An Open Letter to Hollywood and the BBC

by Fred Guida on November 6, 2011

This posting opens with a fairly lengthy quote from my book A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations: Dickens’s Story on Screen and Television.  (Published by McFarland in 2000 and currently available in paperback.)  And to be specific, it is a verbatim transposition of the first two paragraphs of the chapter entitled Dickens’s Other Christmases.

But let me make clear that I am not quoting myself because there is anything so wonderful about my writing or so brilliant about my thinking.  If only.  I simply want to state – and for whatever my two cents are worth on this or any other subject – that I have been on record for over ten years with regard to what I am willing to bet is the chief complaint among most folks who are seriously interested in Dickens adaptations.  And before McFarland gave me this opportunity to vent my spleen on the printed page, I did a fair amount of verbal grumbling about this issue whenever anyone was willing to listen or at least humor me.

So here is the relevant passage:

“While Dickens’s “Ghostly little book” continues to be a source of endless interest and fascination, and while we look forward to each new adaptation, it is unfortunate that it has tended to overshadow his other Christmas-related works.  Indeed, while it is difficult to imagine that more than one or two people in a thousand will not in some sense be familiar with the Carol, it is just as difficult to imagine that more than one or two will have even heard of The Haunted Man or Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings.

It is not surprising, then, that there have been relatively few adaptations of Dickens’s other Christmas works.  Notwithstanding the obvious fact that many great films and television programs of all kinds have been produced over the years, the overall track record of the film and television industry is one of mediocrity and staggering stupidity.  One might also add a propensity for playing it safe.  Thus new Carols and Olivers continue to pile up, but one can grow very old waiting for a new version of Barnaby Rudge or Dombey and Son.  In such a climate, it is an adventurous writer indeed who would approach the average film or television producer with a script of, say, The Chimes; and with just a little dramatic license – and perhaps an image in mind of the stereotypically crass, cigar-chomping mogul of old – one can readily imagine the typical response: ‘What the hell is this Chimes, where’s the kid with the crutch?’”The Chimes by Charles Dickens

And let me add a final punctuation point to the above by saying that whenever I have been privileged to speak to an audience about Dickens adaptations – whether a group of learned Dickens specialists or a general audience at a public library – there is always one point in my presentation that people seem to be in almost unanimous agreement about.  And that is my call for the worldwide film and television industries to observe a ten year moratorium on new versions of A Christmas Carol while simultaneously wiping the dust off of Dickens’s other Christmas writings.  And as a corollary, a similar moratorium on the usual Dickensian Greatest Hits like Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, while simultaneously producing at least one new version of comparatively unknown titles like Barnaby Rudge.

Now I have no desire to be disrespectful here toward any individual or corporate entity.  Nor do I want to descend into the kind of smarmy, smartass shtick that can so often taint this kind of opinion piece.  Nevertheless, I just have to ask anyone who is even remotely thinking about producing a new Dickens adaptation – and, yes, let’s put the BBC at the top of the list: What exactly is the problem here?  (In fairness, I should note that, generally speaking, BBC Radio has been more adventurous than its television counterpart.  However, this posting is concerned with the two branches of the arts from which most Dickensian adaptations spring – film and television.)

Sure, fine, every new adaptation has something to offer and something to say.  No doubt about it.  But does the world really need not one but two new adaptations of Great Expectations, however fresh and original they may turn out to be, when so much of the Dickens canon has been either untouched for decades or never touched at all?  I just don’t get it.

The Haunted Man Charles Dickens

The Haunted Man

As far as the Christmas Books are concerned, the three-hundred pound gorilla in the room that is conspicuous by its absence is The Haunted Man.  How on earth has this managed to escape the attention of film and television for so long?  And I don’t think the world would come to an end if someone decided to take a look at The Battle of Life either.

And when you turn to the shorter Christmas Stories, there is an absolute embarrassment of riches to choose from.  My fondest wish in this area is that someone will give some serious consideration to a serious adaptation of A Christmas Tree.  And to anyone who thinks that its structure and imagery are too abstract and therefore impossible to translate into film or television, I say take a look at the stunningly beautiful adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales starring the late, great Denholm Elliott.A Child's Christmas in Wales with Denholm Elliott

And what about the “Christmas episode” in Master Humphrey’s Clock?  Consider just this single line: “At length I happened to stop before a Tavern, and, encountering a Bill of Fare in the window, it all at once brought into my head to wonder what kind of people dined alone in Taverns upon Christmas Day.”  Now I have never attempted to make a film or write a script; never even thought about it.  And what I don’t know in this area would fill many volumes.  But, dammit, if that quote doesn’t suggest the makings of at least an interesting little thirty minute mood piece on PBS or the BBC then I will hang myself from the first Christmas Tree I see this season.

And as far as the novels are concerned, there aren’t all that many, and we all know what they are.   And we all know which ones have been done to death and which ones have been, by comparison, neglected.  And on this latter point, Barnaby Rudge, Dickens’s “other” historical novel, certainly tops the list with only one television adaptation and nothing on the big screen since the silent era.  Once again, I just don’t get it.

To be sure, and to be fair, there have been exceptions.  In Hollywood, as early as 1912, the always interesting Vitagraph offered Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgers and Mrs. Lirriper’s Legacy – and  then a year later outdid itself with Mr. Horatio Sparkins drawn from Sketches by Boz.  And if one takes even a cursory glance at American television from the late forties thru the late fifties, some real surprises pop up ranging from The Cricket on the Hearth and The Mating of Watkins Tottle to The Signalman and The Magic Fishbone.  And in Great Britain even the low-budget Tales from Dickens series included an entry called The Runaways that tapped the Christmas Stories, and in 1960 the BBC aired a full-scale production of Barnaby Rudge.Barnaby Rudge BBC DVD 1960

However, and while it is always risky to claim with precision that a particular genre started here or that a certain cycle ended there, it does seem that, generally speaking, both film and television ran out of ideas at some point in the sixties and that they have been pretty much playing it safe ever since.

And yet, even in the context of this period covering the last forty-five years or so, there have been occasional exceptions that certainly give one hope.  For example, oddball, in-name-only animated adaptations of The Cricket on the Hearth and A Christmas Tree on American television as well as an excellent version of The Signalman from the BBC.  And who could have predicted the mammoth theatrically released version of Little Dorrit that came out of nowhere in 1988 or that a truly outstanding clay animation adaptation of The Chimes would appear in 2000?The Chimes animation claymation Dickens

And then there is Boy Called Twist, a feature film made in 2004 that accomplished something pretty amazing indeed.  It took one of those Dickens novels that has in fact been done to death and transposed the story to present day South Africa – and in the process created a film that is nothing short of a subtle yet richly textured modern masterpiece.Boy Called Twist DVD Oliver Twist

And there have even been a couple of fascinating productions that are so unique and original that they essentially stand on their own and almost defy any attempt at categorization.  They are not Dickens adaptations, but nevertheless are Dickensian to the core.

Ray Bradbury Nicholas NicklebyI’m thinking first of the quietly brilliant production of Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby is a Friend of Mine that first aired on American television in 1982.  Now when your source material is a Ray Bradbury story, it’s pretty hard to go wrong.  (And for icing on the cake Bradbury himself serves as off-screen narrator.)  However, producer Neal Miller deserves the thanks of Dickensians everywhere for assembling and overseeing a production that ranks right up there with the best of the best from television’s fabled Golden Age.

And there is also The Ghosts of Dickens’ Past.  This interesting production slipped in under the radar of the mainstream film industry in 1998 and might best be described as an imaginative retelling of the events behind the writing of A Christmas Carol.

And finally, let’s give the BBC credit where credit is due for its 2002 Peter Ackroyd doubleheader comprised of Dickens and The Mystery of Charles Dickens as well as Dickens in America from 2005.

The Invisible Woman Claire TomalinAnd there does appear to be hope for the future: Like anyone interested in Dickens, I am certainly looking forward to the upcoming film based on Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman.  And it appears that a feature film exploring Dickens’s 1844 stay in Genoa is currently in the works as well.

But in spite of the concrete and noteworthy exceptions just cited, I will stand by my gut feeling that something seems to have happened in the sixties, particularly in the case of television.  What it was I don’t pretend to know.  But the end result is that Dickensians everywhere have been hammered with a fairly steady recurring cycle of the same old same old while the bulk of Dickens’s work remains untouched.  Once again again, I just don’t get it.

So where do we stand today?  If the collective film and television industries were to be given a grade for their cumulative work with Dickens over roughly the past one hundred and ten years, what grade would you assign?

For me, the first item on the ledger would be the enormous lack of originality and propensity for playing it safe that has been the main concern of this posting.  This would then need to be balanced by the many notable and hopeful exceptions just mentioned.  And, of course, it would also be necessary to factor in all of the good work – and sometimes great work – that has obviously been done in this area.

And so, from the for what it’s worth department:  When I add it all up, and then filter the sum through the quirky and highly subjective prism of personal taste, my final grade would probably be a solid C.  I wish I could say that a Gentleman’s B was in order, but I really don’t think it is.

And given the complex and often stormy marriage that resulted in the birth of the film and television industries – i.e., the union of art and commerce – perhaps this is all that can reasonably be expected.

And yet, on the eve of the Dickens bicentenary, it is nice to think that maybe some spectacular surprises await us.  It is nice to hope for more.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Dino Everett November 7, 2011 at 6:30 am

Fred, yet again you have managed to amaze me with the wealth of your knowledge about Dickens’ adaptations, and intrigue me with highlighted versions such as the “Boy Called Twist.” I say bravo for speaking up about absentees such as The Haunted Man, which i for one would love to see. One question. This may sound like an ignorant one but where do the rights for Dickens’ work reside? Are they all available in the public domain or is there a Raymond Rohauer type out there that scooped up certain works that might keep them from being adapted?

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Fred Guida November 8, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Hi Dino –

Thanks for the kind words!

Thankfully, Dickens’s works are in the public domain which means that a literary Rohauer cannot come out of the woodwork claiming that he owns the rights to A CHRISTMAS CAROL!

However, it would be interesting to know what Dickens would think of modern copyright law. He was an early champion of author’s rights in this area. My guess is that he would say that the law doesn’t go far enough and that the idea of a work of art eventually slipping into the public domain is ridiculous.

– FG

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Mary Anne Walsh November 30, 2011 at 3:48 pm

To: Fred Guida….

In the Hartford Courant’s Sunday paper (Nov 27th), it commented that the DVD of the show, ” The Stingiest Man in Town” will be released Nov. 29th with a retail price of $29.99.

What stores will carry it? Or where can I purchase one?

Sorry we missed your presentation of “The Stingiest Main in Town” (the Alcoa Hour broadcast) & your talk at Quinnipack Univ. As it is my very favorite Christmas Movie! I’ve have collected a lot of different versions over the years myself too! The one “Rich Little” did many years ago is one of my favorites also…

Kindly, let us know where we can purchase to DVD of it!

Thank you. Mary Anne

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Keith February 25, 2012 at 10:46 pm

Fred,
I say yes to you on every one of your arguments. Perhaps someday your wishes will be granted. Just as small children become addicted to incessant viewings of their favorite films, we all gain comfort with what we have mastered. I am going to read more of Mr. Dickens opus in order to be in sympathy with you as often as not.
Thanks-

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