‘Great Expectations’ for the future of classic literature in modern culture?

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Mention Charles Dickens in everyday conversation and you’re likely to conjure up vague memories of Nancy belting ‘Consider Yourself’ and childhood throwbacks of The Muppet Christmas Carol. It would hardly be blasphemous to claim that classic literature quite simply doesn’t hold a position of importance in a modern society moving at an unprecedented speed. For this reason, I am always skeptical at television or film adaptations that attempt to revamp and modernise works that many have only experienced as a hand-me-down heap of text collecting dust in an attic. Is it really possible to reinvent the classics without losing the fundamental magic that places them in the literary canon in the first place?

The recent success of BBC series Dickensian proves that it is. A complex amalgamation of 5+ of Dickens’ most precious novels bringing together some of his most fascinating characters, the series carefully picks up Dickens’ neglected masterpieces, dusts them off, and polishes them into a format uniquely fresh but at the same time all too familiarly ‘dickensian’. Admittedly, I myself was initially averse to the thought, not only of a Dickens-based series, but one that was to combine several of his works into one storyline. The idea seemed doomed to fail from the start. However, the masterful piecing together of the typically ‘dickensian’ with touches of reinvention and adaption allow the series to work as both a tribute to, and a springboard from the wonderful works of Dickens.

The dynamics created by the series’ choice of characters creates an essential balance between the familiar and the unknown. The mixture of renowned figures, such as the infamous Scrooge and Fagin, with lesser known characters, such as Inspector Bucket and Mr Compeyson, creates the best of both worlds. The familiar characters ground the plot-line in Dickens’ foundations whilst the figures who are less developed within the spheres of their novels are allowed to expand and flourish into deeper and more layered characters. Frances Barbary, who is only given brief flashes of attention in Bleak House, is expertly evolved in Dickensian. Actress Alexandra Moen plays the role beautifully, depicting the subtleties of an intriguing internal conflict between malicious jealousy and a deep-rooted desire to be loved with nothing less than complete mastery. Tuppence Middleton similarly excels in reinventing perhaps one of Dickens’ most iconic characters, Miss Havisham. The focus on her past and youth as opposed to merely presenting the familiar frail and psychologically confused spinster, exposes a different side. As a ‘prequel’ character in the series, she is intriguing in her unfamiliarity, however the knowledge of her original character and therefore her impending destruction creates an exciting sense of suspense.

Despite straying from the novels in terms of these reinventions of character, the series holds onto just enough parallels with the original works to make it truly ‘dickensian’. The delightfully caricatured nature of some of the series’ characters, such as Mrs Bumble’s comedic infatuation with respectability and repeated demands to be ‘raised up’ out of poverty, ensures a connection with Dickens’ original devices of characterisation. Additionally, the very structure of the series serves as another subtle tip of the hat to Dickens. Comprising of twenty 30 minute long episodes, the series functions in a similar way to many of the original works, which were published serially in magazines across several months. Dickensian could almost be said, however blasphemous it sounds, to transform the works of Dickens into a kind of play on the soap-opera. The quick pace and short bursts of action build an intensity that is unique to the serial form and more suited to a modern day audience than the elaborate descriptive passages in Dickens’ novels.

What Dickensian as an artistic experiment confirms then, is a necessity both for reinvention and imitation when it comes to revitalising the classics for a popular audience. Although the works of Dickens are timeless and the experience of reading the original novels is unparalleled, it is clear that in order to keep them alive in modern culture, they must be capable of evolving. Art is not intended to be static, and proof of literature’s brilliance lies in its ability to respond to adaption and modification so that it constantly maintains a sense of relevance. Dickensian takes advantage of the inherent beauty and magic of Dickens’ work and builds on it, creating something that is rooted in the original novels but also departs from them, exposing classic literature as ever more exciting and ever more alive.

Photograph: Vegansoldier via Flickr

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