Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Friday, January 4, 2008

Dickens: In Print, Or On Screen, Or Both/And?

When is it all right to give a loved one a gift that you know you will enjoy, too? I don't think I'm a good judge of this question because I'm the defendant.

I recently gave my wife a boxed set of DVDs--multiple BBC series based on novels by Dickens: Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations, Bleak House, Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and Martin Chuzzlewit [I may have missed one.] In my own defense (I can't afford a lawyer, so I will have a fool for a client, as the saying goes), I will say that my wife enjoys Dickens on film and in print as much as I, and that we enjoy watching Dickens on film together more than we do separately. Nonetheless, . . . .

I happen to like the BBC's way of adapting fiction in general and Dickens in particular. The BBC's approach seems to be to keep much of the original language, as well as the bones of the plot; to hire good costume-designers; to hire able actors and exquisite character-actors; and to keep the film-making simple. The BBC seems to film efficiently--lots of interiors and close-ups, not much fancy camera-work, little wasted motion.

But I acknowledge that the BBC series may be too boring for cinema-purists, and for Dickens- purists, any film-version may be heresy. I'm in the camp that likes Dickens both in print and on screen, although of course I like some of the novels much more than others and some of the adaptations much more than others; indeed, I've deliberately avoided some adaptations. The experiences of reading a long novel and viewing a long (by video-standards) series are different, but in the cases of the BBC and Dickens, the experiences overlap, partly because the language is honored, as are the zest and exuberance of CD's fiction.

We started with an episode of Our Mutual Friend tonight--with its great opening on the Thames, and a father and his daughter making a living by retrieving floating corpses. Dickens, of course, wastes no time and no corpses, so the corpse figures immediately and significantly into the almost instantly twisted plot. The father relieves the corpse's pockets of money. His former partner floats by in a boat. --Former because he allegedly took money from a man who was not yet quite a corpse. (Timing is everything in show-business, and every profession has its ethical standards, I guess.). They argue. The father shouts, "To what world does a dead man belong? To the other world! To what world does money belong? To this world!" . . .And so Dickens' most money-obsessed (arguably) book--er, BBC series--begins.

The episode refreshed my memory of how rhetorical Dickens' work is, not just in terms of his prose style, which is often Ciceronian, but also in terms of arguments, in which all his characters engage, regardless of their status, age, situation, or gender. The ancient joke about hockey is that you go to a fight and a hockey-game breaks out. With Dickens' work, I often feel as if I read (or, in the case of the DVDs, view) arguments, and a novel breaks out. The arguments and style are so superbly executed that the prose becomes poetry at times, as in the beginning and the end of A Tale of Two Cities.

Incidentally, I plead guilty, or at least nolo contendere, to the charge of "gifting" self-interestedly, as well as to the charge of treating "gift" as a verb--a linguistic development of which I became aware only a few years ago. And just this year, I heard for the first time "re-gifting" uttered. Hmmm.
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