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Adapting Dickens, Adrian Wootton

Adrian wootton adaptation

From the earliest days of cinema there has been a fascination for the work of Charles Dickens. Many of his books were adapted for unlicensed stage productions whilst they were still in the midst of publication. From the wildly popular Magic Lantern shows of the Victorian era to the lavish period drama productions of today, Dickens work is still rich pickings for the world of film.

As part of our celebrations for the bicentenary of Dickens' birth, Adrian Wootton, CEO of Film London, will be exploring Dickens’ silver screen appeal at Warwick Arts Centre on Saturday 28 January. Adrian will discuss how well cinema has treated Charles Dickens at a special viewing of David Lean’s 1946 classic adaptation of Great Expectations. We spoke to him about why he thinks Dickens’ work has struck such a chord with a medium that did not even exist in his lifetime.

What makes Dickens’ work so compelling for filmmakers?

Dickens' work lent itself to film adaptation because of the way he constructed his stories , the dramatic larger than life creation of his most famous characters and the way his descriptive brilliance created scenes that were innately cinematic, almost like screenplays for a medium yet to be invented .

As we describe in our Film London/BBC Arena programme screening (shown on BBC, Jan 10th) early film pioneers DW Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein both acknowledged how Dickens' narratives , linking different geographically separate scenes together influenced and anticipated crosscutting and the art of film montage editing. Similarly many filmmakers and scriptwriters have commented on how Dickens' characters are fully fleshed out leaping out from the page( not surprising considering how friends and family described him acting out the character's expressions, and voices before he wrote them down!) and that his descriptive detail is so rich and textured that they can almost be lifted wholesale as screenplay direction and storyboard. This was embellished further by the original book illustrations, produced by a notable range of illustrators, whom Dickens supervised like a Film Director instructing his cinematographers.

How have the adaptations of Dickens’ work changed over the years?

In the early silent era the films were tableaus that simply took famous moments from the novels to stage, but by the early 1920s the adaptations in Europe (notably in the UK and Scandinavia) and the US had become much more sophisticated and complex. The arrival of sound leads a number of studios in the 1930s, notably MGM, to expend large amounts of resources to exploit the wonders of Dickens' dialogue in the mouths of comic greats such as WC Fields inDavid Copperfield and golden voiced stars like Ronald Coleman in A Tale of Two Cities whilst also realising the full epic scale and grandeur of Dickens' world for the first time.

In the 1940s and 1950s Britain became the focus of Dickens' adaptation in the cinema with more cutting edge, authentic and intimate versions of his work reflecting the political and social changes of post war world. Then in the 1960s, the power of TV takes over for episodic, more literal and faithful adaptations tackling the longer novels which were hitherto impractical for movie makers to attempt. In more recent years there has been a mixed economy of film and TV adaptations, all trying in their own ways to be historically accurate but at the same time contemporary in sensibility and emotional affect.

Why do you think filmmakers keep revisiting the works of Dickens?

Dickens' stories and characters have a timeless appeal for audiences, they are gripped by his tales, entranced, horrified and charmed by his romantic heroes and heroines, his grotesque villains and his comic caricatures. All of this is wrapped up in a dazzlingly inventive, wholly original prose style. Dickens also dealt with social and political issues (the changing face of the cityscape, crime, child exploitation, poverty , the ineffectiveness of the legal system and injustice) which have not gone away and remain as relevant today as when he first wrote about them.

All of this makes Dickens continually appealing to filmmakers who want to make their mark on the great man’s work to reinterpret him for new audiences. This has made Dickens part of the DNA of our creative imaginations and explains why he has been adapted for film and television more than any other novelist in the world and why he is more influential than any of his predecessors or contemporaries, and why that legacy continues to exert major influence now 200 years after his birth.

Why have you chosen to focus on the David Lean 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations?

David Lean’s film is widely regarded as one of, if not the best adaptation of a Dickens novel ever to be realised and it confirmed him as one of the great British Filmmakers. Its critical reception at the time of release through to the present day has been universally positive, it has remained consistently popular with the public and remained an inspiration to scriptwriters and directors. It is my favourite Dickens film adaptation and one of my favourite films of all time!

Film talk: Adrian Wootton - Bicentenary of Dickens’ Birth, Saturday 28 January 2012, 11am-3pm, Warwick Arts Centre