Monday, February 6, 2012


(Dickens' Dream, unfinished watercolor by Robert William Buss, 1875.)

Let's all raise a glass of something festive to my favorite author, Charles Dickens, on the occasion of his 200th birthday (Tuesday, Feb 7). Funny, he doesn't look a day over 58, the age he was at his untimely death—a tad younger than I am now. I feel like SUCH a slacker!

Check out this website, Dickens 2012, devoted to the year-long celebrations being held in his honor, not only in London and Portsmouth (his birthplace), but all over the world. Not bad for the son of an impecunious Naval Office clerk who spent time in debtor's prison while 12-year-old Charles was taken out of school to work in a draconian blacking (shoe polish) factory—a bitter experience that informed his novels and his sense of justice for the rest of his life.

This acute sense of moral outrage, coupled with his first-hand experience of the vast gulf between the 1% and the other 99 makes his work as relevant today as it ever was. And yet, some modern pundits question whether Dickens is "too hard" to be read at all in the texting and twittering age. (Dickens can't even complete a chapter heading in 144 characters.) To these people, I say: get over yourselves and plunge in. The sheer richness of his alien world is the whole point; getting lost in one of his humongous, vital, character-driven, immensely humane, heartbreaking, savage and hilarious novels is the reason God invented reading.

I can't claim to have read all of Dickens' work; not even close. But certain of his books have been the highlights of my reading life. A Christmas Carol remains my ideal of the perfect book, a simple but ingenious construction that confines the story to a single night, yet expands to include an entire lifetime, indeed, an entire historical era of experience—all with a nifty Gothic ghost story element that's the forerunner of what we now call magic realism. In a word: bravo!

I devoured David Copperfield at age 18 (working for minimum wage at a summer job that was my own "blacking factory," a commercial pottery factory in Manhattan Beach, whose owner bore the Scrooge-like initials "ES"), and the other great coming-of-age saga, Great Expectations. Funny, the books I "had" to read in school—A Tale Of Two Cities; Hard Times—I remember with somewhat less affection than those I discovered on my own. After watching The Royal Shakespeare Company's intense, nine-hour stage production of The Life And Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby on TV, I went on a Dickens binge, polishing off Nickleby, Bleak House, and the sensational Our Mutual Friend (with its  brilliant recurring motif of the sinister, powerful, indifferent, and yet lifegiving River Thames) in short order. Okay, it took me a few months, but it was time well spent.

Certainly not as an alternative to actually reading Dickens, but because so many of my own forays into literature have been prompted by seeing a screen adaptation, I offer my Top 5 Favorite Dickens productions:

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951) Accept no substitutes! The incomparable Alistair Sim is the Scroogiest possible Scrooge in this spare, spooky, and foreboding British classic. (Note: It was called Scrooge in its initial theatrical release, but don't mistake it for the 1970 Albert Finney musical version.)

THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY (1982) This immense video capture of The Royal Shakespeare Company's epic stage event overflows with good and evil, high life, lowlife, and every variety of life in between. By turns eloquent and riotously funny, it also offers a pre-Carol take on the Scrooge character in cold, miserly Ralph Nickleby (John Woodvine) doing his utmost to crush the spirit of his resilient nephew, Nicholas (the inexhaustible Roger Rees). A knockout!

DAVID COPPERFIELD (1935) This classic Hollywood Golden Age production unleashed the entire arsenal of MGM stars on one of Dickens' most venerable and popular novels—led by the inimitable W. C. Fields as the lovable, but impoverished Micawber (based on Dickens' own father). Edna May Oliver is a delicious Aunt Betsey, Basil Rathbone oozes evil as the hateful Murdstone, and Freddie Bartholomew plays the young David. (I never saw the more recent TV version with little Danielle Radcliffe as young David; maybe I'll catch up with it some day!)

OLIVER TWIST (1948) Another eerie black-and-white mood piece, this British production is an early film by the great David Lean. Alec Guinness is a sly, larcenous father-figure Fagin, shepherding his team of child pickpockets through the teeming streets of London. A teenage Anthony Newley is the Artful Dodger, and look out for Robert Newton as the murderous, dangerous Bill Sykes (he would play Long John Silver in Treasure Island two years later).

MR. MAGOO'S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1962) Sorry, but I first saw this at an impressionable age and I still adore it! If you must apply songs to a Dickens story, get Jule Styne and Bob Merrill to write them. I've rhapsodized about this one before in this blog; here's what I love about it.

And speaking of Dickens, take a peek at this fabulous art project by Cardiff School of Art and Design student Rachel Walsh, called "Explaining the Kindle to Charles Dickens." It's great to know that books continue to inspire creative thought, one way or another!

(Above, right: Scrooge confronts the restless, moaning phantoms, unable to rest in peace. Arthur Rackham illustration for A Christmas Carol, 1915.)

(Above, left: I drew this cartoon to illustrate my review of the TV production of Nicholas Nickleby for the fanzine Movie Collector's World. "Bonet" was the joint nom de plume under which Art Boy and I perpetrated a cartooning career years ago.)

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