Icons of Pop: Charles Dickens

Ok, so perhaps when you think of the most relevant icons of popular culture Charles Dickens might not immediately come to mind. Madonna, Lady Gaga; Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston; darn, even Andy Warhol – after all, he invented the whole thing, didn’t he? But, Charles Dickens?

Well, here’s news for you: indeed, Charles Dickens! And not just because he wrote an extensive short story about a stingy old man who was too busy counting up his money to care about Christmas over 150 years ago, or because his description of the character was so accurate, so close to the human condition, that still today Scrooge is used to describe a miserly being, such as Dickens’ invention, who bore that very name.

Born on February 7, 1812, Dickens’ bicentenary is being celebrated all over the world. And I say “is being” because the relevance and the magnitude of Dickens’ figure mean that his anniversary has gone well beyond the date of his birth and taken over the entire calendar year 2012. There is a dickens2012 website with information about the writer’s life, his most famous characters, his literary style, and the impact he had on the society of his time and beyond. Most impressively, there is a calendar of events revolving around Dickens’ birthday celebrations, which lists festivals, plays, screenings, readings and exhibitions taking place everywhere from Australia to New Zealand, going through Massachusetts, USA, Saarland, Germany and, naturally, Portsmouth, UK, where he was born.

Often referred to as “the conscience of Victorian England,” Dickens had a long and extremely successful career that spanned close to 35 years, during which he produced 15 novels, most of them serialized, and a number of shorter works often published in his own magazines. But I will deal with Dickens’ literary style, merits and relevance in a future piece. Presently, I want to go back to the impact Dickens has had in popular culture, to the longevity he has enjoyed through the years and to the presence he has in today’s society. In short, I want to talk about how cool Dickens is.

One way to go about this task, for instance, is typing the writer’s name on Google: 38.6 million results – more than Marilyn Monroe (16.3 million), more than James Dean (30.6 million), more than Bob Dylan (15.7 million). Nowhere near Madonna (510 million), though. A more focused method would be to carry the same search on the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDb) – and here comes the killer blow: an astounding 111 movies inspired in novels or characters by Dickens are listed on the site. One hundred and eleven!

Dickens’ deep impact on the film industry is a clear indicative of the close connection his fiction strikes with the popular sentiment of our society, to this very day. Evidently, the preparations for the celebration of the writer’s bicentenary were a contributing factor in the renewed wave of productions of his work, most notably for TV. But the fact remains that Dickens has been a constant and recurrent source of inspiration for film producers around the world, from Finland to Hollywood.

On the big screen as in print, A Christmas Carol is one of Dickens’ most durable stories. From the 1938 MGM production, with Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge, through the 1962 musical adaptation of the classic, starring the unforgettable Mr. Magoo, to the Muppet version of 1992 (which cast Michael Caine as Scrooge), and Rober Zemeckis’ 3D animated interpretation of 2009, which included voiceovers by Jim Carey, Colin Firth and Gary Oldman, the tale has been branded and repackaged time and time again to serve very much the same purpose that Dickens himself had in mind back in 1843, when he penned it: to entertain the whole family with a refreshing seasonal tale.

If Scrooge is Dickens’ most popular creation, however, it is by no means his sole incursion into our collective unconscious. Carving a similar mark to other iconic characters, such as Robinson Crusoe, or Romeo and Juliet, whose stories form part of our common knowledge, even if we haven’t actually read the book or seen the film, Oliver Twist has fascinated audiences through the decades, also on celluloid. The most recent version of the classic was launched in 2005, directed by Roman Polanski and starring Ben Kingsley as the likeable villain, Fagin. But, in the same measure as new formulations of Dickens’ works constitute direct or indirect tributes to the genius of the writer, re-makings of previous films also comment of their predecessors. In this sense, Polanski’s Oliver Twist is a heartfelt gesture of respect towards the 1948 version of the novel, directed by David Lean, featuring a young Alec Guinness as Fagin, and filmed in the naturally depressed environment of post-war London.

Alec Guinness as Fagin. Source: fotogramas.es

Part of the fascination with Dickens stems from his acute sense of empathy – from his ability to sympathize with the working class, to outline a landscape of chance and circumstance that ultimately makes or break his characters – and from the resulting complexity of many of his protagonists, who often display a blend of good and bad, part-hero, part-villain. Such is the case with Fagin, unquestionably, but also with Abel Magwitch, the convict in Great Expectations, whose hideous physical and moral appearance is counterbalanced on the whole by his good deeds, to the point where we grieve together with the protagonist for his death.

But we were talking about cool and none of the recent productions of any of Dickens’ classics come anywhere near Alfonso Cuarón’s reinterpretation of Great Expectations in the tasteful 1998 production that gave us the aesthetic delight of pairing Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke. Now, if Polanski tips his hat at David Lean in Oliver Twist, Cuarón totally snubs him, as there is absolutely no reference to Lean’s 1946 version of the book (which also features an even younger Guinness, almost unrecognizable as Herbert Pockett). Indeed, Cuarón takes vast amounts of creative liberty to adapt Dickens’ plot to a more modern, slightly more plausible, scenario transported to the American reality of the turn of the millennium. Pip (Hawke) is endowed with a natural talent (painting) that provides Cuarón with a more tangible reasoning behind the protagonist’s rise to fame, distancing him from Dickens’ original idea. Be that as it may, it also gives Cuarón a wonderful excuse to make demure Paltrow pose at her sexiest for a gobsmacked Hawke in a sublime scene that, together with De Niro’s superb performance as the convict, an epic interpretation of Ms. Dinsmore (Havisham in the book) by Anne Bancroft, and an unforgettable moment of buddying love between the young Stella and the Pip by a fountain, take this film, and Dickens with it, beyond cool and into cult.

 

Gwyneth Paltrow in Great Expectations.

 

Because, despite the substantial variations evidenced in the plot of Cuarón’s Great Expectations, at the core of his film the message is truly and unequivocally Dickens’. The same is true, of course, of more faithful reproductions, such as Polanski’s, and more imaginative recreations, which often play with the format and enunciation of Dickens’ words. From Oliver!, the tremendously popular musical whose “Oom pah pah” can still be heard randomly in bars in England, to illustrated and animated adaptations of his works, Dickens is everywhere to be seen – and has been for the past 100 years, or so. Which highlights one last remarkable fact of his reputation: not only is Dickens cool now, he has been cool for ages, through the ages and for audiences of all ages. Now, that is a true icon.

 

PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, MARCH 4, 2012.

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