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