Monday, June 26, 2017

The Best Dickens You've Never Seen

I've been thrilled lately to find that my three youngest daughters actually enjoy watching Dickens with me, so I'm taking advantage of it whenever possible.  Over the last month or so we've done David Copperfield (BBC version with Daniel Radcliffe), Great Expectations (BBC version with Gillian Anderson), Oliver Twist (BBC version with Tom Hardy), and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (a BBC version where they finished it).  You might notice the "BBC" theme in that list...I find that I almost always enjoy their versions better than bigger budget Hollywood versions, and that includes non-Dickens material, like the long Pride and Prejudice version with Colin Firth that we also watched recently, happily choosing it over the shorter theatrical one.  I'd like to write some things about that great classic sometime, but the Dickens' story we watched this past weekend is the most fresh in my mind right now...

Some observations about the 2009 BBC version of The Old Curiosity Shop, in no particular order:

  • There are only 31 reviews of the movie on, so apparently it is relatively unknown among the Dickens film corpus.  Which is a shame, because I think it's great!  But that's one of the purposes of this blog--to introduce others to some "lost treasures" I've had the privilege of finding.
  • Toby Jones chews some major scenery (and a hard-boiled egg, shell and all) as the villainous Mr. Quilp, whose evil comes back on his over-sized head, of course (this is Dickens, after all).
  • Terrific casting for the lesser characters (like a pre-Hobbit Martin Freeman as an opportunistic puppeteer) and nice little touches like Sally Brass's slightly visible mustache.
  • Speaking of casting, one of the reasons I like the TV versions better is that Hollywood would have cast actors for Little Nell and Jacob that are as attractive as supermodels, but the ones here--though not unattractive--actually look like real people.  It's less distracting and more involving.
  • The scenery and set design are so beautiful... I love the rich warm colors in most of these British period pieces, and in almost every scene of many of them.  The Old Curiosity Shop was particularly beautiful to look at, from the bustling city and town streets to the English countryside, with the darkly symbolic but gorgeous snow in the later scenes.
  • The 90-minute run time of this adaptation was welcome, because it's nice to have a Dickens experience that don't last over six hours like Bleak House and Little Dorrit (great as they are), and this particular novel is one that actually benefits from some streamlining.

I personally liked the changes the writers made in the story (mostly for streamlining purposes, and to reach an emotional payoff in a shorter time), but I'm glad they didn't remove the themes of the gravity of sin and the glory of redemption, which were central to Dickens.  Nor did they shy away (as Bleak House and Little Dorrit unfortunately did) from the overt references to those gospel truths and their Divine Source.  In the novel, the guilty grandfather says after his repentance, "Aye! Thank God! I have prayed to Him, many, and many, and many a livelong night, when she has been asleep.  He knows."  And when he follows Little Nell into the next life, his body is laid "in the church where they had often prayed."  In the movie, there is less time to develop Dickens' powerful illustrations of human redemption, but they are still captured well by the writers in climactic moments that combine together disparate events in the longer novel.

When the Grandfather finally comes to his senses and sees the destructiveness of his addiction, he cries out "Forgive me!" to an unconscious Nell and then adds under his breath, "God forgive me."  Then later when she is awake but dying, she graciously volunteers "I forgive you" before he even begins to seek it from her, providing for us a picture of initiatory sovereign grace, even as her death itself echoes the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ by serving as the efficient cause of the personal redemption of her Grandfather, and others as well.  Even the gradual conversion of the careless Dick Swiveller occurs according to biblical principles--he is won over by the character of a good humble woman and a call to a cause greater than himself.

Speaking of biblical themes, I was fascinated in perusing the novel after watching the movie to find a section in which Dickens comments briefly on an idea that he explored later in much more depth in his novella The Haunted Man, which is that even the greatest evils in this world (like the death of an innocent) ultimately have good purposes in God's plan.  (Perhaps this was also a lovingly ironic stab at his readers, many of whom had complained bitterly at his decision to let the dear girl die.)  So I'll leave you with this favorite paragraph from the book, in which Dickens philosophizes after he recounts Little Nell's funeral and says that the mourners had "with tranquil and submissive hearts turned away, and left the child with God...."

"Oh! it is hard to take to heart the lesson that such deaths will teach, but let no man reject it, for it is one that all must learn, and is a mighty, universal Truth. When Death strikes down the innocent and young, for every fragile form from which he lets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in shapes of mercy, charity, and love, to walk the world, and bless it. Of every tear that sorrowing mortals shed on such green graves, some good is born, some gentler nature comes. In the Destroyer’s steps there spring up bright creations that defy his power, and his dark path becomes a way of light to Heaven."

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