The opening credits of BBC1's new three-part adaptation of Great Expectations (27-29 December) show a chrysalis cracking open to reveal a pair of trembling wings. A few seconds later this delicate emergence is replaced on screen by the escaped convict Magwitch (Ray Winstone) erupting from the stagnant waters of the Essex marshes. Covered in blood and slime, he is at once the monster of nightmares and a huge misshapen baby gasping its first breath.
In a single sequence, the director Brian Kirk gets to the heart of Dickens's novel as a fable of rebirth and renewal. Together with Sarah Phelps, the screenwriter, he has created a world in which characters are forever seeking to transform themselves – or each other. A spookily young Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson), still cocooned in her tatty wedding dress, absent-mindedly scratches at her hands as if trying to free herself from her own skin. Pip (Douglas Booth) is introduced as a grimy apprentice blacksmith, receives a life-changing sum of money from his mysterious benefactor and rapidly metamorphoses into a velvet-clad dandy. But the scene of Magwitch rising from the water is also a playful acknowledgment of what underlies all attempts to adapt classic novels for the screen. A moving body breaks out of a flat surface; two-dimensional print gives way to the three dimensions of real life.
The fact that this scene reworks one of Dickens's most famous narrative openings is hardly a coincidence. No other novelist has been adapted for the screen so often or to such popular acclaim. Around 400 films and TV series have been made so far, and the number will rise again in 2012 with the release of another version of Great Expectations (directed by Mike Newell) and a two-part BBC2 drama from Gwyneth Hughes based on The Mystery of Edwin Drood. From lavish costume dramas to spin-offs and spoofs including Scrooged (1988) and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), not to mention movies such as It's a Wonderful Life(1946) that have lovingly ripped off his plots, Dickens's stories run though the history of cinema.
In the BBC4 Arena documentary Dickens on Film, made in association with the BFI, which is to host a three-month retrospective of TV and movie adaptations on London's South Bank, the producer Adrian Wootton and dramatist Michael Eaton make a strong case for thinking that Dickens was one of the fathers of modern cinema. They are not the first to make such claims. In a famous essay published in 1944, the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein argued that "only very thoughtless and presumptuous people" believed in "some incredible virgin birth" of cinema, and that the film pioneer DW Griffith found many of his storytelling tricks, including close-ups, dissolves and cutting between parallel narratives, in novels such as Oliver Twist. Griffith admitted as much himself. One of his first films was a 14-minute version of Dickens's The Cricket on the Hearth (1909) that featured some early experiments with montage, and when he was criticised by his cameraman for employing the technique in a later film ("How can you tell a story jumping about like that?"), he is said to have replied: "Well, doesn't Dickens write that way?"
Like many origin myths, this all sounds a little too neat to be true, but Dickens was undoubtedly a key figure in the emergence of new ways of looking at the world. In Dombey and Son, the first time we see Solomon Gills he has red eyes from looking through the lenses of the optical instruments in his shop, and although he grumbles about being old-fashioned, he is plainly a man of his age. From cameras to kinetoscopes, when it came to visual entertainment the Victorians were spoiled for choice. Dickens had personal experience of the magic lantern, which projected illustrations from popular tales while the operator put these scenes into words, making stories come out of pictures rather than the other way round. He was equally fascinated by railway trains, which gave passengers unprecedented access to moving pictures, an ever-changing panorama framed by the carriage window. And while none of these inventions was as important to him as less sophisticated forms of entertainment, such as staring at the fire and imagining pictures leaping into life, once flickering flames were replaced by the flickering images of cinema, his fiction quickly found a new home.
Stories such as A Christmas Carol had long been familiar through theatrical adaptations, meaning that far more people knew about Scrooge or Tiny Tim than had ever read about them, and many of the earliest films set out to woo the same audience. At a time when moving pictures were still treated largely as a sideshow novelty, Dickens added ticket sales as well as a sheen of cultural prestige.
The surviving four minutes of Scrooge; Or, Marley's Ghost, for example, an ambitious British film made by RW Paul in 1901, are clearly modelled on a popular play by JC Buckstone first performed that year. Paul may even have used the same painted sets, and every aspect of his film, from the overblown acting style to the use of a camera fixed in the front row of the stalls, seems to have been designed to give each member of the cinema audience the best seat in the house. Yet even here there are clues that the film was trying to find a new way of telling the story. Marley enters dressed in a sheet, and then dissolves into a phantom through some impressive trick photography. Later a series of tableaux depicting "Scrooge's Visions of Himself in Christmases Past" are projected on to the living-room curtains, while Scrooge is powerless to interfere – a film-within-a-film that powerfully captures the experience of going to the movies and watching stories unspool to their inevitable end.
Later adaptations of Dickens made on both sides of the Atlantic show how quickly cinema developed. A nine-minute version of Oliver Twist (1909) again slims down Dickens's crowded pages into a series of tableaux, ending with a scene of Fagin in the condemned cell that is closely modelled on Cruikshank's illustration for the novel. Far from speeding up the story, the main aim of the director (J Stuart Blackton) seems to have been to slow it down, as if nervous of a medium that operated at the speed of light. Frank Lloyd's 1922 Oliver Twist, by contrast, while it retains authentic fragments of the novel in its title cards, cleverly switches between scenes of slapstick and pathos to create a visual equivalent of Dickens's "streaky bacon" narrative style (comic, tragic, comic). The film even finds a way of depicting Dickens's conviction that Oliver represents "the principle of good" untouched by his surroundings. Playing Oliver for laughs as well as tears, Jackie Coogan is less like a waif than a little vaudeville comedian unleashed on 19th-century London. He is as invulnerable to genuine suffering as a clown receiving a custard pie in the face.
Having recently starred alongside Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1921), which had borrowed large chunks of its plot from Dickens's novel, Coogan was perfect casting as the tiny but tough hero. His success set a trend, because in the years that followed it became increasingly common for actors to reprise the same roles in different productions. Familiar stories required familiar faces. Francis L Sullivan played Jaggers in Great Expectations in 1934 and 1946, while Donald Wolfit went one better, playing Sergeant Buzfuz in The Pickwick Papers three times – 1952, 1955 and 1959. Such tactics rarely produced thoughtful or challenging drama, especially when directors treated Oliver's "Please, sir, I want some more" as an invitation to give audiences more of the same. The most startling example was Carol Reed's musical Oliver! (1968), which reproduced several scenes from David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948) almost shot for shot, but replacing Lean's gritty realism with a Technicolor world in which nobody seems capable of walking down the street without breaking into a complicated dance routine.
The development of TV costume drama in the 1950s and 1960s created a more subtle version of the same phenomenon: an imaginary "Dickensland" in which fog always swirled and bonnets always bobbed along murkily lit streets. It was an all-purpose Victorian age that was no more authentic than the plastic beams in Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. The episode of South Park that opened with Malcolm McDowell twinkling into the camera – "Ah, Dickens! The imagery of cobblestone streets, craggy London buildings, and nutmeg-filled Yorkshire puddings" – was only a lightly satirical version of much Sunday teatime viewing.
Attempts by film-makers to update this cosy ritual have rarely been successful. The practice of modernising Dickens began early, with The Death of Nancy Sykes (1897), a short sketch that turned the teenage prostitute from Oliver Twist into the more socially acceptable figure of Bill Sykes's – it should be "Sikes" – wife. Since then it has produced some memorably awful films, most recently Alfonso Cuarón's 1998 Great Expectations, which not only turned Pip (Ethan Hawke) into a struggling artist named Finn and renamed Satis House "Paradis Perduto", but was re-edited after some disappointing test screenings to make Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow) more likeable, which is to say less like Estella and more like a movie star.
The main alternative to updating has been to make adaptations increasingly realistic – a technique perfected by Christine Edzard's Little Dorrit (1988), where meticulously detailed sets and a soundtrack by Verdi form the backdrop to six leisurely hours of screen time. But even the glossiest production values cannot prevent accusations that adapting Dickens's novels strips them of all but their characters and plots, and that what happens on screen is inevitably a betrayal of the images in a reader's head.
Other adaptations have tried both to offer both a window on to Dickens's world and to hold a mirror up to their own. This can make for uncomfortable watching – or listening. Ralph Thomas's version of A Tale of Two Cities (1958) climaxes with a stirring scene in which Sydney Carton (a wonderfully laconic Dirk Bogarde) mounts the steps of the guillotine, but until then the film is largely a tale of two accents: Cockney for character actors and the crowd, and stiff-lipped RP for everyone else. While Thomas's decision to shoot in black and white undoubtedly adds a patina of age to his film, its sound is pure 1950s. Yet for all the difficulties involved in repackaging Dickens for the screen, the best adaptations prove that no novelist is better at encouraging the reinvention of tradition. The BBC's 2005 miniseries Bleak House reworked the novel's serial publication as the bite-sized chunks of a soap opera, creating a brilliant fusion of old and new forms of popular entertainment. (Dickens's contemporary Charles Reade memorably explained how to keep the public coming back for more: "make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait".) There have been several excellent cartoon versions of A Christmas Carol, such as Richard Williams's Oscar-winning 1971 feature, which came close to reproducing Dickens's own way of looking at the world, forever reshaping everyday reality to fit the needs of the imagination. Best of all, and a highlight of the BFI season, Lean's Great Expectations (1946)opens with an attempt to capture a child's vision, full of sudden close-ups and distorted perspectives, and ends with Pip (John Mills) ripping down the dusty blackout curtains in Satis House, crying out "I have come back to let in the sunlight!" In 1946 he might have sounded like a demobbed soldier returning home. In 2011 he sounds more like a screenwriter picking up Dickens's novel and setting to work.
• The Dickens on Screen season at BFI Southbank runs from Jan-March 2012. Arena: Dickens on Film will be shown on BBC4 on Tuesday 10 January 2012 as part of the Dickens on the BBC season.
Book Review: Film Form: Essays in Film Theory
In the first essay, "Through Film to Theater", Eisenstein looks at the deficiencies of the stage that he tried to overcome and eventually lead him to film. The first problem is that on stage, many of the most climactic moments happen offstage. He writes of a boxing match he staged and the power it had within a play. He also looks at typage and stock characters. He shows how montage and cross-cutting scenes existed on stage. He briefly looks at montage structure in literature and moves on to mise-en-scene, both as setting and in its ability to direct attention, a characteristic better found through editing.
The second essay, "The Unexpected", deals with Japanese art and culture and its relation to montage. He praises the conventions of Japanese Kabuki theater. He praises Kabuki for its monistic ensemble, meaning all the parts, sound, movement, space, and voice, all function as "elements of equal significance." He writes of a single, theatrical provocation of the whole brain. Kabuki theater also utilizes scenery changes just to break up the action like a cut-away shot. He also explores Japanese hieroglyphs and tanka and haiku poetry as obvious parallels to montage.
Eisentstein moves beyond Kabuki to other Japanese "montage" forms. First is the hieroglyph, which he calls an ideogram. In Japanese writing, glyphs and letters operate together. The combination of two pictures, such as eye plus water drop to make crying, is an obvious parallel to montage. The next obvious connection is haiku poetry, which he praises for its laconism and combination of images:
A lonely crowEisenstein pictures this a shot list for a film, coming together for a unified feeling. It does seem to be three singular shots that the mind can make into more. He moves on to look at Japanese non-naturalistic drawing and how it is a mix of parts, each with its own size and finally to return to Kabuki theater in which acting is a combination of elements. Japanese Kabuki theater also makes using of quick changes on stage, covering actors while they change outfits, similar to a shot which does this seamlessly. Kabuki theater also uses slow-motion. Eisenstein's look into Japanese culture and art vis-a-vis montage is quite interesting and illuminating for both.
One leafless bough
One autumn eve.
The next essay, "A Dialectic Approach to Film Form," jumps directly into his ideas of montage. He first looks into dialectical thought where thesis and antithesis are brought into synthesis. Montage is about the conflict of images. According to Eisenstein, art is always conflict. Art is conflict according to its mission because the mission of art is to make manifest the conflicts of being. Art is conflict according to its nature because "its nature is conflict between natural existence and creative tendency." Art is the meeting of nature and reason. Art is also conflict in its methodology. Montage is not, as Eisenstein's intellectual opponent V.I. Pudovkin says, a series of building blocks adding to each other. Eisenstein goes on to say irregularity, and not a slavishly-followed set of rules, is what makes great art in general. He goes on to note the different types of conflict within a shot and between shots:
1. Graphic ConflictHe moves on to look at other types of conflict and what can be done artistically with these conflicts, bringing up examples from his own work. I find Eisenstein's ideas in this chapter to be largely correct and usable. I also enjoy following a stringent, aesthetically pure mind down a certain path. On the other hand, this is not the only path and so many great movies have been made on other terms using different aesthetic systems. I also appreciate the realism of the long take and the opportunity to ponder reality without a director grabbing me so forcefully.
2. Conflict of planes (distances)
3. Conflict of Volumes
4. Spatial Conflict
5. Light Conflict
6. Tempo Conflict
The essay "Film Form: New Problems" explores changes in Soviet cinema in the 1930's. The first is the change from doing more epic movies involving masses of people and archetypes to doing movies about well-rounded singular protagonists. He goes on to explore how the new approach more common elsewhere can be used toward communist ideological ends. He then turns back toward history and explores, with examples, the idea that one generations notions of science get toppled but trickle down into the art of future generations. One example is the Greek notion of gods controlling the universe. He compares montage to an inner monologue, capturing the process of inner thoughts rather than spoken words. He sees this as some kind of early thought process, although his ideas are unproven theories. He goes off into long, esoteric paragraphs on the history of thought and speech, some of it more definite and some of it mostly theoretical. Ultimately, art is a psychological retrogression towards earlier thought processes. Eisenstein notes:
The affectiveness of a work of art is built upon the fact that there takes place in it a dual process: an impetuous progressive rise along the lines of the highest explicit steps of consciousness and a simultaneous penetration by means of the structure of the form into the layers of profoundest sensual thinking.He speaks very rightly of the unity of form and content and that a movie is a balance of the higher and the lower levels of thought. According to Eisenstein, Soviet cinema, and I would say cinema as a whole, was still finding itself and its rules, as Soviet cinema moved into socialist realism, which I would consider a contradiction in terms.
"The Structure of the Film" is an essay dealing with composition and how it creates meaning. He sees good composition, meaning within the shot and between shots, as following the emotional structure of man, once again coming back to the idea of inner process. Thus, composition engages man emotionally. Eisenstein moves on to explore a "life-affirming death" which is an instance of the emotional tone of a piece going against the natural reaction. An author must invite us into his relationship to the subject matter. A work should have two types of organic-ness. The first is organic-ness of a general kind which seems to mean a unified aesthetic pervading the entire work. In the example of his own film, Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein notes a newsreel quality integrated with the narrative structure of tragedy. There are also many part/ whole dichotomies present throughout the film and other motifs. Composition creates empathy with characters on screen. Montage and change create pathos. Battleship Potemkin is exhaustively explored in its montage relationships.
"Dickens, Griffith and Film Today" explores the relationship of Charles Dickens to D.W. Griffith and then to Soviet filmmakers. The line, of course, that connects them all is montage. He looks at how Griffith was inspired by Dickens, in the content of his work, in his dynamic characterizations, and in the pacing and imagery. Griffith is the beginning of film montage, but much of his work was inspired by the writing style of Dickens which brings to us a series of written images, much like a shot-list. Here is a brief example from a market scene in Oliver Twist, broken up to further prove the point:
It was market morning.Eisenstein also looks at the way cross-cutting of scenes, which is mainly used to build tension, works in pretty much the exact same way in both Dickens and Griffith. Eisenstein makes extremely important note, once again, that the cinema is not some alien medium come out of thin air, but that so much of what it is is built on a wide artistic heritage. Eisenstein finishes with comparisons of Soviet and Hollywood films. The Soviets differ mainly in that they took montage to conceptual ground and "above" mere materialist realism. It is about the juxtaposition of imagery to show ideas. Having seen Eisenstein's work, I would say sometimes this works very beautifully and sometimes it's corny. I also believe that materialist realism is capable of inspiring intellectual thought processes just as life itself sometimes inspires higher thinking.
The ground was covered, nearly ankle deep, with filth and mire;
and a thick stream perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle.
and mingling with the fog
which seemed to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above. . . .
and vagabonds of every low grade,
were mingled together in a dense mass;
Eisenstein's Film Form is an interesting, if at times long-winded and esoteric look at film theory. I recommend it to those who feel interested from the outset.