The film of the films of the books

10th January 2012

Headline: while The Mystery of Edwin Drood, part one of which we saw on BBC Two tonight, has much to recommend it, the television treat of the evening – and indeed most certainly of the year to date – was Arena: Dickens on Film. I’ll write more about this tomorrow, but let me record my immediate enthusiasm for a film that is imaginative, intelligent, distinctive and delightful as well as being, before all else, a film. Kudos to Arena and Film London for co-producing such a treasure, to the estimable Mick Eaton and Adrian Wootton for conceiving and achieving it, to some tremendous film research (and the confidence to allow the film extracts to have their own place and presence), and to D. W. Griffith, Alastair Sim, David Lean, W. C. Fields, Johnny Vegas, Sergei Eisenstein, John Mills, Hablot Knight Browne, Arena editor Anthony Wall (who also directs) – together with a few more – as well as the genius who was Charles Dickens.

Some days later: Let me – finally – try to draw out quite why I am so enthusiastic about this Arena. To begin at the beginning, the documentary starts without any spoken narration. We have extracts from a number of versions of Oliver Twist, cut to ‘Food, glorious food’ and then a visual analysis of the famous opening of the 1946 Great Expectations. Visual in the sense that scene is played and then run backwards before beginning once more. The first time there is a rolling caption about the place of the sequence in film history, while as the second starts, a caption explains that Dickens’ stories have been adapted for the screen more than often than any other novelist. The repeated scene continues as we hear Dickens’ words from the novel. Cinema and literature (or at least Dickens’ variant form) are established in some kind of equivalence – and this idea will motivate the remainder of the documentary.

Spoken narration does not arrive in the film until fully fourteen minutes in, which could not offer a greater contrast to the presenter domination of almost every other contemporary arts documentary. And even after fourteen minutes, we have not a single ‘professional’ voice, but an alternation between the two writers of the film, scriptwriter and filmmaker Mick Eaton and curator and critic Adrian Wootton. A host of other ‘voices’, from Dickens’ own (or at least the ‘voice’ of his words) together with his characters and numerous interpreters, means that no one of these is dominant. The result is a sense of fruitful and sometimes thrilling open dialogue, between ideas and – especially – between words and images.

One of the other joys of Dickens on Film is the remarkable range of film adaptations on which it draws – and which are appropriately presented in their original format ratios. The clips include moments from numerous silent treasures, like Nicholas Nickleby (1912), The Pickwick Papers (1913), David Copperfield (1913) and two early versions of Oliver Twist (1919, 1922). There are some great extracts as well from Hollywood versions of the books made in the 1930s Wonderfully, too, there is an imaginative use of other archive, much of it from the BBC, including interviews from The Late Show, DVD extras associated with Our Mutual Friend (2006) and, most notably, a 1970 lecture about Dickens by a bow-tied Angus Wilson that fits so perfectly it might have been recorded yesterday as a dramatic framing device.

The illustrations from Dickens’ books are also smartly used, illustrating how these became the visual models for early adaptations. The adaptations, of course, were not only to the moving image but also, and earlier, to the stage and to sets of magic lantern slides. Use, too, is made of the many television versions of the books, but never straightforwardly as illustration and always with a scrupulous labelling – as with all the other clips – of date, production company and often key personnel.

As the documentary celebrates these various visualisations, it also delights in the characters and grotesques that translate so wonderfully into over-the-top performances. It also explores the themes of class and children and crime, of death and detectives, of authority and order, of innocence and experience, of theatricality and melodrama and the supernatural, of the roles played in the tales by material objects like rings and wills, and of symbol and myth.

A central strand of the documentary is devoted to illustrating Sergei Eisenstein’s essay ‘Dickens, Griffith and the film today’ in which the Soviet filmmaker ascribes to the Victorian novelist the invention of film montage. And later there is an exploration of Dickens and the small screen, from the early teatime serials described as ‘long-running, multi-episodic, as close to a comprehensive translation of his lengthy narratives as had ever been attempted.’ With these, Dickens adaptations moved from the cinema into the homes of the nation – and the tradition developed down to imaginative presentations of today like The Mystery of Edwin Drood and indeed this documentary.

I am intrigued that this documentary, which sits just to one side of the mainstream of arts documentaries now (although not to the greater diversity of Arena’s history) is a co-production between the BBC and Film London. Could it be that the Corporation is finally beginning to work creatively with production partners, rather than – as has too of ten been the case – simply taking their money? And is it to this that we should attribute the distinctive qualities of this film essay? In any case, Dickens on Film is a terrific tribute to what it calls the author’s ‘wonderful, peculiar mixture of statistical reality with phantasmagorical mystery’.

Image: detail from a 1843 illustration to A Christmas Carol showing Scrooge and Marley’s ghost.

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