The BBC’s Dombey and Son

By Lydia Craig, Loyola University Chicago

Few film adaptations of Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1846) exist, possibly due to the novel’s heavy reliance on metonymy, the use of specific objects or distinctive physical attributes to represent characters’ hidden desires. As Robert Giddings notes, film resists lingering narrative focus on descriptive images and physical objects (306). Though it tries to faithfully represent Dickens’s metonymy, the 1983 BBC miniseries Dombey and Son — starring Julian Glover (Paul Dombey), Lysette Anthony (Florence Dombey), and Paul Darrow (Mr. Carker) — struggles to convey symbolic features such as Carker’s teeth. Verbal metaphor in a text, while producing vivid mental images in the reader’s mind, does not always translate accurately in accompanying illustrations, nor yet on screen, as the miniseries demonstrates.

Mr. Carker’s teeth in the BBC adaptation

In Dickens’s novel, Mr. Carker’s teeth metonymically represent his insidiousness. Though Darrow’s intonations expertly capture Carker’s understated menace, the actor lacks the oversized grin betraying the feral beast beneath Carker’s cultivated façade, an instance film critic Jonathan Miller describes in a review for The Sunday Times as illustrating the “logical difference” between the viewed physical reality of film and the intellectual meaning resulting from literature (Supplement, G.9). In order to comprehend Mr. Carker’s vicious character and seductive intentions, Dickens requires the reader to persistently recall his teeth, even when they are not mentioned in specific dental detail. When Florence’s dog Diogenes snaps at Mr. Toots but does not bite him, for example, Mr. Carker offers aid: “‘If the dog’s teeth have entered the leg, Sir -’ began Carker, with a display of his own” (317). The narrative’s initial comparison between Diogenes and Carker’s teeth undergoes a revision in imagery after the dog barks at him, accurately recognizing Carker’s cat-like predatory walk. Unlike a dog, who honestly displays his opinion of others, Carker conceals his true feelings and intentions, and is therefore cunning and untrustworthy.

Phiz’s illustration, “Mr. Carker in His Hour of Triumph”

Dombey and Son, like many of Dickens’s novels, was illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne (“Phiz”). Several illustrations of Carker depict him with an impossibly wide smile, while others attempt to depict it in a more “realistic” manner, demonstrating the difficulty of even illustrating Dickens’s metonymy. In some illustrations, Phiz relies on other visual aids. Carker’s teeth experience two final symbolic confrontations with “teeth” much sharper and more powerful than his own: the table knife Edith uses to defend her virtue and the train that fatally crushes Carker. Phiz’s ironic illustration “Mr. Carker in his Hour of Triumph” depicts a standing Edith extending a bared arm tauntingly towards a seated Carker, while he averts his face, closed, sullen mouth covered by a hand (759). The BBC version does not follow Phiz’s lead, and instead stages this scene on a boat where Edith clumsily presents the knife, physically struggles to escape Carker’s restraining grasp, and is released only after threatening him with her estranged husband’s approach (Bennett).

While escaping from Mr. Dombey, Carker slips onto a railway track and is killed in full view of his pursuer’s horrified gaze. The train engine is described as an iron-toothed beast with “red eyes,” “a jagged mill, that spun him round and round…and cast his mutilated fragments in the air” (Dickens 779). A desperate but resolute woman and an unthinking machine have twice mastered and bested the teeth, speaking to the ultimate fruitlessness of Carker’s twisted designs and cruel threats. Dogs are shooed away from the remains and men remove the body from the tracks. In the BBC adaptation this scene passes quickly, with Carker seeing and realizing that Dombey has traced him to the station and desperately jumping in front of the train. There is one shot of the wheels turning, while Dombey stares in shock.

Phiz’s illustration, “Coming Home from Church”

Though this miniseries generally remains faithful to Dickens’s novel, minimizing Edith’s agency by showing Carker as physically abusive represents a departure from how  menacing and then ineffectual he appears in the text and Phiz’s illustrations. What this film’s style does accomplish however, especially in its preservation of tense and lengthy drawing room conversations between Carker, Dombey, and Edith, is to emphasize the psychological drama of being trapped within domestic spaces and roles by more powerful individuals due to age and gender. While translating the metonymy of Dickens’s text to screen may present filmic challenges for realistic cinema, film can also use space and atmosphere to capture the novel’s suspenseful tone and illustrate its subtext for the viewer.

Questions for Discussion:

Andrew Davies (BBC Pride and Prejudice) expressed interest in doing an adaptation of Dombey and Son (Singh). Given his period style, how might he represent Dickens’s metonymy? Could the use of “knife” and “tooth” imagery such as close up shots of Carker and Diogenes’ growling teeth, Edith’s knife, the train’s wheels, convey the menace of Carker’s teeth?

Director Joss Whedon (Buffy, The Avengers) has also expressed interest in doing an adaptation of Dombey and Son (Plumb). Consider the style of Whedon’s other films. How might he represent Carker’s teeth? Would giving an actor an impossibly white and wide CGI-enhanced grin like that of the Cheshire Cat (Alice in Wonderland) help translate Dickens’ absurd textual characterization from text to screen?

Besides Carker’s teeth, other examples of Dickens’s metonymy appear throughout Dombey and Son’s text, as critics have noted. Which of the other characters are represented by items, features, or characteristics such as an unusual laugh or repeated phrase? How well do these other metonymic devices transfer from text to screen in the BBC version? Do they appear at all and if not, why were they excluded?

Works Cited:

Bennett, Rodney, director. Dombey and Son. Performed by Julian Glover, Lysette   Anthony, and Paul Darrow. BBC, 1983. Film.

Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. 1846. Oxford University Press, 1987.

Giddings, Robert. “Great misrepresentations: Dickens and film.” Critical Survey, vol. 3, no.3, 1991, pp. 305-312.

Miller, Jonathan. “The debate of the film of the book.” The Sunday Times. 12 February 1989. Factiva. Web. 17 July 2017.

Plumb, Ali. “Joss Whedon on Dombey and Son Movie Ambitions.” Movies. EmpireOnline. 18 June 2013. Web. 17 July 2017.

Singh, Anita. “BBC period drama has gone downmarket, says Andrew Davies.” The Telegraph. 28 September 2009. Web. 17 July 2017.

Further Reading:

Altick, Richard D. “Varieties of Readers’ Response: The Case of ‘Dombey and Son.’” The Yearbook of English Studies, vol. 10, 1980, pp. 70-94.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. “Emblems and Ecphrases in ‘Dombey and Son.’” Dickens Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 2, 2010, pp. 102-118.

Guida, Fred. “Some Thoughts on the BBC, British Silent Films, Dombey and Son, Rich Man’s Folly & The Changing World of Charles Dickens.” Fred Guida’s Charles    Dickens On Screen. 10 January 2012.

Reed, John R. Dickens’s Hyperrealism. Ohio State University Press, 2010.

Stewart, Garrett. “Dickens, Eisenstein, film.” Dickens on Screen. Edited by John Glavin. Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 122-144.

Stone, Harry. “Dickens and Leitmotif: Music-staircase Imagery in Dombey and Son.” College English, vol. 25, no. 3, 1963, pp. 217-220.

Watt, Kate Varnell and Kathleen C. Lonsdale. “Dickens Composed: film and television adaptations 1897-2001.” Dickens on Screen. Edited by John Glavin. Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 201-216.

Images:

“Coming Home from Church.” Illustration by Hablot Knight Brown, otherwise known as ‘Phiz.’ Dombey and Son. London, 1846.

“Dombey and Son frontispiece.” Illustration by Hablot Knight Brown, otherwise known as ‘Phiz.’ Dombey and Son. London, 1846.

“Mr. Carker in his Hour of Triumph.” Illustration by Hablot Knight Brown, otherwise known as ‘Phiz.’ Dombey and Son. London, 1846.

ABC’s A Christmas Carol

By Andre DeCuir, Muskingum University

Animation ultimately is the best method in conveying the importance of change in A Christmas Carol because animation, in a sense, occurs in the text itself. For example, when the young Scrooge reads alone in the schoolroom, the “exotic characters from that reading troop into the barren room and enact their familiar adventures” (Stone 15-16). Vibrant, colorful figures move about in an otherwise still room, having a “softening influence” on Scrooge. The vision gives “a freer passage to his tears” (72). An animated version of A Christmas Carol that aired on the ABC Television Network on December 21, 1971 acknowledges major themes such as the powerful flux of memory and emotion in creating flexibility necessary for significant change. The pulsating animation style of the characters and backgrounds create a world never static, always on the verge of change. Here, Scrooge can eventually pass through his crusty oyster shell into this world, diffusing kindness and generosity.

Stylistically, the film resembles John Leech’s 1843 illustrations for A Christmas Carol. The lines in the animators’ drawings, however, were not “cleaned up”; in other words, lines in the hair, faces, and clothing of the characters and in the backgrounds were not completely erased. When the drawings were filmed one by one and set in motion, lines of differing lengths and thicknesses gave another dimension of movement to the characters. A character might be standing still, but the lines within the character’s outline shift slightly, giving the character a “shimmering” appearance. In a close-up of Scrooge, the individual hairs of his eyebrows wave, and the curls of one of the gentlemen collecting for charity appear to have a life of their own.

John Leech’s illustration, “Scrooge Extinguishes the First of the Three Spirits”

This technique is most appropriate in the animation of the scenes involving the Ghost of Christmas Past, a figure Leech did not draw, perhaps due to the complexity of Dickens’s description. The ghost’s head and limbs vibrate and then divide like cells into multiple appendages, faithful to Dickens’s description: “now a thing with one arm, now one leg, now with twenty legs” (68). In addition, the features dissolve from those of a youth to those of an old man and back again. We see Scrooge quickly “morph” like the ghost, frame by frame, from a youth and adolescent in the schoolroom to a young apprentice at his desk at Fezziwig’s.

The style continues with the next two ghosts. At warp speed, the Ghost of Christmas Present whisks Scrooge to the Cratchits’ home, to the hut of miners, to a lighthouse, and to the deck of a ship on a stormy sea. Even the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge and the viewer on a dizzying, zigzag route from the chamber housing the sheet-covered body to the Cratchits’ house where Bob Cratchit kneels at the bedside of Tiny Tim, muttering, “’My little child!’” (Dickens 122).

The rapid movement of the scenes, writes Sammon, “suggests the flow of time” (134). The fluid animation of the characters, coupled with the speed of the scenes, creates a malleable world where barriers will be short lived. In such a setting, significant change such as Scrooge becoming a better man overnight is inevitable.

Questions for Discussion:

Williams’s animated version only runs 26 minutes. Discuss an omission or omissions that you believe are needed in this version. Does the film make up for the omissions in other ways?

Reread Dickens’s description of the Ghost of Christmas Past. The original illustrator, John Leech, did not contribute illustrations of this ghost. Why not? What ideas about memory and change could Dickens have possibly attempted to convey through the ghost’s strange appearance? How does the animated version convey those ideas?

Harry Stone acknowledges that in the text itself, there are “rapid shifts from scene to scene, . . . telescoping, blurring” (16). The scenes in the animated feature flow quickly, almost too quickly. Discuss the significance of this flow, perhaps linking it to the flux of memory and emotion and its role in the conversion of Scrooge.

Further Reading:

Buckwald, Craig. “Stalking the Figurative Oyster: The Excursive Ideal in A Christmas Carol.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 27, no. 1, 1990, pp. 1-14.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. The Christmas Books, Volume One. Penguin, 1985.

Guida, Fred. A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations: Dickens’s Story on Screen and Television. McFarland, 2000.

Sammon, Paul. The Christmas Carol Trivia Book: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Every Version of The Dickens Classic. Citadel, 1994.

Stone, Harry. Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairytales, Fantasy, and Novel-Making. Macmillan, 1980.

Joshua Cohen’s PCKWCK

by Laurena Tsudama, University of Connecticut

Despite the popularity of adaptations of Victorian fiction, the deliberate adaptation of not just the plot or themes of a Victorian novel but also the conditions of its production is still unusual. However, that is precisely what American novelist Joshua Cohen has done in writing PCKWCK (2015), his adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (1837). Written online in real-time, PCKWCK offered readers both a new (and, oftentimes, unusual) take on Dickens’ classic novel and an interactive experience that allowed them to engage directly with the material being written before their eyes.

mr-pickwick-addresses-the-clubCohen’s project adapts not just The Pickwick Papers but also Victorian serial publication, and PCKWCK is more a conceptual adaptation than a retelling of Dickens’ novel. PCKWCK amplifies the interactive experience that serialization presented to the Victorian reader by utilizing a similar structure, one in which readers receive parts of a novel to which they can then respond, and situating it within a digital culture that speeds up the process of author-reader exchange. Dickens’ practice of publishing his novels in serial parts created what The Illustrated London News describes as an “immediate personal companionship between the writer and the reader”: “It was just as if we received a letter or a visit, at regular intervals, from a kindly observant gossip” (“The Late Charles Dickens”). Although this sentimental image of the author-reader relationship is certainly relevant to PCKWCK as a kind of contextual backdrop, Sarah Winter’s argument that Dickens shaped “the reception of popular serial fiction into a means of gathering readers into a new constituency with democratic, participatory potentials” comes closer to how PCKWCK envisions serialization’s (and the internet’s) impact on reading (6).

PCKWCK retains some central features of The Pickwick Papers, such as a colorful cast of characters and a roving “club” whose adventures propel the narrative. Cohen’s novel follows the activities of the eponymous PCKWCK Club, a United States-based military contractor that specializes in the extraordinary rendition, interrogation, and torture of suspected terrorists. The novel’s first two chapters are narrated by a French taxi driver/aspiring novelist, born in the fictional country of “Tunubia,” who becomes a target of PCKWCK. Believing that he has finally found a publisher for the manuscript he has spent eight years writing, the narrator travels to another fictional country called “Maqajoshua_cohen-2010ma” only to be taken, interrogated, and brutally tortured by members of PCKWCK because his pen name has led them to believe he is the son of a known terrorist. The remaining three chapters of the short novel follow the PCKWCK Club’s members, whose identities and speech Cohen adapts from the participants in the website’s chatroom.

This chatroom, which appeared alongside the text of the novel, allowed PCKWCK’s readers to discuss the novel while Cohen was writing it. Between October 12th and 16th of 2015, for five hours each day, visitors to PCKWCK’s website could watch Cohen via webcam as he worked and read the novel as it progressed. PCKWCK mimics the serial format of The Pickwick Papers: Cohen wrote one chapter of the novel per day, and readers could discuss and respond to the novel before its completion, much like Dickens’ readers did. However, PCKWCK also modernizes that serial format: the novel appeared online and was produced at an incredibly rapid pace, and readers responded in the chatroom not just after Cohen completed a chapter but also during the five hours he spent writing it. Essentially, PCKWCK heightens the “democratic, participatory potentials” of serialization, which Winter identifies in Dickens’ own work, by condensing and updating the Victorian serial format to reflect the internet culture of our time (6).

For pedagogical purposes, PCKWCK is best suited to college-level work due to the violence and language it depicts. However, because the original text can only be found piecemeal online, PCKWCK is currently most useful when studied as a phenomenon rather than a text. In examining PCKWCK as both an adaptation of Dickens’ novel and a cultural artifact that seeks to mediate the temporal gap between Dickens’ moment and ours, we can discover how Cohen’s work and his working habits speak back to The Pickwick Papers by linking Victorian literary production with contemporary internet culture. The reflexive relationship between Dickens’ original novel and Cohen’s adaptation can help us understand Dickens’ role in our culture as well as allow us to use earlier Victorian models of literary production to analyze those extant today.

Questions for Discussion

Compare the online, real-time publication of PCKWCK with the print, serialized publication of The Pickwick Papers discussed by Robert Patten in “Pickwick Papers and the Development of Serial Fiction.” The two novels share an especially important feature: they both allowed their contemporary readers a feeling of connection with the author and text through serialization. Even if he did not always alter his novels to suit readers’ tastes, Dickens took immense interest in his readers’ letters, often written and sent before a novel finished its run. PCKWCK establishes a similarly responsive relationship between author and writer, but that relationship is complicated by the introduction of the trappings of modern digital culture: the presence of the webcam, the anonymity of the chatroom participants, and the speed at which the novel was written. What do the similarities and differences between Dickens’ novel and Cohen’s adaptation suggest about the relationship between the Victorian period’s literary culture and today’s? How do the two modes of publication comment on each other?

Discussion of the ethical implications of the Pickwick Club’s activities is not entirely new. Scholars have written about the novel’s utilization (and subversion) of temperance narratives, interest in reform, treatment of class, and examination of morality (see Claybaugh, Parker, and Tharaud). However, by transforming Dickens’ Pickwickians into operatives for a military contractor, and a wantonly violent and destructive one at that, Cohen’s adaptation places the question of the Pickwick Club’s ethics in a rather extreme light. Why does Cohen cast the PCKWCK Club, marked by its very name as an updated version of Dickens’ Pickwick Club, as such a malevolent entity? Does this decision reflect a negative interpretation of the original Pickwick Club; clubs, organizations, and corporations of today; or both? In what ways does Cohen’s decision comment on the Pickwick Club of Dickens’ novel, Victorian culture generally, or even today’s culture?

Cohen has said that the reason he chose to adapt Dickens’ Pickwick Papers was “The enormous pressure [Dickens] was under. The great pressures of producing that much text. It was the sense that your best inventions are the ones forced out of you” (“An Experiment in Anxiety”). Cohen reinforces this idea by casting PCKWCK’s chatroom participants as the narrator’s torturers, who torment him over the information in his manuscript. What kind of argument might Cohen be making about authorship? What commentary is he offering on Victorian and/or contemporary production of literature and entertainment?

Further Reading

Claybaugh, Amanda. “Dickensian Intemperance: Charity and Reform.” Novel, vol. 37, no. 1-2, 2003, pp. 45–65.

Cohen, Joshua. “An Experiment in Anxiety.” Interview by Andrew Leland. The Believer Logger. The Believer Mag, 15 Oct. 2015. Accessed 14 Oct. 2016.

Dickens, Charles. Life, Letters, and Speeches of Charles Dickens. Edited by Edwin Percy Whipple, Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1894.

—. The Pickwick Papers. 1837. Edited by James Kinsley, Oxford UP, 1988.

Johnson, E.D.H. “Dickens and His Readers.The Victorian Web. The Victorian Web, Jan. 2000. Accessed 14 Oct. 2016.

Parker, David. “Pickwick and Reform: Origins.” Dickens Studies Annual, vol. 45, 2014, pp. 1–21.

Patten, Robert. L. “Pickwick Papers and the Development of Serial Fiction.” The Rice University Studies, vol. 61, no. 1, 1975, pp. 51–74.

PCKWCK.Useless Press. Useless Press, 12 Oct. 2015. Accessed 14 Oct. 2016.

Tharaud, Barry. “Form as Process in The Pickwick Papers: The Structure of Ethical Discovery.” Dickens Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 3, 2007, pp. 145–158.

“The Late Charles Dickens.” The Illustrated London News, 18 June 1870, p. 639. The Illustrated London News: Historical Archive, 1842-2003. Accessed 14 Oct. 2016.

Winter, Sarah. The Pleasures of Memory: Learning to Read with Charles Dickens. Oxford UP, 2011.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations

By Chris Dickinson, Baylor University

Over shots of Florida’s Gulf Coast, an adult Finn (Alfonso Cuarón’s version of Pip, played by Ethan Hawke) tells us, “I won’t tell the story the way it happened. I’ll tell it the way I remember it” (Cuarón). Such a statement in the opening scene of Cuarón’s 1998 film lets viewers know that Mitch Glazer’s screenplay presents a fantasy about Great Expectations rather than a strict re-telling of Dickens’s novel. The changes to setting and narrative are immense: Florida’s impoverished pre-Katrina Gulf Coast (the opening shots of which are particularly striking) replaces England’s marshlands, New York replaces London, and a funded art exhibition by an unknown benefactor replaces Pip’s original “Expectations.” Despite all these “cosmetic” changes, the most profound changes in the film come in terms of character. For instance, Finn is an artist rather than a blacksmith’s apprentice, and Lustig (the Magwitch character, played by Robert DeNiro) is an Italian mobster.

Estella, played by the 26-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow, is particularly changed, though she retains the name. Cuarón believes that “it is impossible to make a contemporary film of a book about young people in love without sex” (Katz 97), and Estella is more sexualized in Cuarón’s film than in the Dickens original. Yet this focus on the sexualized body of Estella is not simply the result of setting the adaptation in 1990s America. To begin with, this focus is not just added to the narrative but replaces the original dynamic between Pip and Estella. As Pamela Katz states, “Glazer’s screenplay focused almost exclusively on the theme of unrequited love. Tugging quite forcefully on this single thematic thread, he transformed (or updated?) it into the very requited form of erotic obsession” (97). Pip’s unrequited yearning becomes, in Cuarón’s film, Finn’s psychological obsession to posses Estella’s body.

The focus on Estella’s physical body begins early in the film and continues throughout, from when the young Estella kisses Finn at the water-fountain in the decayed mansion belonging to Densmore (Cuarón’s Miss Havisham, played by Anne Bancroft), to when the teenaged Estella sexually teases Finn by allowing him to caress her leg after a formal dress dinner, to when their kiss is repeated once the two are in New York, to the afternoon in which Estella poses nude for Finn’s painting (a scene often mocked as campy), to the night in which the two finally experience sexual consummation.

The focus on Estella’s sexualized body comes at the cost of other narrative elements from Dickens’s original. Katz mentions that Cuarón wished to incorporate into the film the same class-consciousness that permeates Dickens’s novel. She is also surprised to find out that originally, Estella was meant to be a successful career-woman. Demands from the script and studio caused both of these elements to be removed from the final film.

Dickens is a product of the age in which he wrote. The attempt to bring Estella’s character into the 21st century is fraught with peril, and is the cause of much of the film’s disjointed feeling. Ultimately, the film brings the validity of “contemporizations” of classic texts as a whole into question, and because of this, challenges directors, screen-writers, and adaptation theorists to do the same.

Questions for Discussion:

Does this adaptation’s “sexualizing” of Estella harm the quality of the film as a whole, or does it help in situating the film in its contemporary setting and context? If the latter, how is this achieved?

Do you agree with Cuarón’s assertion that “it is impossible to make a contemporary film of a book about young people in love without sex”? If so, does this mean that any contemporization of a novel or play should sexualize its female characters as Cuarón’s film does? Why or why not?

Cuarón was unable to imbue this film with the same feeling of class-consciousness that is so powerfully evident in Dickens’s original novel. However, what are some ways in which a film set in 21st-century America might convey the same anxieties about class that were present in 19th-century England? What might a director do to illustrate these anxieties?

Further Reading:

Great Expectations. Dir. Alfonso Cuarón. Twentieth Century Fox, 1998. Film.

Katz, Pamela. “Directing Dickens: Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 Great Expectations.” Dickens on Screen. Ed. John Glavin. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 95-103. Print.

McFarlane, Brian. Screen Adaptations: Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations: The Relationship Between Text and Film. 2008. Ed. Imelda Whelehan. London: Methuen Drama, 2008. Print.

 

J.P. Burnett’s Bleak House: A Drama in Three Acts

By Julianne Smith, Pepperdine University

J.P. Burnett’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House was a global sensation in the late Victorian period. The play makes Jo the central character in the story and comes to be more commonly billed as Jo, or Bleak House or alternately as Poor Jo.[1] Victorian actress Jennie Lee, also the wifeJo image of the playwright, popularized the eponymous character through her evocative performance of Dickens’s waif at his melodramatic and pathetic finest. Drawing on Dickens’s most affecting scenes of extreme poverty and death, Lee made a career playing Jo in repertoire in such far-flung locations as New Zealand and America as well as repeating her performance in provincial theatres across Britain.

Burnett’s adaptation had its genesis in America. Both he and Jennie Lee were in San Francisco in 1875 when tragedienne Fanny Janauschek brought her version of Bleak House, adapted by Henry Rendle sometime in 1871, to the California Theatre. This version featured Lady Dedlock as the central character, and its claim to fame was that Janauschek played the roles of both Lady Dedlock and Hortense. Jennie Lee was cast in the part of Jo, and she quickly stole the show from Janauschek with her emotional performance. Burnett then adapted Bleak House to make Jo the center of the story. The couple returned to England and premiered their version the following year.

Burnett’s adaptation was never published nor has it been digitized, making it currently inaccessible as a classroom text. As well, scholarship on this play is scarce, but what follows here is a brief description of the play that may help situate it within a larger discussion of Bleak House themes, such as treatment of the poor and working classes, or other Dickens adaptations. The play’s dialogue is both a loose paraphrase of Dickens’s original text and wording directly copied from Dickens, though not always very carefully. Burnett often combines and compresses scenes from the novel in a way that roughly follows Dickens’s chronology but necessarily leaves out many characters and events. Dickens’s plotline featuring the Dedlocks, Hortense and Tulkinghorn has been preserved in abbreviated form; however, the play opens and closes with an emphasis on Jo (spelled J-o-e in the manuscript); the first scene features Jo at the “inkwich,” and the final two scenes draw out his death in great detail. One interesting historical feature related to Jo’s death at the play’s end is the truncation of the Lord’s Prayer, which Jo repeats as he dies in the novel. In Burnett’s play, Jo’s last words are “I’m movin on,” where as Dickens kills off Jo mid-prayer as he utters the words “Hallowed be—thy—.” As is evident in crossed out lines in the manuscript, Burnett had to make some changes to the scene because the Lord Chamberlain forbade scripture references on stage as irreverent use of sacred text. So in adapting the novel for the stage, other forces were at work that at times prevented a more faithful representation of Dickens.

Burnett also adds other elements to justify Jo as the tragic hero of the story. For example, just before he dies, the Snagsby’s epileptic maid Guster kisses him, and the two become star-crossed lovers destined to part. Inspector Bucket (instead of Mr. Woodcourt) attends Jo as he dies, and the final tableau features Bucket mourning over Jo’s dead body. Burnett himself sometimes played the role of Bucket to his wife’s performance of Jo, so the play showcased the talents of husband and wife at the same time it moved the tragic climax away from the Dedlocks, whose denouement occurs at the beginning of the last act and mostly in line with Dickens’s plot. Once the Dedlocks are resolved, the play’s last two scenes feature Jo as he dwindles toward death.

Questions for Discussion:

Dickens’s novel Bleak House features more than a hundred characters, but its title does not identify a main character as some of his other novels, such as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, do. What cultural or literary elements might a playwright be responding to when Jo or Lady Dedlock become the focus of the storyline? Why is Esther, who is one of the novel’s narrators, not a central character in this stage adaptation of Bleak House? What does the treatment of Esther tell us about the difference between fiction and theatre?

When a playwright adapts a novel with so many characters and events for the theatre, what are some considerations of time, place and action that go into staging it? Since the entire novel cannot be staged, is an adaptation that leaves things out inauthentic?

How do actors’ strengths affect the script of a play? Can you think of a modern actor who has played a minor role in a film that ended up making him or her famous? Or one who perhaps ended up playing a more memorable role than the film’s major stars?


Further Reading:

Burnett, J. P. Bleak House: A Drama in Three Acts. February 1876. Lord Chamberlain’s   Collection, British Library. Add MS 53162 B.

Bolton, “Bleak House and the Playhouse.” Dickens Studies Annual 12 (1983): 81-116.

—-. Dickens Dramatized. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987.

Fitzgerald, Percy. “On Some of the Old Actors.” The Gentleman’s Magazine 276 (February          1894): 170-181.

Shaw, George Bernard. Our Theatre in the Nineties. Vol. 2. London: Constable, 1932.

Sherson, Erroll. London’s Lost Theatres of the Nineteenth Century. London: John Lane, 1925.


Sample Reviews:

“Footlight Flashes: The Record of a Week of Triumph.” The San Francisco Chronicle 13 June      1875: 5.

“Jennie Lee.” The Mercury (Hobart, Tasmania) 18 March 1892: 2.8.

“The Drama: Globe Theatre.” The London Reader 18 March 1876: 472.

Wedmore, Frederick. “The Stage: Bleak House at The Globe.” The Academy 26 February 1876:    203-204.

[1] Licensed 16 February 1876
London premiere at The Globe, 21 February 1876
Last known performance at The Lyric Theatre, 7 February 1921

The Ending of David Lean’s Great Expectations

By Joshua Gooch, D’Youville College

Great expectations.jpg

“Great expectations” poster. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

For all its critical plaudits, David Lean’s adaptation of Great Expectations ends on what can at best be called a ludicrous note for readers focused on an adaptation’s fidelity to its text.[i] In its published ending, the novel concludes years later with a mature and chastened Pip encountering a similarly mature and chastened Estella in the open ruins of what was once Satis House. Estella has endured a brutal marriage to the now-deceased Drummle, and Pip a life of clerical work in the east in Clarriker’s house. Estella describes her altered perception of life with phrases that Dickens retained in the published ending from his draft—“suffering had been stronger than all other [in draft: Miss Havisham’s] teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be” (3.20, 484). It is the conjunction of time, suffering, and reflection that connects these characters in the published ending’s rising mists of a new day.

By contrast, Lean’s film ends shortly after Magwitch’s death, with Pip’s discovery of Biddy’s marriage to Joe followed closely thereafter by his return to a still-standing Satis House. Inside, Estella sits in Miss Havisham’s vacant seat, abandoned at the altar by Drummle because of her low parentage—a fact never revealed to her in the novel—but newly enriched not only by Miss Havisham’s death but also by that of Magwitch, as the Crown has apportioned his property to her. Pip implores Estella to abandon her decision to embrace not only Miss Havisham’s ideology but also her position in Satis House, and pulls down the dusty drapes to let in the sunlight. This melodramatic turn has immediate effect: Estella embraces Pip, and the two depart Satis House to marry and enjoy Estella’s wealth.

A close reading of Lean’s ending can be particularly useful in teaching the novel. First and foremost, the divergence from the text—easily spotted by students—can be used to start a discussion about the novel’s central themes and values, most especially its focus on disinterest and selflessness (e.g., Pip’s request that Miss Havisham fund Herbert Pocket’s partnership and refusal of her offers of financial assistance) and its insistence on the power of suffering to build character over time. Some students will, of course, embrace Lean’s ending, and here too one can highlight what values and desires readers bring to texts, and the ways in which Dickens’s novel uses their desire to, in Peter Brooks’s language, read for the plot in order to manipulate their reactions.

Second, the Lean ending also reveals how authors and directors create a sense of unity and wholeness by returning to prior parts of a text. For Lean, the textual justification for his ending appears to be a line from Pip’s first encounter with Miss Havisham: “I have often thought since, that she must have looked as if the admission of the natural light of day would have struck her to dust” (1.8, 60). Pip’s shout to Estella in Lean’s film reiterates this idea (“I have come back Miss Havisham to let in the sunlight”),[ii] and the intrusion of sunlight in the frame signals a radical alteration of perspective from the film’s gray opening on the marshes.

Several scholars have discussed the endings to Great Expectations. Peter Brooks argues in favor of the draft ending while Hillary Schor reframes the apparent romance plot of the film adaptation by focusing on Pip’s desires. For discussions of the novel’s thematics, see Julian Moynahan, and F.R. and Q.D. Leavis. For discussions of Lean’s success as an adapter, see Brian McFarlane. In sum, an examination of divergences in the adaptation of the novel’s conclusion can underscore how Great Expectations reveals a key tension in the construction of any narrative conclusion between thematic consistency and aesthetic unity.

Discussion Questions

Dickens wrote two endings for the novel, the second at the urging of Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton. Read his draft and published endings (the Norton Critical and Broadview editions contain useful extracts from Dickens’s letters on the change). How do these endings highlight or downplay different themes? Which themes do Lean’s ending bring out? Which themes are underplayed?

In the published ending, Dickens returns to the image of rising mist. Examine the novel’s prior instances of this image (e.g., at the end of the first stage of Pip’s expectations [1.19, 160], during Pip’s discussion of Estella with Herbert [2.11, 250], and with the evaporation of his expectations [3.18, 470]). How does the published ending use this imagery? How does Lean’s ending respond to it?

In Reading for the Plot, Peter Brooks argues in favor of the draft ending because it shows Pip has overcome his attraction to Estella and his tendency to misread the world, while the published ending seems to restart Pip’s obsessions. Do you prefer one of the endings? Why? How do you want the novel to end? Do Dickens’s endings fulfill those desires? Does Lean’s? What do the different endings imply about what we as readers bring to a text? And what does the experience of reading multiple endings do to your interpretation of the novel?

Lean’s film was released in 1946, just after World War II. The German aerial bombardment of Britain led to the widespread use of blackout curtains to prevent night time lights from guiding planes to bomb targets. How might that historical context inform our interpretation of Lean’s choice of an ending?

Further Reading

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. 1860-1. Ed. Charlotte Mitchell. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.

Great Expectations. Dir. David Lean. 1946. Criterion Collection, 1998.

Leavis, F.R., & Q.D. Leavis, Dickens: The Novelist. New York: Pantheon, 1970.

McFarlane, Brian. “David Lean’s Great Expectations—Meeting Two Challenges.” Literature and Film Quarterly 20.1 (1992): 68-76.

Moynahan, Julian. “The Hero’s Guilt: The Case of Great Expectations.” Essays in Criticism 10 (1960): 60-79.

Schor, Hillary. Dickens and the Daughter of the House. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[i] The sequence occupies two chapters on the Criterion Collection DVD reissue of the film, and runs from 01:52:40-01:57:45. McFarlane offers a useful instance of the film’s critical celebration.

[ii] Great Expectations 01:56:15-20

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Carrie Sickmann Han

DodgerThe Artful Dodger, arguably one of Charles Dickens’s most beloved characters, abruptly appears and then disappears in Oliver Twist (1837-1839), leaving both his past and his future tantalizingly untold. Terry Pratchett’s Dodger (2012) provides readers with a glimpse into the street urchin’s early history, when he lived alone in the attic of Solomon Cohen—a Jewish watchmaker modeled after “Ikey” Solomon (the original Fagin).  Pratchett’s Dodger remains the swaggering, streetwise, but lovable rogue we so fondly remember. In the first few pages, he interrupts his thievery to rescue a defenseless young lady, Simplicity, from two assailants. When two additional gentlemen enter the scene to assist the damsel in distress, readers watch fictional and historical worlds collide: “Charlie” Dickens, a journalist at The Morning Chronicle, becomes Dodger’s employer and advisor. Pratchett embeds the novel with many such impossible “twists.” In this literary and historical pastiche, the Dodger hobnobs with Benjamin Disraeli, thwarts the plans of Sweeney Todd, poses for John Tenniel, and meets Queen Victoria.
Mayhew, Tosher illustration2Pratchett acknowledges that the book “is a historical fantasy—and certainly not a historical novel” (359-360). But for a fantasy novel, the story conveys a surprising amount of historical information that’s usually reserved for graduate courses on the Victorian period. Pratchett dedicates the novel not to Dickens, as the title might suggest, but to social advocate and author Henry Mayhew, whose detailed survey of the London working class, The London Labour and the London Poor (1851), provides the foundation for Dodger’s setting and characters. Pratchett’s Dodger is a “tosher,” or a sewer-hunter—one of the subjects of Mayhew’s study. He uses a crowbar to slip through drain covers and enter the grimy underworld of the London sewage system, where he battles the stench, the rats, the dangerous waters, and other toshers for the treasures that dropped through the drains above into the filth below. Pratchett brings Mayhew’s working-class type to life, using the Dodger’s occupational expertise to expose the “layer[s] of dirt” and “dirty deeds” that abounded in Victorian London (1). This young adult novel—a Michael L. Printz Honor Book—serves as a bridge between popular fiction and Victorian history and literature. “If you like fantasy,” Pratchett promises, “in a very strange way fantasy is there [in London Labour and the London Poor] with realistic dirt and grime all over it,” and  he insists that Mayhew’s work “ought to be in every library” (356). This attempt to introduce fantasy fans to Victorian social issues, history, and literature is a fitting legacy for one of the last novels that Pratchett published before his death in March of 2015.  This quick and fun read would be a great addition to a British literature and culture syllabus—particularly if paired with Dickens’s Oliver Twist and/or excerpts from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.

Questions for Discussion:

Pratchett investigates what Thomas Carlyle calls the “Condition of England Question.” How does he represent the Victorian working-class poor? What are some of the social problems he identifies? Who are the victims and who are the perpetrators? Who is able to effect change?

Pratchett dedicates Dodger to Henry Mayhew. How is this novel in conversation with London Labour and the London Poor? Which of Mayhew’s types of workers does Pratchett represent? Which characteristics does he emphasize and de-emphasize? How do those creative decisions alter or enhance Mayhew’s social agenda?

The title, Dodger, is one of several allusions to Dickens’s Oliver Twist. How does approaching Dodger as a prequel to Oliver Twist change the way we interpret Oliver Twist? How does this backstory affect our understanding of Dickens’s characters (Fagin, Dodger, Oliver, Nancy)?

Pratchett blends his original characters (Simplicity, The Outlander, Grandad) with canonical characters (the Artful Dodger, Sweeney Todd), Victorian authors (Charles Dickens, Henry Mayhew), and political figures (Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, Sir Robert Peel, Angela Burdett-Coutts). How does he represent these figures differently? What does he suggest is the relationship between contemporary fiction, canonical fiction, and history? What are the different functions of these different genres? How does he represent authorship? fictionality? politics?

Pratchett is known for his fantasy fiction (particularly the Discworld series), and he calls Dodger a “historical fantasy” novel. What characteristics of Victorian literature and culture correspond with the fantasy genre? Why do you think the Victorian period is often depicted in contemporary films, video games, and television shows?

Further Reading:

Carroll, Rachel, Ed. Adaptation in Contemporary Culture: Textual Infidelities. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009.

Ledger, Sally. Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Mitchell, Kate. History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Victorian Afterimages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Saler, Michael. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage, 1966.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Dickens World

By Patrick C. Fleming

Dickens World is a Charles Dickens-themed attraction located in Chatham, Kent, where Dickens lived as a young child. The area, and nearby Rochester, feature prominently in many of his novels. The site opened in 2007, and featured:

  • A Great Expectations-themed boat ride through a Victorian sewer. The ride features Magwitch and a host of other criminal characters from Dickens’s oeuvre;
  • A haunted house, initially advertised as Scrooge’s but changed, before opening, to “the haunted house of 1859.” The house features a “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion, a trick using mirrors that first debuted in a production of Dickens’s story, “The Haunted Man”;
  • A 4D movie at Peggotty’s boathouse, providing a brief biography of Dickens;
  • Dotheboys Schoolhouse, featuring an actor who plays a scolding schoolmaster and interactive screens with a test on Dickens’s life and works;
  • Fagin’s den, a play area for children;
  • A restaurant, The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters;
  • And a gift shop, The Olde Curiosity Shoppe.

Dickens World closed briefly in early 2013, reopening in March. The boat ride was removed, and the attraction now features “an interactive guided tour experience that takes visitors back in time to Victorian/Dickensian England” which the website bills as “a fun and educational experience for all ages.”

Scholars have written about Dickens World in relation to postmodernity, mass culture, literary tourism, and adaptation theory. Faculty who lead study abroad trips might consider a side trip to Chatham, or might include an article about Dickens World alongside a visit to more accessible Dickensian sites in London.

Questions for Discussion

As expressed in his letters, novels, and newspaper writings, what were Dickens’s views on popular entertainment, tourism, profit, and/or intellectual property? How would Dickens have reacted to Dickens World?

Compare Dickens World, as discussed in reviews and publicity materials, to Mr. Sleary’s insistence, in Hard Times, that “the people mutht be amuthed.”

Read the descriptions of the individual attractions in Dickens World. (You can supplement the short descriptions above with Marty Gould and Rebecca N. Mitchell’s “It Was the Worst of Times: A Visit to Dickens World”). Do the attractions change the way you think about Dickens’s novels or characters? What do these choices tell us about Dickens World’s vision? To whom are they intended to appeal?

If you were to design an attraction for Dickens World, what would you choose? How would your attraction develop an interpretation of Dickens and his works? Or, could you imagine a similar attraction for another Victorian writer? What might be featured at a “Bronte World” or “Browning World”?

Further Reading

Anderson, Sam. “The World of Charles Dickens, Complete with Pizza Hut.The New York Times, February 7th 2012.

Booth, Alison. “Time Travel in Dickens’ World.” Literary Tourism and Nineteenth-Century Culture. Nicola J. Watson, ed. Palgrave, 2009.

Easley, Alexis. Literary Celebrity, Gender, and Victorian Authorship, 1850-1914. University of Delaware, 2011.

Gould, Marty and Rebecca N. Mitchell. “It Was the Worst of Times: A Visit to Dickens World.” Victorian Literature and Culture 38 (2010), 287-318.

Gould, Marty and Rebecca N. Mitchell. “Understanding the Literary Theme Park: Dickens World as Adaptation.” Neo-Victorian Studies 3.2 (2010), pages 145-171.

Hughes, Kathryn. “Dickens World and Dickens’s World.” Journal of Victorian Culture 15.3 (December 2010), 388-393.

Huntley, Dana. “Visiting in Dickens World.” British Heritage 29.4 (Sep. 2008), pp. 42-5.

John, Juliet. Dickens and Mass Culture. Oxford University Press, 2010.