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Why Tolkien should make room for Dickens

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Why we should look beyond Ebeneezer Scrooge for magic and awe in cinematic adaptations of Dickens...

The worlds of Charles Dickens

I have a dream. It's an old dream, and probably not likely to become reality soon, if ever; but I cherish it enough to share it with those of you who may share my love of Victoriana in general and the work of Charles Dickens in particular.

Just once, I would like to see the vast and genuinely alien realms of the Victorian age given the same care and attention in movies that the rustic environments of Tolkien have enjoyed - and, with the forthcoming Hobbit movies, will continue to enjoy - over the past decade. If I concentrate on the works of Dickens in this regard, it's because I am a fan, and because these works have not only become iconographic in regards to the modern conception of the 19th century, but also share with Tolkien and other fantasy authors a truly unique and surreal flavour. And this combines with extraordinary and bold characters so sublimely as to make works like Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend practically 'fantasy' novels - at least in terms of atmosphere.

And a rich fantasy it is:

"LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun." - Bleak House, opening paragraph, March 1852

Only the Londoner who truly despises Dickens can fail to be moved by and empathise with the writer's persistent love-hate relationship with what was the most important city on Earth, a city of visual and ideological contrasts, abutting in extraordinary proximity rich and poor, old and new (where even what was new now speaks to us of bygone ages and a 'fallen empire') - vigour and an extraordinary obsession with death.

It has occurred to me more and more to write of the problems of depicting Victorian London over the last few years of acquainting myself with a broad variety of Dickens adaptations, and also after the tantalising disappointment of watching Derek Jacobi search in vain for Charles Dickens' England.

For it is gone. And neither the advent of the Blitz nor the blast-wave of urban redevelopment from the 1980s onwards are primarily to blame; more that vigorous 19th-century London - ever a city in kit-form, which has worn a mantle of scaffolding as a permanent uniform for a thousand years - blew away the rigid edifices and environments which Dickens wrote of almost as soon as he had made wider audiences aware of them. Change was London's only reliable continuity.

By the time Dickens came to exorcise the demons of his father's imprisonment at the Marshalsea, the grimy confines of that infamous debtors' jail had been decommissioned, after more than 500 years. Even in the preface to Little Dorrit, Dickens, still with fifteen years of life yet before him, summons up the very ghosts of lost architecture and untold stories which make a committed adaptation of his works such an appealing prospect now, as he recounts his return to the scene of his childhood anguish:

"... I found the older and smaller wall, which used to enclose the pent-up inner prison where nobody was put, except for ceremony. But, whosoever goes into Marshalsea Place, turning out of Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey, will find his feet on the very paving-stones of the extinct Marshalsea jail; will see its narrow yard to the right and to the left, very little altered if at all, except that the walls were lowered when the place got free; will look upon rooms in which the debtors lived; and will stand among the crowding ghosts of many miserable years."

Marshalsea prisonNostalgia - if that is the right word for such painful memories - upon nostalgia. Here Dickens views a defunct institution not as the Victorian figure we see from a modern perspective, but as a prominent citizen in a rapidly evolving metropolis housing the centre of a culture obsessed with the new, and determined to replace or improve the old. A culture which not only shared our own fascination with new technologies but had the wealth and energy to occupy a place at the very centre of their evolution and development.

Just as our roads are dug up for new internet and communications infrastructure, vast tracts of London were in Dickens' time transformed by the hugely disruptive cut-and-cover operations that instituted the truly science-fictional London Underground train system, the new and much-needed London sewer system, the conversion of street lighting from oil to gas to electricity, the communications transformation wrought by the advent of the telegraph and the impressive structures made possible by a home-grown fund of talent, ingenuity and resources in the fields of architecture and engineering.

And that's not even considering the diminution of distances made possible by the mania to connect the country via a new rail system. What do we have by comparison, in the form of iPhones and cloud computing, that can compare to the violent, world-shrinking technological transformations of Victorian culture?

On the one hand, there is an atavistic and morbid visual fascination for the city which could host intolerably squalid environments, the scandalous existence of which no modern government could survive, and a level of lavish development for which no modern, post-imperial government could ever find the money; it was a time of horror as well as wonder...

"...What sewers existed were already falling apart, and many of them simply emptied into areas known as "cess lakes". Gutters in the middle of the street were used as avenues for excrement and urine to run until they were stopped up in a court or alley...the soil of London was literally sodden with filth of all descriptions.."

"One report noted that in Clement's Lane there was no less than four graveyards where "the living breathe on all sides an atmosphere impregnated with the odour of the dead"...It was common for those who worked among the tombs literally to pick up pieces of the overflowing dead and burn them...One graveyard worker reported that "I have been up to my knees in human flesh by jumping on the bodies so as to cram them into the least possible space at the bottom of the graves in which fresh bodies were afterwards placed."

"...We have here glimpses of an urban life which is so alien to us as to appear almost incredible; but which for Dickens and his contemporaries was both common and familiar".

- 'Dickens', Peter Ackroyd, 1990, p.383-385

...and on the other hand there remains an admiration, however grudging it might be in the light of post-imperial criticism, for the tremendous accomplishments of an empire that could excuse its sins - at least temporarily - with staggering feats of technology that hypnotised and enthralled even the oppressed masses of the era. Rich and poor alike flocked both to Joseph Paxton's original 'Crystal Palace' for the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1951 and to its even more architecturally-impressive successor at Sydenham from 1853 until its destruction by fire in 1936.

The interior of the Great Exhibition at Hyde Park

I come from Sydenham originally, and spent many an afternoon of my youth trailing about the few remnants of the Crystal Palace, and studying the history of it - the scale of it*. And wondering what an impression it might make if it could be recreated for the big screen. To my knowledge, this has only occurred once, with a none-too-convincing background model for Michael Crichton's otherwise enjoyable 1979 Victorian romp The First Great Train Robbery.

The fire of the Crystal Palace in 1936

Both internally and externally, the Crystal Palace is a staggering environment, the cinematic rendition of which would tax the likes of Weta Digital or ILM to their limits if it was to be used as a backdrop in a story, rather than briefly seen as some kind of 'hero shot' to establish place. Though recreated a number of times 'in spirit', the sheer vainglory of this structure has proved beyond the means, or will, of modern imitators to equal.

As for CGI, the nearest this extraordinary Victorian folly has come to a digital recreation is in a short-lived project from the The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia, which provides us with these rather stark and soulless representations:

Palace exterior:
Palace interior:

Above I mention the use of VFX 'establishing shots' to set place - and these, of course, are the curse of the inevitably-underfunded period adaptation - and apply more to adaptations of Dickens than any other writer, since he remains ahead of Arthur Conan Doyle as the most-filmed novelist of the Victorian age.

Victorian LondonThe truth is that virtually nothing remains of Dickensian London in any era of the author's life, besides the hoary and over-used vista of Big Ben and the Houses Of Parliament. Production companies that determine to film Dickens either find themselves digitally removing satellite dishes from the rooves of areas in provincial Britain which are drafted into (unconvincing) service as London streets, or else discover that they must create the Dickensian world almost from scratch, to a level of detail only equalled by the fantastic vistas of the Star Wars prequels. Dickens was a chronicler of the urban, and recreating the vast and awful vistas he wrote is at least tantamount to the challenge of creating San Angeles in Blade Runner. New Zealand cannot help, because these are not tales of the forest. And there is nowhere in cheap-to-rent Eastern Europe that can 'stand in' for Victorian London, or even come remotely close, despite some of the better efforts in the richly-atmospheric From Hell (2001).

The BBC, of course, have built up a large stockpile of apparel and detritus from decades of Dickens adaptations, which inevitably get pressed into service for the latest - but this economy doesn't begin to approach the problem of bringing to life the sheer atmosphere of Dickens best work, particularly within the restricted means of a TV serial.

The acceptable face of VictorianaDickens himself was no stranger to reductionism in 'Dickens adaptations'. He knew from the experience of adapting his novels for his hugely-popular stage readings, that it is perfectly possible to remove all the surrounding embellishment from one of his works and still be left with a strong and compelling story. And this is fine for the most operatic of his works, such as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, full as they are of Gothic spectacle and sensationalist narrative. But it is ill-suited for the more richly atmospheric novels such as Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, which paint such a vast and hypnotising landscape of London in such a multi-layered and intricately-conceived series of tableaux, that to merely extract the characters and zoom in close on them (in order to avoid catching the Starbucks that is about six inches to the left of the actress's head) gives the viewer very little idea of what makes these novels magical and compelling re-reads for their fans.

Perhaps the best chance there has been in recent years to recreate Victorian London on the scale it truly requires, has passed by without fruit in 2005. When Steven Spielberg decided, perhaps inevitably, to remount H.G. Wells'  War Of The Worlds in modern America, the woefully underfunded Pendragon Pictures released a 'faithful' period-set version which attempted Quixotically to bring off the cinematic spectacle of post-apocalypse England under Martian rule on a reported budget of £25 million - which barely buys a three-room rom-com. The result, predictably, was cited as 'terrible in almost every way a movie can be'.

We can probably rely on new adaptations of A Christmas Carol to supply new visions of Victorian London, but they are likely to continue to be the kind of overblown Christmas postcard-style tripe satirised in Richard Donner's Scrooged (1988) - and seen again in the CGI of the all-digital Robert Zemeckis adaptation of 2009.

A Christmas Carol

Dickens provides epic source material with some of the greatest spectacle and most tragic contrasts since the age of the Roman empire. The outrageous surnames he provides are in themselves some kind of a clue that his works are fantastic and hermetic by nature, and the 150 years-odd since their appearance has only added an extraordinarily enticing layer of historical intrigue and atavism to them. Blood, love, murder, desperation and controversy thread through a series of atmospheric environments as extraordinary to us as any middle Earth or imaginary fantastical landscape. To boot, most of the works feature the kind of young and attractive lead characters that are such an easy marketing sell during a pitch.

Gillian Anderson in 'Bleak House' (BBC, 2005)So it frustrates me that all we can expect is that the BBC will trot out their latest cyclic adaptation once again (they tend to return to a Dickens novel once every twenty years). Again, location scouts will be sent to provincial towns to negotiate the hire of streets which do not like they were ever in London; the producer will argue with the commissioner for more money for CGI shots (entirely absent from 2005's Bleak House and fairly limited in 2008's Little Dorrit); the same chocolate-box iconography will have to stand in for the visceral and wide urban landscapes of the text; and once again we will get the bones and not the substance of one of the great storytellers of the last 250 years, whose worlds cry out for the kind of attention to detail that has been lavished on Tolkien, and whose sights are even more extraordinary, and even more compelling in the sense that they are the antecedents of the world we occupy.

I am indeed only dreaming; a faithful adaptation of Bleak House would take the same amount of run-time and budget as Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy. And it has no magicians - for all that it has magic.

* Dickens himself, though a colleague and friend of Joseph Paxton, did not approve of The Great Exhibition, which much the same moral justification which impels many in our time to decry space travel as a luxury in a world with far more pressing social concerns to attend to and spend money on. Whatever hopes the author had nurtured that the great spectacle would not neglect the broader working masses who made it possible, were dashed when the Central Committee Of The Working Classes For The Great Exhibition was obstructed by the project's commissioners, forcing Dickens to close down the committee, which was clearly nothing more than an empty public-relations exercise in a society afraid of lower-class rebellion when flaunting its wealth.

See also:

A purist's defense of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings screenplay

Stephen Fry joins The Hobbit Cast

7 Things The Hobbit needs to do in order to be a success

Dark Tower Adaptation Lives! Slightly Modified

Why 'The Stand' should never be a movie

Gritty, realistic…fantasy?


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