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?

  • There's also the August book Grave Expectations, featuring star-crossed lovers-- the werewolf Pip and demon-slayer Estella (with Miss Havisham as her vampire mentor).

    • Adam Farley

      Really? When will the werewolf garbage end? This makes my heart hurt.

  • Cindie

    A Tale of Two Cities is my favorite Dickens book. How about Martin Scorsese for that?

    • I think Scorcese could do it very well but I think the other directors who could do A Tale of Two Cities are ChristopherNolan,Tim Burton and the gentleman who did
      Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge.

  • con

    I would disagree that the 1998 adaptation is considered dismal...I think it was pretty much overlooked, and the contextual differences were what made the film so's much more interesting to see Dickens applied to a modern was the first time I was really able to connect with the story....

  • David

    I would love to see a faithful adaptation of 'Our Mutual Friend'. I'm not very tuned in to movie stars culture, but how about Daniel Radcliffe as Mortimer Lightwood?

  • I've read every novel Dickens ever wrote, many several times over. My very favorite production of Great Expectations, which is my FAVORITE, of his novels, next to Bleak House, is a Disney made-for-tv production. But the stars were Anthony Hopkins (as Magowitch), Kim Thomson as Estella, Anthony Calf as Pip, and John Rhys-Davies (as Joe). It was very well done and very close to the book. We just watched it yet again..last night. It's a good six hours long.

  • elizabeth

    Fantastic! Brilliant! can never get enough of the Dickens..and if Ms. Bonham Carter is part of it then I'm all the more cheering!

  • Timmy Moran

    Critically, David Simon and the creators of The Wire often have drawn comparisons as, "Modern day Dickens'." It would provide a realistic feel. Also, David Fincher did well with The CCofBB.

  • Ray

    The BBC did a good job with Bleak House & Our Mutual Friend. But I think both came in at six hours in length. A truly good adaptation of any of Dicken's long novels to the big screen would require an installment plan, like The Lord of the Rings series.

  • Naomi Hohn

    Tale of Two Cities with Richard Armitage as Sydney Carton and directed by Kenneth Branagh.

  • Gina Marie Di Dio

    David Copperfield writen, produced, and directed by my friend, Perry Goodwin and his company, Three Kings Entertainment!!!

  • Glen

    Surprised that you slammed the 1998 version, its one of my favorite movies. Maybe I am just a sucker for violins??

  • pam

    Charles Dickens is my favorite author! I am so excited. Great Expectations is the top of the list along with A Tale of Two Cities. I am so hoping someone will make the movie "A Tale of Two Cities" and be true to the book. So far the best movies from classic books I've seen were Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightly and Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson.

  • Andrew Donald MacEwen

    It's true that no one has come close to Lean on Great Expectations, but I've seen at least one or two that were enjoyable: the 1999 Masterpiece Theatre and the under-rated Cuaron film, both of which are dismissed by this critic. I couldn't care less whether any of these films turn out to be "pantheon quality": all that really matters is that they have something to recommend them. If they meet that requirement, I'll be happy.

  • James Bloom

    I wish people would stop going on about how wonderful Lean's GE was. As a movie, for its time, it was indeed very good: nice atmosphere, brilliant direction, servicable performances. But as a literature professor with an obsession with all things Dickens, it is my considered opinion that it is a terrible adaptation of the novel. Not only does it excise four-fifths of the story, but the totally NOT Dickens ending would even have Bulwer-Litton squirming from its sicky-sacharine, happily-ever-after conclusion.