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.

Andrew Davies and Sue Birtwistle’s Wives and Daughters

By Andrea Coldwell, Coker College

wivesanddaughtersThe final episode of Andrew Davies and Sue Birtwistle’s 1999 Wives and Daughters offered its viewers the happy ending that generations of Elizabeth Gaskell’s readers had missed. The adaptation garnered attention both as a new product by the team then famous for their wildly popular adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1995) and as a venture into uncharted territory. Though Elizabeth Gaskell’s reputation has grown significantly since the release of the series, in 1999 television reviewers labeled the novelist “overlooked.” In spite of this, Wives and Daughters was the first of several popular adaptations that reworked Gaskell’s novels to address twenty-first-century issues with roots in Victorian culture.1 While Davies and Birtwistle’s miniseries addresses many areas of common ground between the nineteenth century and the present, it is their ending to Gaskell’s unfinished novel that most notably draws together the themes of scientific curiosity, social and biological evolution, and colonization that play a less central role in the novel.

Elizabeth Gaskell died before completing the final chapters of Wives and Daughters, which had been serialized monthly from 1864 to 1866. This lack of closure has posed a challenge for readers as well as for the screenwriters. Although claims that “Davies has supplied the lost denouement with surprise and style,” The Sunday Telegraph quotes Birtwistle as noting, “We had quite a debate about it. It was clear what Gaskell wanted to happen. We’ve had to come up with the ‘how.’” The pair chose an ending that is both “happy” in the traditional sense of Victorian novels—Molly Gibson and Roger Hamley marry—and unconventional as well—the pair picks up with Roger’s comparative osteology just where he left off, on the plains of Africa (where to the shock of some audiences, Molly is pictured wearing trousers).

These choices in turn shape audiences’ views of what goes before. Scholar Katherine Byrne points out that Molly’s activities throughout the series accentuate her interest in science and learning, playing up what Byrne sees as merely “potential” in the novel’s heroine. Indeed, in the novel, Mr. Gibson puts careful limits on Molly’s education and accomplishments; she must struggle for every lesson beyond basics. Byrne also notes that the screen Molly is healthier than her novelistic predecessor, a young woman who would be unlikely to survive an African safari. According to Gaskell’s editor, Frederic Greenwood, Gaskell intended that Roger return to Africa alone and that the couple be united afterwards in England where he would become a famous professor at a university. In the novel, Molly’s curiosity about science is largely limited to reading. In the film however, her active investigation of plants and insects joins with the intimacy of sharing a microscope with Roger to transition her from interested hobbyist to budding amateur scientist—precisely the sort of mate who might travel with him to Africa rather than tying him to an English lecture hall.

By foregrounding scientific investigation as a bond between Molly and Roger, the series conclusion cements its emphasis on Victorian scientific inquiry. The series is full of commentary on the nature versus nurture question. For example, it expands on Gaskell’s hints about both how various young people have been raised and their innate characteristics. How is it that the two Hamley brothers differ so greatly after growing up under similar conditions, and what in Molly’s and Cynthia’s childhoods and educations resulted in their very different approaches to people and social codes?  For example, on the surface, it might seem that Cynthia is the better educated of the pair. However, both the novel and the series make it clear that her education is largely for show and that she lacks the thoughtfulness and attentiveness that Molly has been trained in throughout her life.

Likewise, the series builds on Gaskell’s allusions to the debates that raged in the 1830s concerning appropriate scientific mindsets and methodologies. Where Gaskell gives a title or a brief comment, the miniseries builds in a conversation, essentially annotating for modern audiences what well-informed middle class Victorians might already know, if only by hearsay. One example of this expansion occurs when the Hamley brothers come to dine with the Gibsons. Mr. Gibson comments on Roger’s paper (in advance of its presence in the novel), and Mrs. Gibson is drawn to ask about comparative osteology. In the course of his brief explanation, Roger notes jokingly that “it shows that we’re more nearly related to the great apes than some of us might care to think.” With Cynthia’s response that “you wouldn’t need to be a scientist to come to that conclusion,” his light tone points to the currency of the debate, even amongst nonspecialists. In the novel, the conversation between Roger and Mr. Gibson separates them: “Roger, who ought to have made himself agreeable to one or the other of the young ladies, was exceedingly interested in what Mr Gibson was telling him of a paper on comparative osteology in some foreign journal of science” (chapter 24). By dramatizing this as a general conversation, the series implies that this is a common topic of conversation, rather than one confined to men or even to scientists. Molly has found scientific books interesting, and Cynthia can follow the spirit, if not the details, of the argument. Far from being earth shattering, the debate over details of what would become evolutionary theory is offered as simply the dinner table conversation of the day.

As important is the inclusion of African scenes in the series, not excepting the final images of the newlyweds isolated in a desert landscape. The novel gives little detail about Roger’s experiences abroad, simply summarizing a few aspects of his letters to demonstrate that Molly cares more deeply about his welfare than Cynthia does. In addition to these summaries, the series shows Molly tracking Roger’s progress across a map of Africa and moving between letters and texts to learn more about the places and species he describes. More significantly, Roger himself is frequently shown making his way across desolate landscapes, the only European in the shot and in his party. He gazes at novel species and is gazed at in return by a group of African women. When he is ill, he is carried by members of his group, and he is also shown sitting in camp with them. While these scenes bring Africa into the series more vividly than its depiction in the novel, it is worth noting that viewing audiences know little more than the novel’s readers about the where’s and when’s of Roger’s trip. The Africa of the miniseries is still a monolithic continent waiting for European exploration, even as the African scenes ask viewers to consider the roles that African and colonial settings play in Victorian fiction.

Finally, though, these issues are tangential to Gaskell’s novel, in which, as Birtwistle points out in her interview with the Los Angeles Times, Gaskell offers an “authoritative feeling of what it’s like to be alive for a wide range of people. Nothing’s forced about her writing. She has great confidence to write about what are pretty ordinary lives in some cases.” Although readers and viewers love Molly Gibson, characters repeatedly note that she is just an ordinary girl. She’s not as pretty or instantly attractive as Cynthia, and even Lady Harriet labels her only “my favorite young woman.”  Yet, in the end, viewers see her embarked on the final leg of an expedition of a type that changed scientific thinking in the nineteenth century and, with that thinking, many aspects of social life. As a result, one effect of Davies and Birtwistle’s choices is that the series demonstrates the complex ways by which the lives of “pretty ordinary” people come up against questions and issues that continue to perplex and stimulate readers and viewers more than a century later.

Discussion Questions:

In Wives and Daughters, Gaskell spends a significant portion of the novel narrating emotional and thought processes in response to events. How does switching to film, where these internal monologues are translated into conversation or shots of a character thinking, alter the audience’s perception of the characters?

For the miniseries, Davies and Birtwistle created an ending to Molly’s story, something Gaskell certainly intended to do before her death, though her publisher indicated that Gaskell planned for the pair to settle in London rather than travelling to Africa. How does Davies and Birtwistle’s ending help to emphasize their interest in the changing climate for scientific investigation during the early Victorian period?  What might these choices about how to end an unfinished work tell us about the roles of conclusions in literary works?

Education for both men and women plays an important role in both Gaskell’s novel and in the miniseries. For example, Cynthia and Osbourne seem both better educated and more polished than their siblings when they’re first introduced, but both the novel and the adaptation undermine this initial judgment by showing that Roger and Molly make better use of more limited resources. What trends emerge in these discussions of social, moral, and intellectual education?  How do those trends shift when we consider gender or class as an aspect of education?

In adapting Wives and Daughters for modern audiences, Davies and Birtwistle both increase the emphasis on the details of Roger’s scientific study and shift the emphasis of discussions about his travels from African people to science. They preserve, for example, little or none of Mr. Gibson’s talk about and mimicry of stereotypes of African people. What could these changes tell us about changes in audience?  How have our perceptions of Africa changed?  What about our perceptions of science (and particularly of evolutionary biology)?

Further Reading:

Boiko, Karen. “Reading and (Re)Writing Class: Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Wives and Daughters’.” Victorian Literature and Culture 33.1 (2005):85-106.

Byrne, Katherine. “Anxious Journey’s and Open Endings: Sexuality and the Family in the BBC’s Wives and Daughters (1999).” Adapting Gaskell: Screen and Stage Versions of

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Fiction. Ed. Loredana Salis. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. 77-95.

Endersby, Jim. “Sympathetic Science: Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker, and the Passions of Victorian Naturalists.” Victorian Studies 51.2 (Winter 2009): 299-320.

Greenwood, Frederic.”Wives and Daughters: Concluding Remarks.” The Victorian Web. Accessed 30 August 2016.

Gritten, David. Review of BBC Wives and Daughters, by Andrew Davies and Sue Birtwistle. The Telegraph Accessed 10 June 2016.

Gritten, David. “Will BBC’s Latest Literary Export Be the Next Jane Austen?” The Los Angeles Times, 12 August 2000, Accessed 10 June 2016.

Litvack, Leon. “Outposts of Empire: Scientific Discovery and Colonial Displacement in Gaskell’s ‘Wives and Daughters’.” The Review of English Studies 55.222 (July 2004): 727-758.

“Wives and Daughters.” Masterpiece Theatre. Web. 15 June 2016.

1.Both the miniseries North and South (2004), adapted by Sandy Welch, and the miniseries Cranford (2007), created by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin, attracted wide audiences.

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.”, 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.