’s struggle. The result is half musical spectacular, half gritty drama. Fun fact: Oliver! is the first and only G-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar to date.
While The Muppet Christmas Carol is infinitely charming, the most inventive unorthodox adaptation of Dickens’s perennial Christmas favourite is possibly the modernised 1998 film starring Bill Murray. The plot beats of the original are worked in to a biting, clever narrative around a modern Scrooge, Frank Cross – a television executive whose relentless pursuit of success and ratings alienates those closest to him. Scrooged is not to everyone’s taste; while the characteristic change of heart is still key to the plot, an almost mean-spirited darkness pervades portions of the film. Tempering Dickens’s sentimentality with cynicism, however, heightens the unabashed joyousness of the denouement – complete with a cheesy musical finale.
It should be noted that the youngest film on the above list is 29 years old. Aside from two modernised versions of Oliver Twist, a 2002 Nicholas Nickleby, and a handful of animated adaptations of A Christmas Carol (including Robert Zemeckis’s 2009 version starring Jim Carey), a search for twenty-first century cinematic Dickens from the 1990s onwards returns few results. Two prominent exceptions are The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992 – technically before the twenty-first century, but near enough to merit a mention) and Great Expectations (2012). The former showcases the beloved puppets at their best, with Michael Caine acting Scrooge entirely sincerely despite the madcap antics around him. Even if some of the poignancy of Dickens’s original falls flat, it is a surefire holiday charmer.
The latter is no such success. While featuring a stunning cast, many strong performances (notably Holliday Grainger, Jason Flemyng, and a Robbie Coltraine/Ewan Bremner double act), this film comes across as a hollow caricature of its rich source material; the plot ticks along at a breathless pace – 128 minutes for a 500 page tome – and Helena Bonham Carter’s Miss Havisham is depicted as her usual brand of eccentric, with little of the nuance and specific cruelty that Dickens imparts. However, since this production there has not been a film crediting a Dickens tale on the big screen.
Dickens has been more often adapted for television over the past twenty years; the BBC produced a solid Bleak House in 2005 and a Dickens centennial in 2012. Additionally, the BBC have planned a series of television adaptations based on Dickens’s novels, produced by Ridley Scott, Tom Hardy, and Steve Knight. They are (unsurprisingly) starting with A Christmas Carol in 2019. With the channel’s successes with War and Peace and upcoming Pride and Prejudice and Les Misérables adaptations, it might be a natural home for future Dickensian drama. Indeed, serialised television may be a medium better suited to these old Victorian epics and melodramas, as it allows the plot and scene breathing room, the characters room for nuance, and the production less dependent on box office figures. That said, seeing a Dickens adaptation for today’s world – a world with the same levels of economic and social inequality that Dickens railed against – may be due.