What the Dickens

What the Dickens

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What the Dickens

As we celebrate the bi-centenary of Charles Dickens this month,  M Bhaktavatsala flips through many of his novels to reveal the intrinsically cinematic nature of his work.

The world celebrated Dickens’sbicentenary this year. He was ever the filmmaker’s favourite. Every one of his 15 novels has been filmed at least twice. Aptly, the BBC is launching a series of new adaptations, while the city of London, his favourite haunt, is launching an year-long programme called What The Dickens?

Well, actually, it is Shakespeare who coined the phrase — What the Dickens — as he did almost every other known phrase. And he had no idea who Dickens was. How could he? He was born almost 450 years ago, and we have just celebrated the 200th birth anniversary of Dickens.

There is a shop called ‘What the Dickens’ in Queenstown, New Zealand, where I picked up a copy of The Household Words, which was a journal that Dickens had
edited; the issue ran the sorry tale of Nell and Quilp. Tragedy it may be, but very readable tragedy.

Why is Dickens so readable? Well, because he saw the story through his inner eye like the camera lens ‘sees’ cinema. Cinema was several decades into the future, but he came closest to it when toward the later part of his life, he spent much time giving readings from his novels. One such favourite was the death scene of Nancy, which left him exhausted. It is said that these readings hastened his death.

In his ‘live’ performance, Dickens himself set the stage. Two large maroon screens were placed on either side of the regular back screen, like wings. Curtains of the same colour were placed to enclose any other opening on the stage. Dickens, in effect, was creating a confined space in which the figure of the actor and reader was entirely isolated — each gesture distinct, each movement lit by gas against the dark cloth. It had become a theatre of terror.

All the way through, there are stage directions in the margins. One afternoon, his son heard the sound of two people in violent quarrel. He went out to find his father at the end of the meadows behind, striding up and down, gesticulating wildly and in the character of Sikes, ‘murdering’ Nancy with the most aggravated brutality.

He gave his first public performance of Sikes and Nancy on 5th January 1869 in St James Hall. This was less than two years before his death. If he had ‘lived today’, commented the French Ceaste Jean Queval, “Dickens would have been the world’s greatest scenario writer because of the scope of his imagination, his ability to give each of his characters unforgettable individuality and his sense of the epic. He continued the fantastic with everyday reality and his visual awareness is precisely the same as that conveyed by the cinema”.

The “visual quality” of Dickens’s prose has led many literary critics to see parallels with the cinema. Cesare Pavese, the Italian novelist, confessed that he could suspend his critical sense and simply surrender to the excitement of a page of Dickens, as he could to an adventure film in the cinema; and Lodovico Terzi compared Mr Winkle and Mr Tupman in Pickwick to Laurel and Hardy. J B Priestley equated Dickens with Charlie Chaplin, and Tedlock pointed out how effectively the grotesque side of Dickens came across in the filmed versions, shorn of the author’s distracting commentary and moral sentiments. All this is perhaps most evident in his A Tale of Two Cities.

As his biographer Angus Wilson says, “The old ironic style which pervades his books from Nickleby to Little Dorrit gives way to a determined essay in action writing in A Tale... He pared down all in the novel that took away from the action, the events, the rush of the story, to quickly grip the readers’ interests. A Tale... has a minimum of dialogue, subplot, humorous or even melodramatic ornament — all his great gifts”.

It has a very linear structure unlike other Dickensian works. In fact, there is just one magnificent plot against the backdrop of the French Revolution, just 75 years behind him when he wrote the book. Carlyle, who had produced the hugely successful account of the French Revolution, was a friend of Dickens, and readily obliged with a ‘cartload’ of material. But what Dickens culled out of that vast material and the central cataclysmic event was nothing short of one of the greatest love stories revolving around one character.

Sydney Carton is a character almost greater than the work. He walks out of the book to stand alone. There is hardly a greater hero in literature. For, his is the ultimate sacrifice. But then, every character revolving around him is etched with such sharpness. This is true of all his characters. T S Eliot recognised him as an artist like Shakespeare, who can with a phrase make a character as real as flesh and blood.

Carton appears, though momentously, a few times, leaving us yearning for his appearance. That languor, the laconic smile, the ironically sad view of life, the capacity for undemanding and unrequited love make him altogether a man amongst men.

Taking the cinematic route

There is another example of what could be one of the most brilliant cinematic
innovations — the montage. The passing of time. In a page and a half,with the ruse of echoing steps on a quiet street in London, Dickens weaves a magical passage of years, drawing in all the major players through footsteps in the mist of time. A director’s dream script. If only cinema was known in 1859, when A Tale was written, nearly four decades before the fledgling shape of cinema burst forth in Paris.

Montage was still decades away.
There is, hence, no doubt that Dickens influenced the filmmakers when cinema arrived. No wonder the pioneer of western cinema, David W Griffiths, was known to never be without a book by Dickens.

Taking Griffith’s work and relating it to Dickens’s pictorial eye, one can see the
natural lessons that a filmmaking genius could pick up as cues from a genius of
verbal visualisation such as Dickens. Griffith pioneered several innovations. The
dramatic close up (The Massacre, 1912) — it literally shouts out of the pages of A Tale... when, for instance, the stranger in the court house lifts his hat and lets everyone see his remarkable resemblance to the prisoner. The heroine, Lucie Manette, is nothing but angelic — a typical Dickens heroine. One can almost imagine a halo behind her. Exactly what might have led Griffith to the innovation of back lighting.

The Iris effect (Intolerance, 1916), is a constant Dickens favourite, whether it is a distant horseman sighted by the Mail or the knitting fingers of Defarge. Similarly, the ‘simultaneous’ narration which Griffith employs so effectively to build up to a
climax (Intolerance, 1916) is of course most graphically illustrated by Defarge coming closer and closer, as Lucie effects her escape. The parallel narration again is a favourite of Griffith and Dickens. They both make very effective use of the flashback and flash forward techniques. The meticulously etched group scenes of the final frenzy of the Revolution itself call for the panoramic action and crane shots, which again Griffith pioneered (Ramona, 1910 and Intolerance, 1916).

A Tale of Two Cities is not only the most dramatic, but is also the most cinematic of Dickens’s novels. He himself called it “a picturesque story.” And when cinema came, in apparent recognition of the debt it owed him, the fledgling cinema of the 20th century paid a tribute to him, marking his birth centenary in 1912 — a three reeler was produced. The subject? A Tale of Two Cities.