- Dickens Before Sound
A couple of years ago, a friend, who knew that I was working on Dickens and adaptation, bought a copy of an Oliver Twist DVD for me at Chester Sainsbury's for 97p. What alerted me to the fact that something strange was happening in the market for film was that the DVD was not Carol Reed's iconic musical Oliver! (1968) or even David Lean's classic 1948 adaptation: it was the 1933 blackand white version directed by Will Cowen and starring Dickie Moore (not, as the cover sleeve suggests, Jackie Moore). Whereas film has provided Dickens with an important bridge to the post-Victorian mass cultural marketplace, now it seems that the increasing availability of inexpensive, 'digitally remastered' film versions of Dickens is providing scholars and enthusiasts of Dickens and film with access to a more complete history of both film and of Dickens's cultural transmission.
The BFI's Dickens Before Sound DVD is an important and valuable contribution to this reconstruction of the history of the moving image, and to our understanding of the role of film in influencing the popular and critical fortunes of literary authors writing before its advent. [End Page 120] Dickens is a fascinating case in point. According to Joss Marsh, 'more films have been made of works by Dickens than of any other author's'.1 Despite Alistair Cooke's claimthat 'a silent Dickens [. . . ] is asmuch of a contradiction as a talkative statue', Dickens was particularly important to the silent movie industry, which relied heavily on adaptation.2 Dickens's established popular appeal and the visual, melodramatic, symbolic mode of his novels provided ideal raw material for silent movie makers: indeed, the many stage adaptations of his works facilitated the process of adaptation by providing ready-made scripts for film-makers.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Dickens arguably did more than any other literary author to shape the early film industry; what is interesting is the effect of silent film on Dickens's reputation. The era of high modernism was also the era of silent film: while Dickens's critical reputation reached its all-time low at the pens of his modernist successors, his posthumous respectability with the public was at the same time rising because of his pervasive film presence. This bifurcation was crystallised in the 1940s when, in his essay, 'Dickens, Griffith and Ourselves' (1942), the Soviet Director Sergei Eisenstein famously used Dickens to argue that 'our cinema is not without an ancestry and a pedigree, a past and traditions, or a rich cultural heritage from earlier epochs'.3 In the same decade, Leavis notoriously left Dickens out of The Great Tradition on the grounds that he was a 'great entertainer'; The Great Tradition was published in 1948, the same year that David Lean brought out his Oliver Twist, certainly one of the best Dickens adaptations ever made and a classic film in its own right.
While it can be argued that Dickens's prominence on screen compounded his fall from critical favour during the modernist era, associating him with a mass public of low cultural tastes, it could equally be argued that the viewing public made Dickens impossible to ignore, and that his subsequent survival, even centrality, in academic 'canons' has been forged as much by the viewing public as by literary critics. Critics have had to adjust their tastes to the market. It is no accident that the authors who loom largest in the popular sense of the literary past – Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Brontës and Hardy, for example – have translated well onto the screen. The re-emergence of texts like Frankenstein and Dracula onto University syllabi likewise is not unrelated to their screen afterlives and the mass cultural consciousness of those texts the screen has generated. Like Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, Frankenstein and Dracula are what Paul Davis calls 'culture-texts' – myths whose impact on...