Culture

What the Dickens is Up with this Bounty of Dickens Adaptations?

If those fireworks you saw this weekend seemed to pack a little more, er, firepower than usual, that may be because there were two birthdays to commemorate -- our country's 235th and Charles Dickens' 199th.

Even though next year's bicentennial anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth hasn't quite had the concussive impact stateside as it has had on the other side of the pond, this Dickensian milestone hasn't gone unnoticed in Hollywood. Currently, there are no fewer than six new adaptations of Dickens' works -- including Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood -- headed for screens big and small in 2012.

Two of the most closely watched of these projects are the dueling "Great Expectations" productions. The more promising of the two is a David Nicholls-scripted feature starring Helena Bonham Carter as the jilted and vengeful spinster, Miss Havisham. (We get chills just imagining a wedding dress-clad Bonham Carter festering in a state of Havishamian decay). The other Great project (which may be only slightly less so, if only for its Bonham Carter deficit) will have expansiveness on its side as it plays out over three episodes in a BBC-produced TV drama with Gillian Anderson (aka "The X-Files" Agent Scully) as the Dickensian dowager.

Along with Great Expectations comes great responsibility not to screw up a sacred text. And frankly, Hollywood's recent track record on this front has been pretty dismal. It's hard not to wince at the memory of the calamitous 1998 adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke, which continues to mystify fans of the movie's wildly talented director, Alfonso Cuaron ("Y Tu Mama Tambien"). And the 1999 Masterpiece Theatre version starring Ioan Gruffudd as Pip and Charlotte Rampling as Havisham was serviceable, but too stuffy and preening to qualify as epic. David Lean claimed that turf with his 1946 iteration and no one else has come close to claiming it from him in over half a century.

It remains to be seen whether this Dickens revival will yield anything with pantheon potential. We're particularly dubious about the 3-D version of "Oliver Twist," which is being reimagined as a 3-D kind of eighteenth-century Marvel origin story in which a plucky orphan transcends his hard-knock beginnings. Twist fans despair not: British crime novelist Martina Cole is behind an intriguing Oliver-inspired TV series called "Twisted" about a clutch of young gangsters wilding through the streets of today's London.

The most audacious and perilous of this raft of revisionary Dickens adaptations may be the BBC's update of the author's last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens was just two-thirds of the way through the book when he died, leaving readers to wonder what would become of the titular protagonist who disappears under mysterious circumstances. British writer-director Gwyneth Hughes will boldly go where no filmmaker has gone before by producing a version of the story that resolves Dickens' unintentional cliffhanger. No word yet on whom she'll pin the blame for Drood's disappearance. Based on our experience with bookish culture buffs here at SIG, we're fairly certain that whatever she does is bound to incite passionate response from both defenders and detractors.

Even though Dickens is not topping Google Trends lists or threatening to unseat Harry Potter as fan fiction fodder, all this economic uncertainty makes this a particularly fertile time for a Dickens renaissance. In fact, as far as we're concerned, it's about time someone like Emma Thompson dusted off her copy of David Copperfield or Tale of Two Cities and started hammering out the kind of faithful and resonant adaptation that scored her an Oscar for "Sense and Sensibility."

What marriage of novel and filmmaker tops on your Dickens wish list?