February 07, 2012

What the Dickens? Where Are the Film Classics?

The festivities celebrating Charles Dickens' 200th birthday have led me to wonder why the cinema hasn't seen more great adaptations of his works.

The standards, in my opinion, are David Lean's Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. No other adaptation on the silver (or Technicolor) screen approaches the quality of these works, which, though streamlined, are masterpieces of acting, directing, editing and cinematography.

I know the much-vaunted Hollywood versions of A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield are held in high regard, and Carol Reed's Oliver! won a Best Picture Oscar. But when I think of films of Dickens novels, I think of the Leans, not the Reed, which I believe lacks the impact of the 1948 Twist.

Scrooge is fun, but its impact has waned on multiple viewings. I'm not going to put Little Dorrit in Lean's company, either; I found the film rather static and uninvolving. And to date, no one has made even a serviceable film of Nicholas Nickleby, despite a definitive stage adaptation from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

So why aren't we seeing any more masterpieces that can compete with Lean's behemoths? It's not that we don't have directors talented enough to put his works appropriately on screen or that his novels are too labyrinthine to translate to film.

My feeling is, Dickens' characters are so vividly cut that only expertly cast actors and actresses can fit the bill. I can't think of his books without picturing in my mind what the players are like. And if a performer doesn't live up to those images, I consider the movie a failure.

It may well be that I am the issue here, not the filmmaker--that my expectations are too rigid. But why not expect something along the lines of Lean's adaptations? Why settle for the mundane or the ridiculous?

Viewers shouldn't need to take Nurse Ratched's pill when it comes to movies. We deserve top-notch quality, especially from top-notch sources. I don't believe we'll never get another great Dickens movie, but to do so, we need a commitment from the creators that the material--as well as the audience--will be trusted.

And when that happens, of course...what larks!

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