The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Tag: charles dickens

Ideological Diversity, the University, and the Uses of Screen Adaptation

Interesting piece from Times Higher Education about the progressive political views held by almost all academics in the USA and embedded in the research they create: not just in the form, but in the actual content. The author, Musa al-Gharbi, avers that academics routinely “exaggerat[e] conclusions when convenient while finding ways to ignore, discredit, defund or suppress research that threatens their identity or perceived interests.” Generally this is to support a progressive bias, says al-Gharbi. A knock-on effect of this is that conservative-leaning persons don’t feel comfortable in academia, and find it harder to build a career, leading to the proliferation of extremely well-funded and influential “think-tanks” comprising conservative thinkers and researchers. Another knock-on effect is that academia has very little credibility among large sectors of the population.

On a narrowly political scale, one has to note that academia’s commitment to progressivist-leftist ideals has not strengthened the left in the USA. The president is very right-wing, and the two houses of parliament are now both controlled by the Republican Party. Academia’s influence on society, then, is a depressingly negative one, pushing people towards the opposite extreme.

Academia needs to come to terms with and to engage in dialogue with its right-wing other. An argument I am kind of making in an upcoming publication is that one way to do this is through the use of transtemporal adaptations – that is film/tv (or other media, in theory, though not in my practice as yet) adaptations of novels from another period. Say, the Victorian period. The fact is, almost all writers from that period have various opinions far to the right of the people who tend to watch adaptations of the novels, and of people who write these adaptations. Dickens in Oliver Twist, for example (the example I am using in said upcoming publication), subscribes to fairly hardcore anti-semitism in Oliver Twist, in the character of Fagin; makes his heroine, Rose, a pure and sexless angel-in-the-house type; signifies Oliver’s moral superiority with an otherwise inexplicable upper-class diction, and so on. All of this causes problems for adapters, because to reproduce such ideological functions could make Dickens appear to modern sensibilities shallow, old-fashioned and even obnoxious. So, consciously or unconsciously, Dickens’ less progressive opinions are toned done, left out or turned round.

Image result for oliver twist 2007

Oliver Twist 2007 BBC series. An adaptation that consciously problematized Dickens’ text. Image from

These operations of toning down, etc., become important at the moment of comparative narrative analysis. Being acquainted with what appears in the novel in a different form to the adaptation, we become aware of the ideological otherness of Dickens. This provides a mild shock, as we are regularly assured that Dickens was a progressive writer, a great champion of the poor, a “seeker after gentle justice” etc. – which is, indeed, approximately half true. By being forced to juxtapose this genial image with the problematic reality of Dickensian ideology, we gain insight into the complexities of the formation of ideological consciousness. We also problematize the more presentist stance presented by the adaptation, in its toning down, etc. What seemed natural in the context of the adaptation alone, “how things really are”, is seen now as a deliberate choice, one informed if not dictated by the ideological presumptions of our time and place. And this problematization is absolutely a worthy goal in our climate. This was Žižek’s aim in In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, 2009),  ‘to render problematic the all-too-easy liberal-democratic alternative’ (6), and it is something that is still a long way from being done with sufficient rigour in academia.


David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946): Casting and the Bildungsroman

Yesterday, I discussed Brian McFarlane on Great Expectations and its numerous adaptations. McFarlane gives most space to David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), widely acknowledged as the best screening of the novel, if not the best of all Dickens adaptations. McFarlane saves this one for last:

I have deliberately left it until the end of this book to see whether any of the other versions, on screens large or small, might offer a serious challenge to its pre-eminence. They don’t. ( Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations: The Relationship Between Text and Film [2008], 127)

McFarlane’s enthusiasm for Lean’s film prompted me to rewatch it. My own feeling about the film is the same as it was after the first time I watched it: I love the first 38 minutes, and can do without the remaining 75. There is a very simple reason for this. As McFarlane notes early in the book, Great Expectations is a bildungsroman: a novel that traces “the development of the protagonist’s mind and character, as he passes from childhood through varied experiences – and usually through a spiritual crisis – into maturity and the recognition of his identity and role in the world” (M.H. Abrams, quoted in McFarlane, 3). There is a serious difficulty in filming a bildungsroman in that the protagonist passes from childhood to maturity, and it is generally physically unfeasible for the same actor to play the protagonist at all stages of the film. Generally, there will be two: in this case, “Young Pip” and “[Older] Pip”

Young Pip is Anthony Wager, aged 13/14 at the time, a totally untrained and inexperienced actor, who gives a compelling and naturalistic performance.


Anthony Wager as Young Pip in the opening scene of the film

Older Pip is John Mills, a well-established actor who had started his training at a dancing school in the 1920s. He was aged 38 at the time of shooting.

The transition from Young Pip to Pip that takes place on 38 minutes is an extremely awkward one. The film allows six years to pass unrepresented as Pip follows his apprenticeship. This lacunae of six years is not present in the novel, and its function is obvious: to prepare the audience for a physically changed Pip. We fade out on Pip and Estella walking down the stairs of Satis House, the dialogue between them two and Mrs Havisham having established that they will not see each other again, and that Pip is about to embark on an apprenticeship, and we fade in on the blacksmith’s forge, with John Mill’s voiceover announcing:

It was in the sixth year of my apprenticeship, and it was a Friday night.


The shot, with Pip in silhouette, that announces the passage of six years from the preceding scene.

Yet nothing can adequately prepare us for the Pip we see before us: in reality, Mills was 24 (!) years older than Wager, rather than 6, and he looks it. We are immediately jarred out of the suspension of disbelief the film has created. Age aside, their physical appearances and demeanours are nothing alike, and their acting styles, too, are diametrically opposed. Wager was naturalistic; Mills is mannered, obviously a schooled actor. Wager’s Pip was hesitant and timid; Mills is smiling and open-faced.


John Mills’ first appearance as Pip in the film

This single piece of careless casting mars the film – irretrievably, for me. Any sense of the character is lost. Probably Mills as a well-known actor was the most important presence to Lean. So perhaps a different young Pip would have worked, though I hesitate to say it, for I think that Wager is excellent and that Mills’ performance has not dated well.

We all probably know examples of this: it is a staple of the bildungsroman, as I have said, that at least two actors are often called upon, but I think this is the single most damaging example of it I have seen. (The Estella transition is also pretty jarring – perhaps this was a blind spot of Lean’s.) Much as there is to admire about this film, I prefer Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948): an easier book to film, if only because it is not a bildungsroman and we only know the protagonist as a child. Any thoughts? Am I exaggerating the importance of this element? Are there other bildungsroman films which suffer from a similar casting problem?


Brian McFarlane’s Great Expectations (2008)

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (first published in 1860-61) has been consistently adapted and re-adapted for the screen since the advent of cinema. It still ranks behind Oliver Twist and  A Christmas Carol in the most-adapted-Dickens tables, but Brian McFarlane’s Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations: The Relationship Between Text and Film (2008) demonstrates the rich adaptation history of this text.

McFarlane is, perhaps first and foremost, a great admirer of Dickens’ novel. It deals, he announces at the outset, with the “universals of human experience” (1). He even believes that “everything in this novel does work towards its ultimate coherence” (12), which is a big statement, and one which makes it clear that McFarlane holds modernist rather than post-modernist views of the text, views in which coherence and unity of purpose lead to aesthetic greatness.

This can lead to a specific problem with regard to study of adaptations: the tendency to use comparison with the novel for evaluative purposes. Anything that is different is seen as a failure, anything that is similar to the novel or that seems to recall its “spirit” is lauded. This is an incredibly prevalent response to adaptations, both among laypersons and adaptation scholars. McFarlane is very aware of this, and denounces all those who concentrate on “the misguided notion of ‘fidelity'” (87), “the foolish and irrelevant question of ‘fidelity'” (143) to the source text. He makes several such denunciations throughout the book.

The problem is that such repeated and even excessive disclaimers don’t really serve to hide the fact that McFarlane frequently employs a covert fidelity methodology to judge the adaptations. This is particularly true of those he doesn’t like (he’s much more insightful on films and series he does like, of which more anon). On the 1934 film version, he opens with the complaint that “it never begins to feel like the original” (83). On the 1975 film:

For all that one adheres to the notion that a film, adaptation or not, must be primarily judged on how it stands as a film, it is hard to suppress the feeling that if Hardy et al had taken serious heed of what Dickens was up, they might have made a more engrossing film. (108)

The apologetic disclaimer followed by the resort to fidelity criticism is typical of the book. There is a basic tension in McFarlane’s stance. What this book demonstrates, really, is the need for a coming to terms with the widespread notion of fidelity, rather than the palpably anxious renunciations that here co-exist with a continued use of the source text as an aesthetic touchstone.

But this attitude relates mostly to the adaptations that McFarlane does not like, principally the 1934 and 1975 films. He is considerably better on those adaptations he does approve of. Among these is the 1999 tv series starring Ioan Gruffodd and Justine Waddell. Here, McFarlane makes some interesting points about how the series “offers a way of reading the novel that was not available to its first readers” (76), giving a close reading of certain scenes and shots wherein the politics of the novel are transformed into something more contemporary. Feminist elements are present in this series; there is an “increased interest in the damaged lives of women” (78), such as Mrs Joe, Mrs Havisham and Estella. McFarlane’s point, too, about the way that the positivity of the conclusion in Lean’s film gives way to a sense of atrophy in this series is interesting and thought-provoking. Such ideological shifts in the narrative are often the most interesting things about adaptations through different time-periods, so this was a welcome change in approach.

Methodologically speaking, McFarlane is a narratologist (as outlined in his earlier monograph Novel to Film). This looms large here, too, as he breaks up the plot of Great Expectations into its “cardinal functions” and then compares this plot to that of David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) (he does this in more detail in Novel to Film) the two plots are very similar, and it is an interesting exercise in adaptation practice to study how Lean has translated Dickens’ novel, changing only for concision, hardly ever for aesthetic purposes:

There may be several such omissions but the film “changes” very little in the matter of events and the perspectives from which they are viewed (150).

Equally important is the discussion of how Lean retained the emphasis on Pip’s subjectivity without using much in the way of voiceover. Here notions of subjective camera-work, composition of screen space and Pip’s near omnipresence constitute McFarlane’s main argument, and it is a convincing one (again, this is gone into in more detail in Novel to Film). This more technical filmic analysis provides another layer to the book, complementing the narrative analysis and the cultural analysis. Narrative analysis is McFarlane’s forte, but his ability to incorporate other approaches adds much to the readability of this book.

Good points about this book are the narratological analysis, which is the most systematic yet attempted in adaptation study; the cultural analysis, which is less methodologically developed – this may disturb the scholar but it makes it more accessible to the lay-reader; and the technical filmic analysis, which is, again, not as developed as the narratological, but which shows McFarlane’s ability to incorporate different approaches. His style is generally approachable and clear. Bad points are the contradictory attitude towards fidelity, the sometimes over-reliance on evaluative language, and the fact that some of the case studies are less substantial than others (especially with regard to the books, plays and radio series that are dealt with, apparently from memory based, in some cases, on a single encounter).

Tomorrow, I will post on the David Lean film Great Expectations (1946), McFarlane’s favorite version, but one which I find to be flawed for a simple reason that McFarlane doesn’t go into in his book. (here)



Moody shots from the great opening scene of Lean’s Great Expectations

Dickens’ Christmas Rubbish: The Battle of Life (1846)

Charles Dickens’ first ‘Christmas Book’, A Christmas Carol (1843), is well known. But during the 40s he wrote 5 Christmas Books in total, and the others are much less well known. Least read of all, perhaps, is the fourth, The Battle of Life (1846). This book is fascinating because nobody has anything good to say about it. In Ruth F. Glancy’s introduction to her edition of Christmas Books, Christmas Stories  and Other Short Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography (1985), she announces that Battle is ‘with no argument at all, the most flawed and disliked’ of all Dickens’ works (p. xix). Not just the worst, but with no argument at all! In Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens (1990), he notes that the tale is ‘no longer widely read, and one which even at the time drew mainly unfavourable comment’ (p. 515). Even on the book’s Goodreads page, reactions are almost uniformly lukewarm. In short, it seems that nobody likes this book, despite it being written by the most adored English novelist of all. This in itself is intriguing, and, this being the Christmas season, the time was opportune for me to revisit Battle, which I had read years ago (knowing nothing of its reception; knowing only that, unlike Carol, I had never heard of this one), and had been singularly unimpressed by, immediately classing it as the worst Dickens I had read. I had forgotten virtually the whole thing, remembering only the impression, before my Yuletide re-reading of this week.

The book gains, of course, in intertextual interest for the reader who is familiar with Dickens’ works. Reading it now, my brain starts working on the connections with other Dickens works, the thematic and characterological resonances of better-known works. Battle looks both backwards and forwards. Like Carol, it has an element of personal re-awakening and transformation. The Scrooge equivalent is Dr Jeddler. Actually, though, he’s nowhere near as mean or vicious as Scrooge; his problem, rather, is that he is a philosopher:

Doctor Jeddler was, as I have said, a great philosopher, and the heart and mystery of his philosophy was, to look upon the world as a gigantic practical joke; as something too absurd to be considered seriously, by any rational man. His system of belief had been, in the beginning, part and parcel of the battle-ground on which he lived, as you shall presently understand.


The Doctor never dreamed of inquiring whether his children, or either of them, helped in any way to make the scheme a serious one. But then he was a Philosopher.

A kind and generous man by nature, he had stumbled, by chance, over that common Philosopher’s stone (much more easily discovered than the object of the alchemist’s researches), which sometimes trips up kind and generous men, and has the fatal property of turning gold to dross and every precious thing to poor account.

The degree of sarcasm Dickens injects into the word ‘philosopher’ in this work is striking. The entire book is basically a riposte to the Doctor’s attitude. Hence the title: life is a Battle; it’s not a joke. And of course I can’t help thinking of Carlyle here, and wondering if Dickens had been reading On Heroes in 1846:

It is a most earnest thing to be alive in this world; to die is not sport for a man. Man’s life never was a sport to him; it was a stern reality, altogether a serious matter to be alive!

Anyway, bearing in mind his predecessor, we know the Doctor is bound for a change of heart. But unlike Scrooge, Dr Jeddler is basically a secondary character, and this is not the emotional centre of the story. The Dr interests the Dickensian in pointing back to Scrooge and also in pointing forward to Gradgrind in Hard Times (1854) – also an essentially decent man whose mind has been warped by too much philosophy – but the essential interest of the tale is not centred on this character.


Rather it’s in the curious contrivance by which his daughters arrange their romantic lives. Dickens is here itching at a sore that was to resonate through much of his ensuing work: the ill-matched couple and the torment a poor match can create. The daughters of Dr J are beautiful, sweet and pure – stereotypical Dickens heroines; this book is perhaps inferior to Hard Times in that it never gets round to establishing a connection between the Dr’s philosophy and his daughter’s romantic issues, leaving them as separate themes not causally linked in the plot. The relative complexity of Louisa Gradgrind elevates Hard Times over Battle. One daughter, Marion, runs away from home and remains missing and believed eloped for six years so that her long-time betrothed, Alfred, can marry her sister, Grace, because she does not love him and she believes that Grace and Alfred love each other. And she’s right, they do, and they do marry, and she returns, and marries another man who she really loves – but not one whom she was already in love with at the time of the pseudo-elopement of course: that would have rendered her scheme self-serving and devious.

This plot contrivance sees Dickens bending over backwards to legitimise and heroize the rejection of a marriage that, though not unsuitable, doesn’t feel right. Marion is effectively married: she’s known Alfred since they were children, and she likes him, but without passion. Here again, Dickens was to take this a step further in Hard Times, when it’s post-marriage that the character in question discovers his need to get away – an even more difficult situation. In Battle, Dickens’ attempt to deal with it is unimpressive: he retreats into a fantastically melodramatic plot device an uses particularly one-dimensional characters. But there is a seriousness about this book, signalled in the title and perhaps drawing its energy from this element of the plot, so close to Dickens’ own situation: gone are the youthful high spirits, humour is mostly absent. In is an increased tendency to moralize and deliver sanctimony, which one might argue to be linked to Dickens’ guilt about his urges towards divorce; as Freud argued, it is from guilt and bad conscience that the super-ego draws its power. This tension between desires/ instincts and the super-ego/moralizing was to provide many interesting works in Dickens’ later career, but in this book the complexity is not yet there, and the high spirits are already souring. Hence, I can’t argue with Battle’s place in the Dickens canon: it’s not a good or interesting work in its own right. Oh, and there’s no real Christmas element, either, only a passing mention that a key scene is taking place at Christmas – but that’s not a happy scene, so the spirit of Christmas isn’t exactly alive and well in this tale.

Civilizational Apocalypse in The Dark Knight Rises

Revolution and the overthrow of all the reigning structures of power and governance is one of the great fantasies of the post-industrial individual. We all want  to do it. The ambivalence we feel for society is noted in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1930):

Primitive man was actually better off, because his drives were not restricted. yet this was counterbalanced by the fact that he had little certainty of enjoying his good fortune for long. Civilized man has traded in a portion of his chances of happiness for a certain measure of  security. (65)

[C]ivilization is built up on renunciation […], it presupposes the non-satisfaction of powerful drives – by suppression, repression or some other means. (44)

It is in the nature of things that a sense of gratitude for the increase in security wears off along with the memory of the insecurity of early stages of civilization, and we begin to consider those thwarted drives of ours, and consider how much civilization weighs down upon us, and, as Freud notes, decreases our chances of happiness. This is why, perhaps, one of the great fantasies of popular culture is the breakdown of civilization, a total social apocalypse. It’s not something we would want to experience in real life, probably – remember that additional license brings additional personal insecurity, increased threat from nature and our fellow humans – but we have to have some outlet for that aggression borne of those repressed or suppressed drives. If we can express our hostility to civilization by destroying it in imagination, that will perhaps be enough.

This is where film comes up trumps. It is the great medium of violence and destruction. Societal breakdown can be done in books, but film engages the senses directly, and destruction is an experience of the senses. In literature, Dickens took on modern history’s greatest societal breakdown of the French Revolution in his A Tale of Two Cities, and made the climactic set-piece a description of the mob violence in inner-city Paris. For effect he relies heavily on the recurring metaphor of the rising sea to describe the mob:

The sea of black and threatening waters, and of destructive upheaving of wave against wave,whose depths were yet unfathomed and whose forces were yet unknown. The remorseless sea of turbulently swaying shapes, voices of vengeance, and faces hardened in the furnaces of suffering until the touch of pity could make no mark on them, (A Tale of Two Cities, Bk. II, Ch. 21.)

This is a relevant example because a recent blockbuster film, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), has taken its cue from Dickens’ book in depicting the end of civilization as we know it, as Christopher Nolan (director and screenwriter) and Jonathan Nolan (screenwriter) made clear. The influence is apparent also in the film, where there are a few nods, most notably a certain character’s graveside oration being taken from the famous closing paragraphs of the novel.

The Dark Knight Rises uses Dickens to deal with issues around total societal breakdown and civilization’s descent into anarchy leavened with kakistocracy. The film’s villain, Bane, is concerned to usher in “the next era of western civilization”, and to do so he takes over Gotham, imprisoning or killing all the politicians and fatcats of the business world and invoking “giving Gotham back to the people” rhetoric. There are some cathartic scenes of mob violence and a breaking-open-the-prison scene reminiscent of Dickens’ Bastille scene. We see all the rich and powerful being “ripped from their decadent nests”, as Bane puts it, and getting their comeuppance. We’ve already been shown their corruption in the early parts of the film, so there’s no sympathy.




But Nolan’s sympathies aren’t really with the mob at all, and the people of Gotham never rise above a faceless mass. Apparently the people’s republic is run entirely by criminals; all the decent people just hide in their homes, it is implied, and we never meet any of them. In fact, one of the big problems with this film for me, judging it as a piece of socially and politically engaged work of narrative art rather than simply a superhero film, is how narrow its character-base is: everyone’s either a criminal or a cop. (I think, by the way, it wants to be judged as more than a superhero film, and that’s why they publicized their use of Dickens: he has a certain intellectual cachet they want to appropriate.) The criminal or cop thing is a problem: eventually, the film will have to come down on one very narrowly defined side, and that side definitely isn’t going to be the criminals.

And that’s what happens. The eventual reclaiming of the city from the Bane faction is undertaken by Batman with the help of a huge cohort of policemen who have been trapped underground but now burst forth into daylight. The huge final set-piece is a street battle of cops still in their blues versus Bane’s mercenaries. While Gotham’s general population are apparently hiding in their bedrooms, the police come along and do all the work. The camera lingers on them and a tribal beat kicks in as they line up in an orderly fashion to begin battle against the usurpers.

Cops ready for battle

Cops ready to battle to take back Gotham

So it’s a fairly blatant authoritarian fantasy at this point, one that asks: what if the police were freed up to really clean up the streets and take out the trash without holding back? Wouldn’t that be awesome? At the end of a film that has seemed to question western civilization to its very core, to announce the death of the American way, to allow Bane to call his revolution a “necessary evil” and imply (by the depiction of absolute and ineradicable corruption among Gotham’s elite) that he’s right, it’s back to square one: the same old militaristic and authoritarian fantasy. The same institutions. The same cops. It’s not consistent and it’s not smart. It just means that, ultimately, The Dark Knight Rises isn’t an interesting film, and it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s not Kubrick.

It’s dangerous, too, if we get back to Freud. The aggression felt in Gotham against society is eventually channeled into aggressive action upholding the very institutions that are responsible for the forcible repression. The way to escape being repressed is to channel it all into repressing others. That’s the one socially and legally viable expression of primal drives. It’s a very vicious cycle (“vicious” in more than one sense). This approximates to Freud’s account of the formation of the super-ego: “The aggression is introjected, internalized. actually sent back to where it came from; in other words, it is directed against the individual’s own ego. There it is taken over by a portion of the ego that sets itself up as the super-ego” (77). So if one wanted to make a purely Freudian reading, Bane and co are the ego, because the superego (the cops and Batman) turns its aggression on them. But what the aggression that could be against society is really being turned against in the diegetic world are a group of criminals and neer-do-wells whose guilt has already been clearly established by the objective eye of the camera. The fantasy at work is of having one’s cake of security in civilization and eating it in the form of permitted aggression against a group who wholly deserve it. As long as there’s a Bad Group who can be punished with compunction, civilization’s strictures aren’t unbearable. Freud mentions this too:

One should not belittle the advantage that is enjoyed by a fairly small cultural circle, which is that it allows the aggressive drive an outlet in the form of hostility to outsiders. It is always possible to bind quite large numbers of people in love, provided that others are left out as targets for aggression. (64)

Gotham has that now. And. as far as the old guard are concerned, all is forgiven.

The Future of Gotham

So one might engage in a bit of speculation as to what happens in Gotham after Bane has been defeated. Firstly, who’s in charge? The police, one supposes. It’s now a police state. As a symbol and an icon, Batman’s in charge (we see his statue being erected in a plaza downtown, as the local dignitaries look on), but as a person, he’s out of the picture. But symbols are important, as Nolan’s trilogy has always made clear. “The idea was to be a symbol”, Bruce Wayne says in Rises; Dent was a symbol: that was how pre-Bane society kept from anarchy. Symbols are more important than actual people. Now, they’ve got a new symbol, but no new ideas or no new possibilities for structures. Father Reilly is still around, too, taking the kids into Wayne Manor, which is to be an orphanage. Maybe religion isn’t dead in the new land. The point is, though, people are feeling good. Foley represented the lazy, unmotivated cop, but even he got off his ass when he saw the Bat-symbol light up the sky and knew the fight against Bane was on. It’s a new symbol, not a new regime. The regime might be liberal-capitalism, fascist, feudalist (like the time of Thomas Wayne as depicted in the first of Nolan’s trilogy, Batman Begins). Doesn’t matter. It’s about Real Heroes/ Symbols, not structures.

But one could wish Nolan had put in some real people – as in, not just police. The citizens sat on their asses till the police who had been buried underground broke free and took back the town. And Nolan even feels no need to acknowledge the people. He doesn’t even dramatize their cowardice. They just don’t exist. They’re nothings, waiting for some real cops with proper training to get shit done. But I guess that’s the superhero genre: it’s not a democratic genre. It’s fascistic. In so far as community is invoked, it’s a community of well-drilled fighting men. In the end, commitment to genre values maybe trumped what Nolan might have wanted to say about society and history. Or maybe he really is into the idea of the police-state.

Could Nolan have learned anything from Dickens’ book here? The thing about Two Cities is that for all the stuff about revolution, it ends up being a personal drama. Why does Carton die? For his beloved, Lucie. Does his sacrifice mean anything in terms of the revolution? Nope, nobody even knows except Lucie and her family. It’s an act of private heroism that doesn’t really redeem the situation. Nothing changes. Maybe the message one can pick up from these two works is just that nobody knows what comes after a revolution. It’s hard to create an diegesis of post-revolutional society and rebuilding structures. All bets are off. A police-state is probably as good a guess as any. The French Revolution didn’t take long in giving birth to a dictatorship under a military leader. In Gotham, maybe Gordon takes over; he was in charge of the resistance to Bane, at any rate. Not much of a political innovator, Gordon. He’ll just reinstate the old regime, the old structures of power. Soon he’ll be maneuvered out of power by some ruthless young punk. Remember the exchange at the beginning of the film: the congressman says Wayne is about to be fired because he’s a war hero and “this is peace”. Some of those old Machiavellians might still be around, or if not, there are more where they came from. Give it eight months, Gordon will be gone; give it eight years, Gotham is back where it was: a steaming pile of corruption and a disenchanted populace. Something terroristic will grow. Remember Bane’s revolution was a harvest, and in this Dickens’ philosophy was key:

It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee, and it was much too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it—as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw. Such vapouring, combined with the extravagant plots of Monseigneur for the restoration of a state of things that had utterly exhausted itself, and worn out Heaven and earth as well as itself, was hard to be endured without some remonstrance by any sane man who knew the truth. (Two Cities, Bk. II, Ch. 7)

The theory of revolutions and of necessary evil in Rises means that things have to change to stop all this happening again. Again, Nolan is clear that it’s a harvest: there was a causal connection between the draconian Dent-Act-era politics and the Bane uprising. So my prognostication for Gotham is grim: nothing’s changed, the happy-clappy dancing around the Bat-symbol can’t last long, and soon the reign of idealism will give way to materialism, responses grounded in actual conditions of living, and the structures will fail again, because they have every time so far. The Dark Knight will have little choice but to Rise again, but in the meantime he should brush up on political theory – maybe try something socialist going next time, help the proletariat to lose their chains? Symbols will only get you so far for so long, and this is the one thing Gotham’s never tried.

Re-reading A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities may be the best-selling novel of all time. Wikipedia’s list of best-selling novels gives it top spot, but the citation for its sales is a Telegraph article by novelist David Mitchell in which he makes a passing comment to that effect. Other sources agree, but I’ve come up with nothing authoritative. Still others say Don Quijote or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. But the Tale is definitely up there. For the Dickensian, it’s an odd one. It is not very Dickensian, in some respects. It has little in the way of comedy, with only the grave-robber Jerry Cruncher playing a comic role, with his constant suspicions that his wife is “floppin'” against him. Even that has an uncomfortable edge of darkness in the suggestions of domestic abuse. Reading the book, I was reminded of George Orwell’s comment on Dickens:

He is all fragments, all details – rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles.

The Tale is pretty short and streamlined, so it has very few gargoyles. If Orwell is right, it’s lacking the very thing that makes Dickens special. Ironic, then, that it’s apparently his most read book.

But the great advantage the book has had is its historical setting. The French Revolution remains fascinating as an example of things falling apart, humanity going way out there, a civilized society giving way to wholesale butchery of its own citizens. It is, and certainly was in the 19th-century, something that needs to be made sense of. Even very recently, Jonathan Nolan, co-scriptwriter of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) cited this as the reason he tried to draw on the Tale for his script:

A Tale of Two Cities was, to me, one of the most harrowing portraits of a relatable, recognizable civilization that completely folded to pieces with the terrors in Paris in France in that period. It’s hard to imagine that things can go that badly wrong.

So the book can appeal to the many people to whom the idea of literature in its purest form is uninteresting. This isn’t just literature; it’s an interpretation of a great and cataclysmic historical event. It’s both dramatic and instructive. There’s a way into the story for the non-literary. Dickens and his contemporaries would have been more aware of this element than many academic readers of today. They had read their Carlyle, for starters:

[L]et any one bethink him how impressive the smallest historical fact may become, as contrasted with the grandest fictitious event; what an incalculable force lies for us in this Consideration: The Thing which I hold here imaged in my mind did actually occur; was, in very truth, an element of the All, whereof I too form part; had, therefore, and has, through all time, an authentic being; is not a dream, but a reality! (“Biography”, 1832)

What Carlyle wanted, and what he got, was novelists using the raw materials of society and of history to construct their works upon. Fiction is not a realm apart, but is, to a great extent, a way of making sense of the world and of humanity.

And Dickens certainly had a message about the French Revolution and how his readers were to make sense of it, albeit a fairly obvious one: it was a result of aristocratic greed, selfishness and negligence. It was payback. If the peasants had been better treated, it wouldn’t have happened.

It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee, and it was much too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it—as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw. (Bk. II, Ch. 24)

This philosophy provides part of the architecture of the book: show the evils of the ancien regime, and then show the “harvest”. In the many reflections of such themes throughout the book, Dickens adopts a sternly portentous tone, contributing to the impression of humourlessness the book creates. It’s Dickens playing the role of the sage, incorporating his reading of Carlyle into his writing style. But it’s probably the seriousness of tone of this book that recommends it to latter-day readers like Jonathan Nolan. Indeed, the time may be ripe for a new adaptation of the Tale – incredibly, there doesn’t seem to have been a cinematic adaptation since the Dirk Bogarde one of 1958, according to an IMDb search. Maybe 2011-2012 would have been the time, with the Arab Spring, the European financial meltdown, and a generalized anger against political structures and politicians, for a Tale for our times.

Any new approach to the book would have to change a lot. Though Dickens’ humour is mostly absent, his other prominent characteristic of sentimentality is very much present. This centres mostly on the egregious Lucie Manette, one of the Dickensian dolls modern-day readers (me included) find insufferable. Despite the subject, there’s also a surprising smugness to Dickens’ portrayal of the English national character as it  is demonstrated by Jarvis Lorry and Mrs Pross. Lorry is the English man of business, associated with dullness, solidity and honesty. Pross represents the born servant, fit for little else but happy with her lot:

[Miss Pross was] one of those unselfish creatures—found only among women—who will, for pure love and admiration, bind themselves willing slaves, to youth when they have lost it, to beauty that they never had, to accomplishments that they were never fortunate enough to gain, to bright hopes that never shone upon their own sombre lives.

Her final struggle with Madame Defarge is a sort of stereotype death match, in which English self-denial, practicality, and honesty defeats French excitability and passion. Here again, Dickens reminds me of Carlyle, who had praised stupidity in Past and Present (Bk. III, Ch. 5) as being a predominantly English characteristic, and one allied with practicality and good sense. Dickens, like Carlyle, seems to be positing that for such people, national glory can and should be a substitute for any sort of commitment to oneself. For Dickens, Prossian self-denial is also dubiously linked with gender. She’s a little like the heroine of Flaubert’s “Un Coeur Simple” as a character, but the authorial ideology surrounding them is totally different, and Flaubert’s treatment of his protagonist is much more searching and less complacent.

So there’s quite a bit to cavil at in this book, as in most of Dickens. It has that wonderfully dramatic and iconic last scene, which can probably be pictured even by those who have never read the book, so deeply is it entrenched in cultural memory. As much as anything, it’s the iconography of the guillotine, awesome and terrible, that we think of when we think of the Tale, and that gives such resonance to the work. The intrinsic merits of the book, when divorced from its status as the pre-eminent fictional approach to a milestone in history, are not that great. But because that historical context is there, the Tale is still relevant to modern approaches to fictionalizing history, like The Dark Knight Rises. The book is a way in to all sorts of speculations about history and civilizational development. Like animals for certain Amazonian tribes, A Tale of Two Cities is “good to think”.

Oliver Twist (1948) – Opening Storm Scene

Having laid out my basic schema for analyzing adaptations last week, I will here attempt to put it into practice, using a scene I’ve watched several times and have found very effective, and which comes from one of my favourite adaptations.

David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) is not just one of my favourite adaptations, but one of the great adaptations in cinema history. The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens (Paul Schlicke, ed., 2000) reserves the highest place among all Dickens adaptations for the film, calling it “a masterpiece”, while the British Film Institute have pronounced it a “a classic of British cinema“. Among the most memorable scenes in the film is the opening, which features a heavily pregnant young woman struggling through a storm in barren moorland, following a distant light and finally falling exhausted at the gate within which the light sits. My exploration in this post will be to see where the scene, in each of its elements, “comes from”. Taking each of the four elements of the schema in turn, I will try to construct a panorama of the scene’s content, the only limit being my own breadth of knowledge.


Source Text: If one wishes to see this scene as a direct adaptation of a narrative element in Dickens, one can point to a line of dialogue from the workhouse nurse attending the young woman (who is, as we find out later in the novel, named Agnes, and the eponymous character’s mother – in the film, I don’t think we find out her name within the text at all, but only in the paratextual material of the credits).

She was brought here last night,” said the old woman, “by the overseer’s order. She was found lying in the street. She had walked some distance, for her shoes were worn to pieces; but where she came from, or where she was going, nobody knows.” (Chapter 1)

This is analepsis or flashback that comes in near the start of the story. It is what Genette would call an “external analepsis” (Narrative Discourse), meaning that it refers to an incident which lies outside the temporal boundaries of the story as told, and is only referred to in this dialogue.

I would analyze the narrative of this short analeptic passage as follows:

  • The functions alluded to are: 1, Agnes being brought to the workhouse; 2, Agnes being found lying in the street; and 3, Agnes walking “some distance”. (In order as related; evidently, they occurred in the reverse order)
  • There are two informants: Agnes’ shoes being “worn to pieces”; and the “realist operator” (Barthes, “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative”) that is the reference to the overseer,  placing the narrative within Dickens’ contemporary England.
  • There is one indice: Agnes’ tenacity and strength of purpose is implied by the fact that she had walked so far that her shoes were in tatters.

The narrative in Lean’s opening discards 2 and 3, though they remain implied by the cut from Agnes collapsing at the gate to Agnes lying in the workhouse. The informant relating to the overseer is gone (it would probably have been unintelligible to a 20th-century audience, in any case), and the informant of the shoes in pieces is also discarded; however, the indice of Agnes’ tenacity and strength of purpose remains.

Indeed, if one wished to make a wholly source-text oriented interpretation of the scene, one could say that it is an extended metaphorization of the aforementioned indice. The storm functions less in itself than in what it shows of Agnes’ strength of character. In this regard, one could argue that the scene adapts Dickens, that it is a correlative of a function in the source text. It is, however, a narratively excessive one, given the length and dramatic intensity of the scene.

Direct Author: I have already designated “Lean” as the author of the film Oliver Twist; but such a naming of authorship is never more than a synecdoche, part-for-whole. With specific reference to this scene, it needs to be noted that the idea for the scene came from Kay Walsh, who played Nancy in the film and was at the time David Lean’s wife. The importance of lighting in the scene can hardly be overestimated, either, with cameraman Guy Green  using special effects to create a sky in Pinewood Studios


Similarly, Arnold Bax’s score is crucial to the effect of the scene: the disharmonious scraping of violins that accompany the cut to thorny branches as Agnes gets labour pains


It is clear, however, that both Green and Bax were micro-managed by Lean:

“Bax was great,” said John Huntley, “but totally inexperienced at film and timing and all the rest of it. So in order to try and help, David wrote the most extensive notes on what he actually wanted the music to do.”

Green thought [the shots of the sky in the opening scene] looked great in the rushes, but David [Lean] declared, “We’re going to have to retake this. It’s too romantic. I want more edginess and more storm.” (Kevin Brownlow, David Lean: A Biography, Faber and Faber, 1977, pp. 243-44, 229)

And then there’s Josephine Stuart as Agnes, the only actor in the scene, no dialogue, a purely visual presence, chosen undoubtedly as much for her physical embodiment of fresh young beauty as for her thespian ability – by her visual presence she works affectively in the role, creating sympathy for the character’s plight.


To a great extent, all of these contributions were under Lean’s control, so it remains reasonable as well as convenient to consider him author here. And author in this scene is important, as there is much that can be seen as pertaining to the direct author. In “A Profile of Oliver Twist”, the documentary on the 2000 ITV DVD release, camera operator Oswald Morris recalls the innovation of the tilting of the camera to sync with Agnes’ labour pains: “I had never seen that before. That was all David’s idea.”

Camera Tilt

The technical innovation of the scene, then, points to a strongly individualized authorial presence, which is able to interpret and work around the source text in an original and effective way, and harness the talents of various other personae working on the scene.

Generic influences: The conception of this scene is from early 20th-century cinema. Kay Walsh had a memory of “sitting in the flea pit”, and seeing a girl with “great big eyes” on the screen who sank into a ditch and died. (Brownlow, p. 229) Her outline of the scene was based on this memory, and this was re-actualized in the film. But it is impossible to specify the influence Walsh had in mind.

Influence of previous Oliver Twist adaptations in this scene is minimal. Lean actually went to see the (rather poor) 1933 US adaptation starring Dickie Moore during the making of his own film, but went for a different tone entirely. Lean wanted “a grimly realistic study of what poverty was like in that time” (Gene D. Phillips, Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean, (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2006), p. 123); which is reflected in the dark and moody lighting of this scene. Such lighting  is film noirish, but the bleak moorland setting is not, recalling 19th-century romantic fiction and theatre more than any existing cinematic tropes. But the keys terms for Lean were historical (“in that time”) and realism – if we take the film as being a piece of historical realism, we must allow that it had few cinematic antecedents, and entered somewhat new cinematic territory.

Cultural influences: These seem to me to be entirely absent from this scene. Perhaps this is what gives it its timeless quality. There is cultural specificity visible in later parts of the film – the post-WWII/ rationing  focus on food – hunger for Oliver, gluttony for the workhouse board; but it’s kept relatively subtle and indirect. But in this opening scene, I can find nothing at all. this may be partly because I am have little background knowledge of the period in question. But it also points to the classicism of Lean’s approach. Lean was an aesthetic rather than a political filmmaker, less concerned with reflecting the times than with creating cinema. That’s despite the fact he made some films based (loosely) on historical fact. It’s despite the fact, too, that he conceived Oliver Twist as dealing with 19th-century poverty, as it historically appeared. The juxtaposition of this intention with the ahistoricism of the opening scene is striking, and leads me to the provisional conclusion, which I may try to follow up in later analyses, that the past is aesthetic. Representations of the past have a different status to those of the present, and are experienced differently and, in part, aesthetically.

So the scene is Dickens plus an unknown early 20th-century film (presumably some sort of melodrama), plus individual technical innovation and an impressionistic approach to film-making: images reproducing and communicating character’s states of mind – a technique very different from Dickens, or novels in general, though it’s not too far from the poetic device of pathetic fallacy, in the phrase coined by Ruskin. There’s a dash of film noir, too. The intertext of the scene is complex, as is, indeed, the intertext of most scenes. This particular scene is interesting as it’s so patently limiting and insufficient to see it through the lens of adaptation, or posit that all it does is re-mediumize something that’s already in the book. But there was nothing inevitable about the scene; if Lean hadn’t done it, it would never have been done with Oliver Twist, and would never have entered the culture-text of the novel as it has, being re-done by most subsequent adapters, as I’ve written about earlier.

And, even still, there’s lots of ways of interpreting the scene, I’m sure, that I haven’t touched upon. Yet the quadripartite framing schema I’ve used certainly opens up a scene to a detailed and fairly comprehensive reading, though it also demands a high level of circumstantial knowledge… a level which I myself, perhaps, haven’t quite reached. My knowledge of the history of cinema is not so substantial as I might wish, but I am, at least, continually pointing out directions to myself, erecting signposts on the road to critico-analytical knowledge.

The Other Bleak House: The BBC 1985 Serial

The BBC serial adaptation of Bleak House broadcast in 2005 came in for a great deal of critical praise and was popular with the general public. Indeed, a perusal of the reviews shows that approbation was almost universal: 99 reviews (as of 4 August 2012), avg. 4.8 (out of 5): 87×5 star, 9×4 star and one each of 3, 2, and 1 stars. And even the one star review insists on the merits of the series, giving one star solely on the basis of the DVD release policy (deluxe edition with extras only 9 months after initial release). So this blog is somewhat in the minority in not enjoying the serial.

In technical terms Bleak House was undoubtedly something of a departure for the classic serial. Quick scenes, lots of sound effects, kinetic camerawork. Everything to give the impression of ceaseless movement, a plot rushing towards revelation and resolution. It was interesting also that the DVD cover claimed the serial was Bleak House “stripped of its sentimentality”, certainly a departure from the aesthetic of fidelity that has been presumed to be paramount in classic serials. Bleak House was not to be faithful, rather it was to distance itself from Dickens’ sentimentality. Yet ultimately, shorn of its sonic and visual innovations, its bells and whistles, Bleak House seemed to me to be less innovative than intended. The script, by the patron saint of adapters Andrew Davies, did not escape sentimentality, and, despite making interesting comments about his reworking of Esther Summerson’s character (in an interview in Cartmell and Whelehan, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen (CUP, 2007), she remained what G.B. Shaw called Dickens’ Esther, “a maddening prig”, sanctimonious and judgemental. It’s not so easy to strip Bleak House of its sentimentality, because the whole plot revolves around Esther’s loveability: Jarndyce loves her, Woodcourt loves her, Guppy loves her, Caddy loves her, Ada loves her, everybody loves her! A great challenge, perhaps impossible, for the adapter is to render Esther as likeable to the reader as she is to everyone in the diegetic world, or at least to make it acceptably plausible that she would generate such extreme affection; making the other characters recognize that she’s actually quite annoying won’t work, because the love of these characters for Esther operates on the development of the plot – no love for Esther, very little plot.

In the 1985 BBC Bleak House, now unfairly overshadowed by its successor, the problem of Esther isn’t really solved either, but we do have a quieter Esther, who stays in the background as much as is feasible given her large role in the plot. She is silent where Dickens’ Esther is disingenuously self-denigrating and Anna Maxwell-Martin’s Esther in the 2005 version is (I think) too assertive, too secure in her judgements, and silence is, frankly, about the best that can be done with Esther.

Suzanne Burden as Esther Summerson, Bleak House (BBC 1985)

The 1985 Bleak House is very much in the mould of the classic serial: no 24-style zooming lenses here, just long scenes, static camera, and often only the dialogue and the actors’ faces to concentrate on. The obligatory orchestral score is relatively understated, often giving way to the dialogue. There are some very effective long scenes, a 10-minute scene in Lady Dedlock’s drawing room with Lady D and Guppy springs to mind. With the almost total absence of non-diegetic sound and the long, still close-ups of the two actors, it’s almost theatrical, and it works wonderfully. Diana Rigg is an excellent Lady Dedlock, all told.

Diana Rigg as Lady Dedlock

Of course, there’s difficulty with the plotting: Lady D.’s death is dealt with in episode 7 (of 8, 50 minutes each), so the final episode is given over almost totally to Richard’s experience in Chancery -a terrible scripting decision: all the other strands are already gathered together, so there’s an inessential feel to the episode; it feels more like a long afterword than a properly integrated episode, certainly not a climactic final episode. Other plot lines are just dropped: as far as I remember, George is last seen or heard of in prison in the penultimate episode, and his release is not dealt with. Overall, though, despite this serious caveat, this Bleak House copes admirably with the difficulties of the adaptation and seems to my judgement to be a better bet than its successor, with a more sympathetic and nuanced (if less well structured) script, and more understated but effective performances.

Bounderby vs. Four Yorkshiremen

Charles Dickens’ comic sensibility is perhaps somewhat underappreciated in the 21th century: like the readers of the 19th century, we like his books, but profer very different rationales for this predilection. In certain respects, though, Dickens’ humour hasn’t dated at all. This struck me yesterday, when I was watching the 1977 Granada serial adaptation of Hard Times for the first time. I realized that the speech of Josiah Bounderby, played here by Timothy West, closely anticipates the classic At Last the 1948 Show/ Monty Python sketch, “The Four Yorkshiremen”. The series’ scriptwriter, Arthur Hopcroft, does an excellent job pruning Bounderby’s dialogue and bringing his best lines together in a couple of effective scenes. The raw material, though, is all Dickens’s – and, being Dickens, it may require pruning, but no embellishment.

“When it was paving-stones and attics and warehouses for me, it was the opera and Mayfair and Lords and honourables and white satin and jewels for you… WASN’T IT!?” –   Timothy West as Bounderby in Hard Times (1977)

In two early scenes in the serial adaptation, Bounderby, eating gluttonously all the while, gives out a great deal of information about his young life: he spent his tenth birthday in a ditch – not a dry ditch, either, there was a foot of water in it; his mother bolted, and he was cared for by his drunken grandmother, who kept him in an eggbox; he learned his letters from a cripple in St. Giles; a paving-stone was his bed – in short, he concludes with relish, he comes “from the scum of the earth”.

Later, when he admonishes young Tom Bounderby for arriving late to dinner, and Tom retorts that when he (Bounderby) was young he didn’t have to dress for dinner, Bounderby responds:

Dress! Dress! Dress for dinner! No dinner to dress for in my house! No house to have dinner in!

That line could have come directly from Four Yorkshiremen:

-I was happier then and I had nothin’. We used to live in this tiny old house with great big holes in the roof.

-House! You were lucky to live in a house! We used to live in one room, all twenty-six of us, no furniture, ‘alf the floor was missing, and we were all ‘uddled together in one corner for fear of falling.

The similarities throughout are rather striking, enough to make one wonder if Cleese, Chapman, Brooke-Taylor and Feldman (the authors of the sketch) did Hard Times in school. In recent years, HT has been the scourge of many a young student, but it’s interesting to note just how close Dickens’s humour is to a more contemporary style, if not, indeed, a direct influence. In support of the contention that it’s the latter, I cite the name of one of the Four Yorkshiremen, mentioned at the very beginning of the sketch: Josiah. Even the first name is the same as Bounderby’s! Therefore it appears we must give Dickens some credit for one of the truly classic comedy sketches of its era.

The Various Deaths of Nancy in Oliver Twist Adaptations 1922 to 2007

This blog earlier discussed the opening storm scene in David Lean’s classic adaptation of Oliver Twist (1948) and the tendency of later adapters to copy Lean’s approach. Another very important scene from Lean’s film which has been directly influential is that of Sikes’ murder of Nancy, a climactic episode occuring towards the end of the narrative. Lean famously cuts away from Sikes and Nancy just at the moment he is about to cudgel her to death, and focusses on Sikes’ dog Bull’s-Eye, who responds to the violence by racing to the door and furiously scrabbling to get out. Lean himself felt:

I am not too mad about violence on the screen […] I think violence is much more frightening if you leave it to the viewer to imagine. […] To do the death of Nancy as described – Bill Sikes hitting her on the head – would be disgusting (Brownlow 241).

So Lean made the highly effective substitution of the frantic dog for the act of violence itself, and the result has been highly acclaimed. According to Lean’s biographer, Gene D. Phillips, it is “one of the outstanding examples of horror induced by indirection in all cinema” (134). Less known, in fact I’ve never yet seen it pointed out, is that this development was not entirely novel to Lean’s film, as the 1922 version of Oliver Twist starring Jackie Coogan included a fleeting shot of Bull’s-Eye  as the murder takes place – again he’s scrabbling at a door, but he seems to be trying to get in, rather than out as in Lean’s film, although it’s hard to be sure. Lean took this shot and made it the centrepiece of his great scene.

Bull’s-Eye scrabbles for the door as Nancy dies in Lean’s Oliver Twist

Dickens himself seems to forget about Bull’s-Eye during this scene in Oliver Twist. A few pages later, though, we are told that on cleaning up the murder-scene, Sikes leaves, “dragging the dog with him” (Chapter XLVIII), so apparently Bull’s-Eye was present at the death.

Later serials have almost all taken their cue from Lean to the extent of showing the dog’s reaction to the murder. Unlike Lean, however, they have also shown the murder itself, and the voyeuristic lingering on the moment of violence has increased over time.

In the musical Oliver! we don’t see much, Sikes and Nancy are hidden behind a set of steps, all that is visible are Sikes’ upper body and his staff as it descends in a striking motion on the unseen Nancy. There’s also a shot of Bull’s-Eye, just standing there, watching without reaction; like Lean’s dog, he’s white with a black patch over one eye.

Clive Donner’s 1982 Oliver Twist was the first to make real voyeuristic capital of the murder. In this adaptation, Tim Curry is a particularly unpleasant Sikes, not only irascible and violent, but sleazy and leering. Here, Sikes beats Nancy (Cherie Lunghi) to the floor, then retreats as she rises to her knees, saying “I can’t see, Bill” and begins to grope around looking for him. She crawls to him, and embraces him, still on her knees, pleading with him to spare her life. There’s a close-up of Bill’s face as he prepares for the coup de grace, lifting up a flaming cudgel (he’s picked it up from the fire); his eyes are blank and rather than overcome by rage, he seems to be drawing out the moment. Then a close-up of Nancy’s blindly staring face, and back to Bill. He lifts the cudgel so slowly it seems to be almost ritualistic, then brings it down with great force. The camera is on Bill’s face as he commits the deed. Just afterwards, his expression seems almost ecstatic, before he emits an anguished howl. I don’t think this scene works characterologically, and its motivation seems more one of fetishized violence.

Clive Donner’s 1982 TV movie: Sikes (Tim Curry) lifts his flaming cudgel, very slowly, in preparation to kill Nancy

Bull’s-Eye is also shown scrabbling at the door in Donner’s evocation of the scene; but in a later shot, just before the murderous blow is dealt, he is shown baring his teeth, just as Sikes did in the immediately previous shot – obviously a deliberate parallel by the director to emphasize Sikes’ bestiality. Bull’s-Eye is here a terrier-type dog, rather than the usual bull dog.

The 1985 BBC serial of Oliver Twist, directed by Gareth Walsh, takes a similar approach to Donner with regard to Nancy’ s murder. Like Donner, Walsh lets the scene take place without non-diegetic sound, and for much of it in complete silence. It’s a long scene, building inexorably towards Sikes’ outbreak of brutality. The director seems to be relying on his audiences anticipation – when is he going to do it? – given that the outcome is so well known. Here, Sikes strikes when Nancy is in his arms, Sikes having lowered the gun when she said “No, they’ll hear it”, which leads her to think he’s changed his mind. But as she lies in his arms, facing the floor, he raises the gun over her head and brings it down very heavily, then we see him bringing it down on her as she lies on the ground – bringing it down from a great height and with extreme violence. For the first time, Bull’s-Eye doesn’t appear in the scene.

Michael Attwell as Sikes in the 1985 Twist, cudgeling Nancy’s body with extreme force (Apologies for the terrible picture quality).


The 1982 and 1985 scenes are very similar. I find them problematical in that by drawing out the scene and slowing everything down, it’s harder to fit it into Sikes’ character, which is impetuously violent. Lean’s Sikes dispatches Nancy quickly, obviously in the throes of a great passion.  Walsh’s and Donner’s Sikes are more calculating in their approach, seeming in control and postponing the murder for no apparent reason.

The 1999 Alan Bleasdale-scripted serial for ITV also went for the maximalist approach. This long scene resembles Donner’s by having Nancy rise after the first blows, blood streaming from her face, and plead with Bill to “Have mercy”, before being downed again. This scene has a lot of shots of Nancy’s bloodied face. And we have our first black Bull’s-Eye (colour-blind casting?), sitting under the bed, not reacting to the violence.

The death of Nancy has been twice rendered on screen so far in the 2000s. Roman Polanski’s 2005 adaptation of Oliver Twist has a shortish murder scene, fairly restrained. Bull’s-Eye stands barking as Sikes’ blows fall. We see Sikes striking out, but Nancy is invisible in the shadows in the room. The 2007 BBC series (dir. Coky Giedroyc) features the first mixed-race Nancy, and, more to this post’s purpose, she is the first Nancy who is not in bed when when Sikes arrives home in the murder scene. She’s sitting up, and knows immediately by his demeanour that he knows of her meeting with Mr Brownlow. She begins to plead, but he grabs her by the hair and after a short hesitation beats her with his stick. It’s another short one, with an odd use of Bull’s-Eye, who sits quietly facing away from Sikes and towards the door as the murder takes place. In both the two most recent OTs, the dog has the classic Bull’s-Eye aesthetic of white with a black patch.

Bull’s-Eye in the 2007 BBC serial turns away from the murder, sitting quietly by the door.

Leanne Rowe as Nancy in Roman Polanski’s 2005 film.

There has been a definite arc in Nancy murders, from Lean’s classy indirection to the increasing and somewhat sadistic violence  in the 80s and 90s and then a move away from that into the more neutral stagings in the more recent ones. The Nancy murder scene has less importance in the more recent (post-2000) adaptations. The 2007 serial placed more emphasis on Bill in the aftermath, as he seems unable to take in what he’s done, talking to Nancy’s corpse as if he thinks her still alive. I’m not here going to try and go into why this change in approaches to the scene has taken place, merely point out that it has. As for Bull’s-Eye, his presence and his appearance shows (as the storm scene discussed before did also) the pervasive influence of Lean’s adaptation on his successors. Bull’s-Eye has been used in all sorts of ways to heighten the effect of the murder scene, a scene which has always been known as one of Dickens’ most powerful; in fact, the 1897 short, The Death of Nancy Sykes, is the oldest known Dickens adaptation, and each adapter since has brought their own vision to create new ways of staging this immortal scene.

Brownlow, Kevin. David Lean: A Biography. Faber, 1997.

Phillips, Gene D. Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean. University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

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