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.

 

Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna

by Emma Burris-Janssen, University of Connecticut

Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna (2011) is his third Thomas Hardy-inspired adaptation, following both his bleak period piece, Jude (1996), based on Hardy’s 1895 novel, Jude the Obscure and The Claim (2000), which relocates Hardy’s 1886 novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, to the Trishna posterAmerican West. Trishna reimagines Hardy’s 1891 novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, as a contemporary tale set in India. Freida Pinto plays the titular Trishna, a rural woman who, like Tess Durbeyfield before her, is consistently “more sinned against than sinning.” In a major departure from the novel, Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare are collapsed into a single character, Jay Singh, portrayed by Riz Ahmed.

The film opens as dawn breaks on a group of hung-over male tourists dissecting the places they have visited while in India. The place names rattle off their tongues like a list of sexual conquests: Darjeeling, Varanasi, Amritsar, Goa, Kerala. Among this group is Jay Singh, for whom this “grand tour” is a prelude to managing his father’s hotel chain in India. While traveling in the rural environs of Osian, Jay meets and begins to pursue the beautiful Trishna. In the manner of Alec d’Urberville, Jay showers Trishna and her impoverished family with gifts and gets her a job at one of his father’s hotels. The two get closer until a murky sexual encounter results in Trishna’s retreat back to her family. After her return, Trishna discovers she is pregnant and speedily procures an abortion. Later, Jay tracks down the desperately overworked Trishna and whisks her away to glamorous Mumbai. While in Mumbai, Jay and Trishna live together happily until Trishna confesses her abortion. Following this confession, Jay – like Angel – begins to reject Trishna: the next morning he snaps at her, ordering her around like a servant. Then, he flies to London to see his ailing father, leaving Trishna with a limited amount of money, a situation that eventually leads to her eviction from their shared apartment. When Jay finally returns to Trishna at the film’s end, he takes her to one of his father’s secluded, rural hotels where they live as master and servant, with Jay repeatedly raping Trishna until she stabs him to death. Following her stabbing of Jay, Trishna again returns to her family where she eventually commits suicide by stabbing.

At nearly two hours in length, Trishna offers a rich yet succinct reworking of Hardy’s key concerns in Tess: class exploitation, the rapid disappearance of rural life, and the potent power of sexual double standards. Naturally, some aspects of the novel are lost in Winterbottom’s loose translation, but Trishna provides a means of introducing students to contemporary critical conversations on colonialism, globalization, gendered violence, and criminality in both film and literature. Trishna updates Hardy’s themes in a way that promises to make them more legible to a modern audience. Because the film carries an R rating for its depictions of sexuality, violence, drug use, and language, it is best suited to college-level work.

Questions for Discussion

In Trishna, Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare are collapsed into a single character – Jay Singh. What are the narrative consequences of fusing these two characters into one? What can this alteration show us about the functions performed by Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare in the original novel? How would you describe their relationship in the novel compared to their relationship in Winterbottom’s film? What reading of these characters is Winterbottom offering in his film?

Trishna ends in a clear act of suicide, while Tess of the d’Urbervilles ends with Tess’s capture by police and hanging. What do you make of these different endings? Are they really that different?

In Imperial Leather, her 1995 study of British imperialism, Anne McClintock argues that “the uncertain continents” often function as anachronistic spaces where “colonized people – like women and the working class in the metropolis – do not inhabit history proper but exist in a permanently anterior time within the geographic space of the modern empire” (30). Given the history of British imperialism in India, what are the implications of relocating Tess of the d’Urbervilles in contemporary India? Does this position contemporary India as an anachronistic space?

Feminist film critic Karen Hollinger defines the British “post-heritage film” as a film type that offers (predominantly female) viewers a safe, historical space where they can explore contemporary debates, particularly those related to gender and sexuality (154). Could we classify Trishna as a “post-heritage film”? If so, what contemporary debates are being explored? How do these contemporary debates map onto the 19th-century ones in the original novel?

Further Reading

Hollinger, Karen. Feminist Film Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Context. New York and London: Routledge, 1995.

Pulver, Andrew, and Henry Barnes. “Hardy’s Blood-Heat Melodrama Transfers Remarkably Smoothly.” theguardian.com, 2012. Web. 28 April 2015.

Strong, Jeremy. “Tess, Jude, and the Problem of Adapting Hardy.” Film and Literature Quarterly (January 2006): 195-203.

Winterbottom, Michael, and Freida Pinto. “A Conversation with: Freida Pinto and Michael Winterbottom” Interviewed by Shivani Vora. India Ink: Notes on the World’s Largest Democracy. The New York Times, 2012. Web. 30 April 2015.

Wright, T.R., ed. Thomas Hardy on Screen. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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.