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It's hard to say why some of Charles Dickens's novels have been adapted for movies and television many times while other great Dickens books get little attention. The champions are probably Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, with about two dozen versions apiece. David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities have each been adapted about sixteen times, and Great Expectations has been filmed almost twenty times. By contrast, Martin Chuzzlewit and Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend and Hard Times are fine Dickens tales with only a handful of adaptations apiece. Little Dorrit is also low on the list - five versions between 1913 and 2008 - despite its power and importance as a novel.
The good news is that at least two of the Little Dorrit adaptations are of very high quality: a 2008 miniseries from the BBC and, better still, the six-hour British movie directed by Christine Edzard and released in 1988. Edzard's version is a masterpiece. As a screen translation of the novel, and as a film in its own right, it has a seriousness, subtlety, and inventiveness that outstrip every other Dickens film I've seen. It takes many liberties with the plot, but even purists should be delighted with its fidelity to the moods, atmospheres, and emotions of Dickens's great book, if not to every aspect of the narrative.
Edzard filmed Little Dorrit in a London studio near areas that Dickens explored many times in prose. The reviewer for Variety was right to say that "what she has accomplished on a small budget is astounding," and that even the painted sets work in its favor, giving the film "a rich theatrical texture while not deflecting from the story." In fact, they enhance its magical aura. In another ingenious move, Edzard uses music by Giuseppe Verdi, the magnificent composer born just a year after Dickens entered the world, and it is an excellent match. Edzard and her husband, co-producer Richard B. Goodwin, built the sets, sewed the costumes, and constructed miniatures for the background in a converted warehouse that they otherwise used for manufacturing dollhouses. In his 1988 review, Roger Ebert accurately described the result as "a six-hour epic...with 242 speaking roles" that was "crafted almost by hand" in a labor of Dickensian love.
The story's eponymous heroine is Amy Dorrit, called Little Dorrit because of her diminutive size and meek personality. William Dorrit, her father, is an inmate of the Marshalsea debtors' prison, where he has resided so long that he's known as the Father of the Marshalsea, a title in which he takes great pride. Amy was born within its walls and spends most of her time there, tending to her father and lackadaisical brother, who also becomes an inmate of the place. The other main character is Arthur Clennam, who returns to London after years in a faraway country. He is surprised to find that his mother, a sick and bitter old woman, has taken an interest in Amy Dorrit, paying her a modest wage as a seamstress in her home. Wondering why his tight-fisted mother has made this arrangement, Arthur starts investigating and uncovers a trail of secrets involving the Dorrit family and his own. His adventures put him in contact with a dizzying array of people, ranging from inventor Daniel Doyce and old flame Flora Finching to financier Tite Barnacle and employees of the Circumlocution Office, a place as crazily bureaucratic as it sounds.
Arthur is the most important character in the novel's early pages, but a little later Dickens puts Amy at center stage, writing, "This history must sometimes see with Little Dorrit's eyes...." Edzard's screenplay boldly expands this idea into a basic structuring device. Part One of the film, titled "Nobody's Fault," tells the story from Arthur's point of view, and then Part Two, called "Little Dorrit's Story," tells it again from Amy's perspective. That may sound repetitive, but it works marvelously well, especially when the second part fills in blanks, rounds off events, and fleshes out personalities that were tantalizingly unfinished at the end of the first portion. It's important to note that this Little Dorrit is not a miniseries, despite its six-hour running time. It's a movie in two parts, best viewed in fairly quick succession so the two halves can resonate with each other as equal partners in a single grand endeavor.
Writing about the novel in 1952, literary critic Lionel Trilling observed that although it was a huge success when it first appeared - published in monthly installments in the middle 1850s - it then "retired to the background," overshadowed in popularity by Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, the other major novels of Dickens's last period. This notwithstanding, Trilling continues, Little Dorrit is one of Dickens's most profound novels and "one of the most significant works of the nineteenth century," having more to say about "society in relation to the individual human will" than any of the author's other books. Along the way it reveals fascinating things about group psychology, official institutions, government power, and other social phenomena
.This doesn't mean Little Dorrit is dauntingly intellectual. Dickens and Edzard are both popular storytellers with terrific skill at embedding large ideas in entertaining plots. Edzard makes the film version strikingly cinematic as well, partly through quietly brilliant staging and editing - a party-dinner scene near the end is directed with astonishing imagination - and partly by streamlining the story. The sinister Rigaud, important in the novel and marvelously played by Andy Serkis in the 2008 miniseries, is nowhere to be found, for instance, and the rent collector Mr. Pancks, played superbly by Eddie Marsan in 2008, becomes a minor character with only a few appearances.
Viewers familiar with the novel may not like these changes, but a book of 800-plus pages must inevitably be trimmed to suit the screen, and in many respects Edzard's six-hour movie is much stronger than the eight-hour BBC version. The pudgy chatterbox Flora, the sweet and simple John, and Amy's feisty sister Fanny are not such broadly caricatured figures, for example - although Fanny is almost a cartoon character even in the novel - and Amy really is a little Dorrit, not the strapping young woman played by Claire Foy in the miniseries. Best of all is the overall look of Edzard's film, shot to perfection by Bruno de Keyzer, the great French cinematographer. Environments teem with details that realistically vanish almost as soon as they appear, and characters often hang around in the background as they would in real situations during that slower, more measured historical era. Edzard's movie is as much a place to inhabit as a story to watch.
And the acting is uniformly fine. Sarah Pickering is perfect as the title character. Derek Jacobi is a splendid Arthur Clennam, always dignified, soft-spoken, and unassuming. Joan Greenwood plays Mrs. Clennam as a less demented version of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, forever plunked in her darkened room while the world goes about its business outside. Max Wall is equally convincing as Flintwinch, her disagreeable (and wonderfully named) servant. Special mention goes to Alec Guinness, at the peak of his powers in the key role of William Dorrit, and to Cyril Cusack in the smaller role of Frederick, his unfortunate brother. Bravo to all.
I didn't appreciate Edzard's film when I saw it in 1988, but now it has first place in my pantheon of Dickens movies. My other favorites include adaptations of my favorite Dickens novels: the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, with Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, and the 1946 version of Great Expectations, directed by David Lean with Guinness, John Mills, Jean Simmons, and even George "Gabby" Hayes in the cast. I also like Lean's first-rate Oliver Twist of 1948, featuring Guinness along with Robert Newton, Anthony Newley, and none other than Diana Dors, and Roman Polanski's 2005 version of that novel is even better. And there are memorable performances in certain less-memorable movies, such as W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber in George Cukor's David Copperfield (1935) and Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton in Jack Conway's A Tale of Two Cities (1935). None of these films quite equal Edzard's amazing Little Dorrit, though. It is storytelling and moviemaking of the highest order.Director: Christine Edzard
Producers: John Brabourne, Richard B. Goodwin
Screenplay: Christine Edzard; based on the novel by Charles Dickens
Cinematographer: Bruno de Keyzer
Film Editing: Fraser Maclean, Olivier Stockman
Music: Giuseppe Verdi
With: Derek Jacobi (Arthur Clennam), Joan Greenwood (Mrs. Clennam), Max Wall (Flintwinch), Patricia Hayes (Affery), Luke Duckett (young Arthur), Alec Guinness (William Dorrit), Cyril Cusack (Frederick Dorrit), Sarah Pickering (Little Dorrit), Amelda Brown (Fanny Dorrit), Daniel Chatto (Tip Dorrit), Miriam Margolyes (Flora Finching), Bill Fraser (Mr. Casby), Roshan Seth (Mr. Pancks), Mollie Maureen (Mr. F.'s aunt), Diana Malin (Mr. Casby's maid), David Thewlis (George Braddle), Robert Morley (Lord Decimus Barnacle).
by David Sterritt