This posting builds on my November 6th article entitled An Open Letter to Hollywood and the BBC. I wish I could say that something – anything – has happened over the past few weeks to make me rethink and even retract the comments and opinions expressed there. Unfortunately, I can’t. In fact, the more I hear about how wonderful it is that there are two new versions of Great Expectations, the more frustrated I get and the more I am prepared to stand by everything I said concerning the astonishing lack of creativity and originality on the part of the collective film and television industries when it comes to adapting Dickens for screens both big and small.
This is also the first of what I hope will be many attempts to throw a spotlight on Dickensian adaptations that are in need of reappraisal, or that have slipped through the cracks over the years, or that simply deserve to find a wider audience. In this case, the adaptation in question is the only extant version of Dickens’s second Christmas Book, The Chimes. And what better time to initiate a dialogue about this particular book than New Year’s Day!
But first, a synopsis of sorts from the chapter entitled Dickens’s Other Christmases, that will be found in my book:
“Appearing in 1844, The Chimes was the Carol’s immediate successor in the Christmas Book genre. Written while Dickens was living for a time in Italy, it is nevertheless another very English product of the Hungry Forties. The time, however, is New Year’s Eve, and like its predecessor this story contains a heartfelt plea for charity and brotherhood. The supernatural motif is employed in the form of the spirits of the bells in an omnipresent church tower. The book also continues the Carol’s vigorous assault on the rampant social injustice of Dickens’s day, although in a much more explicit and confrontational manner. While much of its social criticism, including some of Dickens’s most ferocious satire, is very topical, it still delivers another timeless sledgehammer blow.
Details on The Chimes’s topical references and background (which include such topics as suicide and infanticide, as well as the question of whether the poor have any right to live at all) are documented in Michael Slater’s introduction and notes to the Penguin Classics edition…, as well as in his important essay Dickens’s Tract for the Times. Another valuable discussion of this unjustly neglected work will be found in Edward Wagenknecht’s Dickens at Work: The Chimes. The story has attracted a modest amount of attention on stage, but as for audiovisual adaptations there is, sadly, little to report on. Apart from an interesting pair of silent efforts, it is positively astonishing that it has been ignored for so long by film and television. It would seem a particularly appropriate subject for the BBC or American public television.”
As for those two silent efforts, both appeared in 1914. The first was a British short from the Hepworth Manufacturing Company of 2.5 reels in length which was followed by an American 5 reel feature from the World Film Corporation. Taking into account the slower projection speeds of the day, the former would have run for close to forty minutes and the latter for about an hour and a quarter. And it is certainly interesting to note that each boasted a contribution from artists who were very much “Dickens Specialists”: Thomas Bentley as director and writer of the short; and Tom Terriss as star of the feature.
Unfortunately, both films appear to be lost. (They are, however, discussed briefly in Michael Pointer’s excellent Charles Dickens on the Screen.) In such cases, contemporary reviews, and when we’re lucky publicity photos, offer the only insight into what a lost film was like.
In the case of the Hepworth short, The Bioscope observed that “…one must first congratulate Mr. Bentley upon that feature of the work, which has also been so remarkable in all his other films – the quite extraordinary manner in which he has caught the Dickens “atmosphere,” not only in details of dress and setting, but in the more elusory matters of spirit and general feeling as well. One feels that nobody could be more delighted by this version of “The Chimes” than Dickens himself would have been could he have seen it.”
Concerning the American feature, The Moving Picture World noted that “There are some people, adherents of our modern hot-brained and cold-hearted realism, who dislike Dickens on account of his tenderness and sentiment, the very qualities that endear him to the majority. Those qualities are marked in this five-reel picture from the [Herbert] Blache studio and we commend it to exhibitors as an offering that will be generally liked.” And Variety’s review, while generally favorable, suggested that the overall look and feel of the film lacked authenticity: “…as the work of Dickens is too well known for any picture company to attempt any half-way reproduction it behooves the “next Dickens picture” to be enacted in the real English environs (war permitting).”
Sadly, and inexplicably, more than eighty years would pass before someone decided to do something once again with The Chimes. And as I mentioned in that November 6th article concerning The Haunted Man which is an even more egregious and outrageous example of neglect: How on earth has this managed to escape the attention of film and television for so long?
But thankfully someone did decide to “do something,” and did so in 2000, with The Chimes. And let us be thankful that New York based Billy Budd Films, arguably the world’s most important producer of clay animation, didn’t decide to take the easy way out by producing yet another version of A Christmas Carol. Instead, they dipped deeper into the Dickens canon and produced a real gem that is not only original and creative but is also a very faithful distillation of the story.
And as long as I’m venting my spleen about what hasn’t been done with Dickens, let me just add that the fact that it took a small independent production company to “do something” with The Chimes is proof (at least as far as I’m concerned) that the BBC’s cumulative treatment of Dickens over the years is a classic case of the Emperor’s New Clothes writ large! I will be happy to hear from anyone who disagrees with me about this. But if you agree, please write to the BBC who seem to think that they are the official custodians and interpreters of Dickens’s work, and let them know that a little more originality, and a lot less self-congratulatory hot air, would be greatly appreciated – particularly in this year of the bicentenary celebration.
To be fair, I feel that I should add the following little disclaimer that appeared in my original article: “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.”
BBC Radio has always done much more with Dickens. No doubt about it. In fact, it deserves enormous credit for being at the forefront of keeping the very concept of radio drama alive long after it was officially pronounced dead. Somewhere down the road, I hope to do an article on BBC Radio and Dickens.
Also, in further fairness to BBC Television, I should probably add that American Public Television has not been any better, or any more original, in its dealings with Dickens.
I won’t bore anyone with an extended review of Billy Budd’s production of The Chimes. I will just tell you that within the framework of about twenty-five minutes, it is an excellent – and, once again, very faithful – adaptation. And from a visual standpoint it is simply stunning in its recreation of Dickens’s London. And when you add beautiful narration by Derek Jacobi what more is there to say except get this film! And to add that director Lindsay van Blerk and his South African Xyzoo Animation studio deserve major kudos for the technical and artistic brilliance that is clearly in evidence.
At the moment, the easiest way to get The Chimes is to order it directly from Billy Budd Films in New York: www.billybuddfilms.com
While the situation may change in the coming year, be advised that it is not currently available on a stand alone DVD. You will find it on a three title compilation entitled The First Christmas and Other Stories. (The other two titles contained on the disc are The First Christmas and A Christmas Gift.) If you want to order it from another source, such as amazon.com, be sure to search for it under this title. If you search for The Chimes, you will usually only find its original VHS release (with yellow cover) which seems to be “out there” in used copies.
I hasten to add here that I have no financial interest in promoting this film. I simply like it, and applaud Billy Budd Films for producing it, and would love to see it get a major second wind in this bicentenary year. And so I say to Dickensians everywhere: Let’s start a run on copies of The First Christmas and Other Stories. And while we’re at it, how about asking Billy Budd Films to consider a clay animation production of The Haunted Man! I would gladly take a brisk Dickensian walk from Connecticut to Manhattan to be first in line to place an advance order.
Please also note that The Chimes is available on a very cool ten title DVD that Billy Budd has just produced as a special fund raising item. If your school or organization is looking for a fund raising alternative to selling cookies or candy, then check out their 10 Movie Children’s Holiday Collection. It’s a great idea and a great deal! In addition to The Chimes, it includes the following titles, all of which are equally impressive: The Little Prince, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Star Child, God’s Trombones, Michael The Visitor, The First Christmas, A Christmas Gift, Rip Van Winkle and Martin The Cobbler.
Also, if your university, school, library or organization is planning a Dickens film series linked to the bicentenary celebration, and if you are interested in breaking away from the pack by showing something different, all rights – theatrical, non-theatrical and broadcast – are available from Billy Budd. I am one of the programmers of a Dickens film series at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, CT and we will be showing The Chimes as part of our Christmas program in December 2012. I firmly believe that it will be one of two surprise sleeper hits of our series! (More about the other one in February.)
As a little footnote, let me add that production of The Chimes was made possible by grants from The Catholic Communication Campaign and The Christophers. However, lest anyone have an attack of the vapors at the thought of religious organizations backing this production, rest assured that the only religious – or, if you prefer, moral – message to be found in this film is the one that Dickens himself put there.
It is no secret that Dickens was not a fan of organized religion in general. And since he felt a particular antipathy toward the Roman Catholic Church (although not toward individual Catholics) he would probably find some sort of interesting irony in the fact that two Catholic organizations were helping to spread his message well over a century after his death. Nevertheless, as we see in his willingness to work with the Evangelicals of his day when it came to issues such as feeding and educating the children of the poor, he was happy to find common ground and work together for the greater good. As such, I don’t think he would have any problem at all with this version of The Chimes.
In fact, given the motto of The Christophers – It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness – he would probably be quite enthusiastic about it. He was, after all, one of the all-time great candle lighters…
A slightly different version of The Chimes is available directly from The Christophers. It includes a brief non-denominational introduction and closing segment by Monsignor Jim Lisante, as well as a performance of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy by John Tesh, that are not found on the Billy Budd release. This version can be ordered from The Christophers at: www.christophers.org
By the way, hopefully one of these days The Christophers will receive the credit that they deserve for their early embrace of the new medium of television. In a Catholic context, Bishop Sheen was not the only game in town during the Golden Age of Television.
As a final footnote, watch for a follow-up article dealing with audio adaptations of The Chimes. However, as a sneak preview, check out this exciting new release by The Colonial Radio Theatre.
And as a finally final footnote, a feature film is apparently in production that deals with Dickens’s 1844 stay in Italy, during which time he wrote The Chimes. Stay tuned…
I have been told that writing for blogs is supposed to be crisp and short and in the same kind of weird cyber shorthand that is supposed to be used in emails. However, as the length of this and other articles may suggest, I don’t give a damn about such rules. And so, in this spirit, here are some notes on sources mentioned above:
My book is A Christmas Carol and its Adaptations: Dickens’s Story On Screen and Television published in 2000 by McFarland & Co. Currently available in paperback.
Michael Slater’s invaluable introduction and annotation will be found in volume one of the the two-volume paperback edition of the Christmas Books that was published by Penguin Classics in 1985. It was first published by the Penguin English Library in 1971.
Michael Slater’s Dickens’s Tract for the Times will be found in his (as editor) Dickens 1970 that was published by Chapman & Hall in 1970.
Edward Wagenknecht’s Dickens at Work: The Chimes will be found in his Dickens and the Scandalmongers published by University of Oklahoma Press in 1965.
Michael Pointer’s Charles Dickens on the Screen was published by The Scarecrow Press in 1996.
Review from The Bioscope: August 27, 1914, pg. 801.
Review from The Moving Picture World: September 19, 1914, pg. 1624.
Review from Variety: September 18, 1914, pg. 19.