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Cinematic Expectations: Dickens and Film

aadams
January 06, 2022

Cinematic Expectations: Dickens and Film

aadams

January 06, 2022
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  1. Cinematic Expectations Taking a Closer Look at Dickens and Film

  2. The Birth of a Paradigm Every discussion of Dickens and

    film must begin with Sergei Eisenstein’s “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today” (1949), the first essay to posit a distinct correlation between Dickens’ writing and subsequent cinematic techniques. The article, which also deals with the aesthetic legacy of D.W. Griffith and the “purpose” of modern filmmaking, argues that Dickens’ fiction prefigures parallel editing, montage, and even the dissolve. Although a few critics have questioned the assumptions inherent in Eisenstein’s trans-media claims, the work of the Soviet filmmaker continues to influence scholars and justify assertions of Dickens’ filmic appeal.
  3. Borrowing Cultural Capital Eisenstein’s essay also helps to establish the

    artistry of film itself. By linking a canonical author with a pioneering filmmaker, Eisenstein is able to demonstrate that “cinema is not altogether without parents and without pedigree,” and, by focusing on Dickens in particular, Eisenstein is able to trace a filmic lineage that stretches back through all the theatrical practices that influenced the inherently “dramatic” novelist: “Let Dickens and the whole ancestral array, going as far back the Greeks and Shakespeare, be superfluous reminders that both Griffith and our cinema prove our origins to be . . . based on an enormous cultural past.”
  4. Modernism and the 19th-Century Paradox It may seem odd that

    a modernist filmmaker would spend so much time extolling the virtues of a 19th-century novelist. If, as Keith Cohen has argued, there is a “dynamics of exchange” between modern fiction and film, why wouldn’t Eisenstein focus on the artistic interplay of early 20th- century literature and cinema? One potential answer may lie in the realities of modern film praxis. As modern novelists were responding to the “flicker effect,” many filmmakers were mining 19th-century fiction for source material, plotting conventions, and narrative techniques. In other words, modern, narrative cinema was revaluating and revitalizing the fictive modes that modern novels were consciously rejecting. Lon Chaney as Fagin in Oliver Twist (1922)
  5. Dickens and the Dream of Modernism In this regard, it

    could be argued that modern filmmakers were more prescient than modern novelists, who drew unnatural and often arbitrary distinctions between their own writing and the fiction that came before them. As John Sutherland argues, Dickens’ “dense thematic compositions, striking use of imagery, rhetoric and dramatic device advanced fiction technically to the threshold of modernism.” The same lines of filiation that link Dickens to Griffith, and the modern cinema in general, may also explain why Gary Levine can trace a direct line of influence from Dickens to Pound in The Merchant of Modernism.
  6. The Limitations of Filiation As many critics have noted, the

    “classical style” of filmmaking relies heavily on techniques roughly commensurate with those of the realist novel. This confluence, though, should not be considered proof of a direct and unidirectional causality, particularly because both fiction and film have been influenced by a variety of artistic practices (among them painting and photography). Unhappy with overly schematic definitions of what the narrative modes have in common and overtly prescriptive demarcations of what each medium is limited to, some recent critics, like Kamilla Elliott, have rethought the novel-film debate. This rethinking has not yet displaced conventional arguments about the inherent “adaptability” of the “cinematic” 19th-century novel, but is has led many Dickens scholars to more carefully qualify their delineations of Dickens’ filmic qualities.
  7. Self-Serving Debates Contradictory claims that over- emphasize the connection between

    the 19th-century novel (and Dickens in particular) and film continue to be made because such claims further each side of the film/novel debate. As Elliott argues, “Such a lineage gives the literary camp film credits, positioning literary scholars as experts credentialed to discuss films as well as written texts, and to do so using literary methods, methods that tend to favor literature over film whenever they are discussed in conjunction with each other. . . . The film camp represents the partially cinematic novel as an incomplete precursor of the purely cinematic film, establishing a hierarchy in which any film trumps any novel, since all films are more ‘cinematic’ than even the most cinematic fiction.”
  8. Eschewing the Lean Years? Although we should not assume that

    Dickens’ novels are “readymade” for adaptation, we can and should analyze how the author’s work has been rendered on the screen, not in the least because a select few of these adaptations are also considered landmarks of cinema. Long before he earned accolades for adapting The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957), Dr. Zhivago (1965), and A Passage to India (1984), David Lean garnered a great deal of critical and commercial success with Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). Not only are both films considered “classics” of British cinema; they are also widely regarded as the “best” film versions of Dickens’ work.
  9. Drawn to Dickens And we should also analyze adaptations that

    are decidedly not masterpieces. South Park’s crudely animated satire of “Masterpiece Theatre” may not be popular among the series’ regular viewers, but it does demonstrate that Dickens’ “timeless” is somewhat indebted to influential film adaptations, which continue to make his work relevant for the present age. (In this regard, it is significant that the “very special episode” is a parody of Lean’s film, not the novel itself.) The admittedly sophomoric episode even belies the intimate connection between Dickens’ words and graphic illustration while it underscores that fact that the author’s popularity continues to be secured, at least in part, through animated versions of his tales. Long after Disney turned the Artful Dodger into a homeless dog, animators continue to redraw Dickens in their own image.
  10. Dickens in Cyberspace? Well before film was even invented, Dickens

    was being parodied, reproduced and re- created, and many Dickens (or Dickensian) films bear the imprint of this variegated dissemination. Nowhere is this rhizomatic proliferation more evident than in “adaptations” of the story that has transcended Dickens’ ouevre to become a cultural myth, A Christmas Carol. The long list of recreations, reimaginings and restagings should alert us to the fact that film is not the only medium within which literature is adapted, and that endless recreations may displace the primacy of the “source” material. (For more information on Dickens’ uncanny afterlife in the present age, see Jay Clayton’s Dickens in Cyberspace. For more on the wide spectrum of adaptation, see Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation.)
  11. Going Back to the Future Dickens remains an important figure

    in studies of literature in film because his work appears to prefigure more “cinematic” modes while it offers us a nostalgic look at the past. Like Dickens’ own biography, his novels represent a triumphant storyline that unites performance and narrative style in a pleasing mode that appeals to a wide variety of audiences. This pleasing combination may explain the real source of his continued filmic appeal.
  12. An Ambivalent Ending