I have been in a vaguely Dickensian mood for the last little while, for a few reasons:
- There is a new biography of Dickens out now – I have a few of the reviews of it bookmarked but haven’t read them yet.
- I just watched the recent version of Little Dorrit (which is what I really want to talk about).
I freely admit that the main reason I wanted to watch Little Dorrit was because of Matthew Macfadyen, who I love. (He has a beautiful voice. Mmm….) But I also wanted to watch it because I like Andrew Davies as a screenwriter (more on that below), I really liked Bleak House both as a book and a film/series, and I don’t hate Dickens in general. And Matthew Macfadyen was really good – all of the acting was really good, as expected – even if Arthur’s realization of his true feelings for Amy was a bit out of the blue.
It didn’t sparkle, though. There was nothing in it that made me want to go out and actually read Little Dorrit – which, for me, is very, very unusual. When I see an adaptation of a book, I usually want to go out and read the book for myself, either because the movie was so good that I want to re-experience it through the book, or to find out if the book was as good as the movie, or to see what they changed between the book and the movie, or (if the movie was bad) to see if the book is better than the movie. This adaptation was good, but really didn’t make me want to actually read Little Dorrit. And it seemed like every other Dickens tome ever.
I use the word ‘tome’ specifically, because there are certain works of Dickens that are long, complex stories that deal with specific social issues of the early-to-mid 19th century. A Christmas Carol is very different, as is The Pickwick Papers – Christmas Carol is much shorter*, and The Pickwick Papers are really short stories or vignettes in one long collection. The others are all very, very similar. This is not news to me, but it was reinforced by watching this version of Little Dorrit and feeling like it was Bleak House but set in and around the Marshalsea instead of Chancery. I never really cared about any of the characters’ backstories – which is bad in a plot that relies so much on character history. The stock characters were flatter than I remember some of Dickens’s other stock characters being and, for the most part, were obviously only there to advance a storyline. [Signor Cavaletto was an exception to this, but I don’t know if that was the actor or the writing or both.]
I also don’t understand the concept of debtor’s prisons. If you can’t pay your bills, why was it a good idea to lock you away and keep you from working to earn money to pay your bills? The idea of Georgia or other transport makes more sense to me – put them in a situation where they have no choice but to work off their debts instead of racking up more.
Anyway, to touch on Andrew Davies’s reaction to the BBC – ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. And the comment about only doing ‘big, popular warhorses’ is kind of ironic from the guy who adapted Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, Emma, Vanity Fair, and several Dickens novels. Even if the Dickens novels aren’t the best-known ones, Dickens is by definition a ‘warhorse’. But mostly, ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. I would love it if the BBC or someone would do an adaptation of a Middle English poem – like one of the early Arthurian stories that are so full of blood and gore, or another version of the Canterbury Tales, or some of the more fantastical ones with magic, like Sir Launfal or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or even one of the ones that aren’t so commonly taught. Or go back to the early days of novels, if you must do a longer serial adaptation. Do something from the 18th century, like Evelina or Moll Flanders or something like that. Also, to go back to my earlier point, ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. The Great Gatsby is period drama. Lucky Jim can be period drama. The TV show Life on Mars – set in the 1970s – and Ashes to Ashes – its sequel in the 1980s – are period dramas. Anything not set in ‘the present day’ is a period drama. By some standards even science fiction could be considered period drama – it’s just that the period is the future. Basically, Andrew Davies, stop whining and shut up.
*A Christmas Carol is excellent. It’s my favourite Dickens book. It’s a short list – Dickens is way too wordy for me and I swear there are sentences in David Copperfield that don’t have verbs. Bleak House is mostly beautiful although falls into the trap of too many characters so that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on during the middle part. I still want to read A Tale of Two Cities one of these days, but doubt I’ll read the others without massive motivation (like having to teach it someday). But, yeah, A Christmas Carol is my favourite Dickens book. That being said, do we really need a new movie and/or TV version of A Christmas Carol every year? The story is played out. Give it a rest for a while. Please.