The history of Dickens' adaptations stretches back a long way, right back to the beginning of the twentieth century. A recent discovery by the British Film Institute suggests that a silent film entitled "The Death of Poor Joe" is the earliest from 1901. Since then, there have been so many adaptations of his work that it would be impossible to go through them all here (IMDB has credited him as a writer on over 300 projects). Amongst others, there are musicals, animations, thrillers and romances all based on works by Dickens. But just what is about a Victorian author concerned with the social issues of his contemporary London that makes him still so popular with film-makers and audiences alike?
Television has long been the home of many a Dickens adaptation, the BBC kind where everyone speaks RP English or a traditional 'Landan' accent that only seems to exist in period drama. The longer novels such as Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House have found a home there whereas in film, it tends to be the shorter, more accessible novels such as A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations that see themselves adapted again and again. Regardless of the format it takes, a Dickens story is always very familiar; London is foggy, streets are cobbled and the villain has an impressive name like Wackford Squeers.
Aiding all adaptations is the inherent theatricality of Dickens' novels, perhaps a throwback from his own, original desire to become an actor rather than a writer. Whether Dickens is attempting to highlight the struggles of the poor in factories or slums, or satirising the shallow upper classes and their archaic traditions, everything's a performance and there's an emotional undercurrent that takes you in. An audience is always ready to get behind an underdog like Pip or see a downright bad 'un like Bill Sykes get his comeuppance so transferring these characters from page to screen is usually going to be a successful exercise.
In the vein of the more traditional, Victorian-set adaptations, David Lean's Oliver Twist and Great Expectations are perhaps the most famous. Both encapsulate the image of Dickens most of us have in our heads of fog-drenched London, gaslit scenes and Hackney carriages. Even though the more modern updates have tended to move away from the foggy exteriors, Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist and Douglas McGrath's Nicholas Nickleby for example, there's still something incredibly Dickensian about the visuals, be it costume or location. At the heart of all of these films is a story about overcoming adversity, striving against a corrupt system and doing everything you can to succeed. In short, everyone loves an underdog and Dickens provides a whole bibliography of them.
These transferable conventions are perhaps the reason behind why Dickens is so easily adapted into many different formats. The most memorable adaptations are often not the traditional ones, but those in which the stories have been transformed, yet still retain the key themes you'd learnt about way back in your English Literature GCSE. One of the most famous and popular has to be The Muppet Christmas Carol, a film that takes one of the most well-known and popular story and turns it into something that is both hilarious and moving. Inspired decisions such as casting Gonzo as Charles Dickens bringing in the author's unique voice, leaving the lead to an excellent Michael Caine and catchy songs like 'Mr Humbug' and 'Marley and Marley' all knit together to produce a truly memorable adaptation.
Scrooged is another such adaptation of the same story, transplanting the plot into the television business and still succeeding. Likewise, Oliver! takes what is at points a very dark and disturbing novel (if you don't agree with me on this, read the death of Nancy or Fagin's trial and then get back to me) and turns it into an extended song and dance routine that people still love to this day. Although the darker elements are there - Nancy is still beaten to death and Oliver Reed's Bill Sykes is just evil - it isn't those bits you remember. It's Jack Wild's cheeky performance as Artful Dodger, Ron Moody's conspiring Fagin or the impressive Who Will Buy set piece.
That being said, there are of course those adaptations that don't work. Alfonso Cuaron's Great Expectations suffers from a lack of faithfulness and, according to the director, too much studio involvement. The rewriting of the plot to make Pip, or Finn as he's called in this film, a struggling artist who wants to succeed in New York, is an efficient reworking of the class satire, becoming a pretty damning indictment of the American Dream. However, there's a distracting amount of naked Gwyneth Paltrow turning it into more of a soapy, romantic drama as opposed to a vicious undercutting of social ideology. Cuaron's film stands an example of a Dickens adaptation that departs too far from its source and loses some of the familiar themes that audiences love.
The enduring legacy of Dickens films is perhaps just that, familiarity, a cinematic comfort blanket that returns you to stories like A Christmas Carol that you grew up with. The conventions are those of your traditional hero's journey to success or redemption, there's romance, adventure and villainy, regardless of whether it's set in Victorian London or the office of a television executive. With several adaptations on the way in the next year (including a new Great Expectations and Olivia Twisted in which Oliver becomes a girl in the future…), the work of Charles Dickens will continue to appear on the big screen for many years to come.