As can be clearly seen from the care lavished on these six BBC adaptions of Charles Dickens' novels, the British love their Dickens! And why not--Dickens is ideally suited to television, with his elaborate but vigorous plots, each a compendium of comically odious personalities (and one or two nice folk, just to keep things from getting too awful). Actors dig into these meaty roles with zeal, delighting in the hairpin turns from macabre horror to sweet sentiment. The more popular (and most frequently adapted) of the books at hand--Great Expectations
and Oliver Twist
--are the most conventional. The 1981 mini-series Expectations
(in which young Pip learns the pitfalls of wealth through his relationship with the rich and bitter Mrs. Havishamand and her warped ward, Estella) is dutiful to its source but not adapted with much inspiration. Twist
, from 1985, fares better; it's a zippy treatment of this tale of childhood deprivation and juvenile delinquency, and the horrors of Victorian orphanages will raise your hackles. The adaptation is capable but a little flat--still, any story where an undertaker observes, "Every tear is another shilling in the till," is clearly not lacking in wicked wit.
Fortunately, the others are considerably juicier: Martin Chuzzlewit, a lesser-known but richly satirical book, has a star-studded production from 1994, featuring Paul Scofield, Tom Wilkinson, Pete Postlethwaite, and Julia Sawalha, among others. The wealthy Martin Chuzzlewit, deeply suspicious of all mankind due to being hounded by greedy, grasping relatives, threatens the happiness of his ward Mary and his namesake grandson. In addition to the sterling and energetic cast, Chuzzlewit has outstanding production values, as does the 1998 version of Our Mutual Friend, which goes to great lengths to evoke the textures of life in Dickens' London. The mysterious death of a man about to inherit a great fortune sets in motion a complex plot that intertwines two love stories (it's one of Dickens' most romantic works), social scheming, and murderous obsession. The names aren't quite as famous (such as Paul McGann, Timothy Spall, Anna Friel, and Keeley Hawes), but the performances are top-notch and the script is particularly dynamic.
Bleak House, a Kafka-esque story of young innocents caught in an all-consuming, multi-generational lawsuit, cultivates a rich and potent Gothic horror; the 19th century seems like an unnerving alien world, through which lawyers and policemen stride like cruel predators. Diana Rigg is the most famous face in this 1985 production, but strong performances abound. The final component of this box set is the most curious: A 1994 version of Hard Times starring Alan Bates and Richard E. Grant, which turns this dark story--about a schoolmaster/politician who raises his children on reason at the expense of all feeling and finally reaps the bitter rewards--into a compact, theatrical feature film that's so swift it's almost jaunty. Adapted and directed by Peter Barnes (writer of The Ruling Class), it's the most stylized production of the bunch, and while lacking the depth and narrative detail of the others, it effectively cuts to the essence of Dickens. The 2009 edition of this set comes in six slimpaks. --Bret Fetzer