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BICENTENARY: 200 years of Charles Dickens

February 05, 2012

IN China, 2012 is the Year of the Dragon, but for the English-speaking world it will be “The Year of Dickens.” Coinciding with the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the London Olympics, the 200th anniversary of this great writer’s birth is being promoted as enthusiastically as these two key events in Britain. Charles Dickens attracted international adulation in his time, and many of his 15 novels became instant classics. Novelist, playwright, actor, social campaigner, journalist, editor, philanthropist, amateur conjuror, and celebrity, he was a defender of the poor and helpless, and the scourge of corrupt institutions — Parliament, the education establishment, the law. His novels exposed the violence, hypocrisy, greed, and cruelty of the Victorian age.

And he was before all else a great comic writer. Today his popularity continues unabated, and his books remain not only widely read but widely adapted for stage and screen.

In Britain, the Royal Mint has produced a Dickens bicentenary coin to commemorate the immense contribution he has made to English literature. This new two pound coin features the bearded writer in profile. His image is comprised of the titles of his most famous novels while on the edge of the coin is an inscription of the quotation, “Something will turn up,” spoken by Wilkins Micawber in David Copperfield. Many hold that this Micawber quote is more than apt for the country’s current hard times!

On school curricula wherever English is spoken, Dickens is universally acknowledged as one of the most riveting storytellers and entertainers in history. Several of his phrases have ingrained themselves in modern culture.

He invented the term “red tape” to describe bureaucracy in positions of power. Almost singlehandedly he created the modern idea of Christmas — a white Christmas. He wrote so compassionately about the downtrodden have-nots of Victorian England that “Dickensian” has become the easiest word to describe an unacceptable level of poverty. Dickens’ character names too have entered the dictionary: “Micawberish” is used for a one who is improvident but who lives in expectation of an upturn in his fortunes and “Pecksniffian” for sanctimonious hypocrisy. Call a miserly person a “scrooge” and you will be quoting Dickens.

A bewildering number of exhibitions, talks, debates, films and plays are scheduled in the year-long celebrations to honour the creator of such memorable characters as Little Nell, Uriah Heep, the Artful Dodger, Pickwick, Mrs Gamp, Miss Havisham and the rest. In 2012, Dickens’s face will be everywhere, his presence inescapable.

The programmes put together by the Dickens 2012 initiative in the UK and by the British Council around the world reflect the vast cultural impact and relevance of the man and his works.

New interpretations commissioned by the British Council for Dickens’ bicentenary include “The Mumbai Chuzzlewits”, a reworking of Martin Chuzzlewit by Ayeesha Menon, which transposes the story to modern-day Mumbai; a one-woman play on the women in Dickens’s life; and a production of The Uncommercial Traveller based around life in contemporary Pakistan. Inspired by Dickens’s less well-known journalism, this interpretation has been produced by the the atre company Punchdrunk in collaboration with London’s Arcola theatre.

The Charles Dickens bicentennial has also provoked a Dickens publishing tsunami. As with Shakespeare, his only serious rival for the title of Britain’s favourite writer, books and blogs about him are now legion. His fascinating life and achievements have been endlessly recounted. Since his death at age 58 in 1870, there have been around 90 full-length biographies of Dickens.

No sooner has a biography been praised as “definitive” — a label applied at different times to biographies by Edgar Johnson (1952), Peter Ackroyd (1990) and Michael Slater (2009) — a new Dickens biography is penned. As the 2012 bicentennial approaches, the two current frontrunners are Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst and the superb Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin who also wrote The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.

Dickens is also the most filmed of writers. So repeatedly have his stories been adapted for films and television that it feels as though this great Victorian understood how TV and cinema storytelling worked before these mediums were invented.

George Bernard Shaw famously contended that Dickens wrote in a cinematic language years before the cinema. Beginning in 1901 with A Christmas Carol renamed Scrooge: Or, Marley’s Ghost, over 100 silent films were made of Dickens’s novels. To date there have been more than 400 films and TV adaptations.

It has often been said that Dickens’s episodic style of writing was the precursor of television soap. His long-form narrative certainly makes his work perfect for TV serialisation. Now as part of the bicentennial celebrations, 18 new radio and television productions based on Dickens’s work will be screened in 2012.

As Dickens’s influence on the cinema has been immense, the British Film Institute (BFI) in London is staging “Dickens on Screen,” the largest ever retrospective of film and television adaptations of Dickens work. Classic Dickens adaptations at this season will include films such as David Lean’ 1948 Oliver Twist, Carol Reed’s 1968 musical Oliver! and Roman Polanski’s 2005 darker version.

As many people today first encounter Dickens through TV, five major adaptations, beginning with Our Mutual Friend (1976) and ending with Bleak House (1985) will be screened. A Christmas Carol with Michael Caine as Scrooge, and the RSC’s brilliant eight-hour-long production, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, will also be shown.

“The prose style of Dickens is a foreshadowing of cinematic technique,” says Michael Eaton, co-curator of “Dickens on Screen.” He holds that this BFI retrospective will demonstrate that the great Victorian novelist “ is not a dead, grey old man sitting on dusty shelves who nobody reads; he is a living breathing artist whose work just keeps on rippling and resonating through our culture.”

It is often said that Dickens was one of the fathers of modern cinema. The film pioneer, D.W. Griffith, found many of his storytelling tricks, including close-ups, dissolves, and cutting between parallel narratives, in novels such as Oliver Twist. To mark the bicentenary of the novelist’s birth on February 7, 2012, an Arena film, Dickens on Film, will “illustrate how Dickens’ use of narrative — juxtaposing separate scenes for emotional effect for example — was hugely influential for early film-makers.

The great Hollywood film-maker of the early 20th century, D.W. Griffith and the great Russian auteur Sergei Eisenstein both claimed to have been massively influenced by the writer.”

Of all Dickens’s novels, Great Expectations, has been filmed most repeatedly. The classic version is David Lean’s 1946 film starring Jean Simmons and Alec Guinness. Anthony Hopkins starred in a 1989 rendition while the 1974 version featured Michael York and Sarah Miles. Now a highlight of “Dickens on Screen” is BBC One’s three-part adaptation of the novel. In this film Gillian Anderson plays the youngest ever Miss Havisham at 43, alongside Ray Winstone as Magwitch while Oscar Kennedy is Pip. A cinema version due in autumn 2012 stars Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham and Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch.

Published in 1860, Great Expectations charts the rise of Pip from village orphan to London gentleman thanks to a mystery benefactor. One of Dicken’s “most dark, psychological dramas,” it is “a parable of social ambition, of expectations taken to dire extremes.”

The novel’s happy ending is at odds with the general feel of the book. As reported in the Telegraph, “Dickens wrote two endings to Great Expectations, but, controversially, both new productions have an entirely new outcome. The two new adaptations are both a commentary on our money obsessed times as the hero Pip struggles to keep his head after the equivalent of a lottery win.The television series chooses a ‘compromise’ ending between the happy and unhappy endings that Dickens wrote about Pip’s eventual relationship with Estella. The cinema version, written by David Nicholls, an author, will have a totally new ending.”

Besides changing the ending of Great Expectations in both a film and TV series adaptation, the BBC has also completed the final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in another effort to find new ways to perform the novelist’s work. Literary purists are furious at this meddling.

As Robert Gottlieb said about Charles Dickens: “He was almost certainly the best-known man in England in the middle of the 19th century and the most loved: his very personal hold on his readers extended from the most distinguished — Queen Victoria, say — to illiterate workers who clubbed together to buy the weekly or monthly parts in which his novels first appeared so that one marginally literate man could read them aloud to his fellows. And this popularity and influence carried to America, Germany, France, and Russia as well. There was universal sorrow when he died. ‘I never knew an author’s death to cause such general mourning,’ wrote Longfellow. ‘It is no exaggeration to say that this whole country is stricken with grief’.”

The writer is a Dawn staffer