Great Expectations - 2012 (Image: Rex/Shutterstock)

    Seven of the best Charles Dickens adaptations

    21 December 2020

    To the English-speaking world, Charles Dickens and Yuletide have become inextricably linked since the author published A Christmas Carol in 1843.

    There are more than enough film and TV adaptations of the book to fill a top 20, let alone a top 10, including last year’s BBC1 Guy Pearce full tilt grunge-fest A Christmas Carol, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009), Ross Kemp’s 2001 modern-day TV movie, Scrooged (1988), Albert Finney’s singalong-a-Scrooge (1970) and the classic 1951 Alistair Sim movie.


    A stage-influenced live action/animated movie interpretation of A Christmas Carol was released on 4th December, with Andy Serkis playing Marley’s Ghost; in 2019’s BBC1 Slipknot-style version he took the role of The Ghost of Christmas Past. Serkis also played Rigaud in 2008’s BBC1 adaptation of Little Dorrit and Bill Sikes in ITV’s Oliver Twist nine years earlier.

    In the new Christmas Carol, Simon Russell Beale voices Scrooge, with Martin Freeman, Carey Mulligan, Daniel Kaluuya and national treasures Siân Phillips and Leslie Caron also amongst the cast.

    ‘The Season of Goodwill’ was also the subject of a number of Dickens’ shorter stories and novellas – the lesser-known tales The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life and The Haunted Man.

    Christmas also featured in his final (unfinished) posthumous novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) and more memorably in “A Good-humoured Christmas Chapter” in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836).

    In order of release, here are the adaptations worth a watch this Christmas:

    The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) – Amazon Prime

    Critics went gaga over Armando Iannucci’s unique take on the oft-filmed Copperfield, but although I appreciate the ambition, I found his quasi-Brechtian approach too distancing and arch to really engage me.

    Maybe I’ll give the movie another shot during the holidays, as The Personal History of David Copperfield may yield more on a second viewing, since the cast (including Dev Patel as the title character, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw and Paul Whitehouse) is first rate.

    Great Expectations (2012) – Amazon Rent/Buy

    Mike (Four Weddings) Newell’s Great Expectations may have gone under the radar for many but is well worth checking out. Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) is bland as Pip, but Ralph Fiennes shines as Magwitch, as does Robbie Coltrane as Jaggers and Helena Bonham-Carter as Miss Havisham, a role some would think she was born to play.

    Oliver Twist (2005) – Amazon Rent/Buy

    You could probably (as critics have done with many of his films) read something of Roman Polanski’s’ own life into his choice to film Oliver Twist, particularly his years as a boy hiding from the Nazis in WWII Poland.

    The director tackles the material with his typical attention to detail but adheres to a largely traditional approach; Ben Kingsley hams it up as Fagin.

    Nicholas Nickleby (2002 film) – MGM Channel, Amazon Rent/Buy

    Despite the void that is Charlie Hunnam in the title role, Douglas McGrath’s Nicholas Nickleby is a solid movie, with a standout role for Christopher Plummer as the strangely sympathetic (and ultimately tragic) villain Ralph Nickleby.
    Tom Courtenay is good value as Ralph’s butler Newman Noggs, as is Jim Broadbent as the comically vile Wackford Squeers. Crazy names, crazy guys, as the saying goes.

    A year before, Charles Dance essayed the part of wicked Uncle Ralph in the TV movie The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. The two-part mini-series is available to watch free on YouTube.

    The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) – Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

    Justly regarded as the best of the Muppets’ many forays into film, this heart-warming musical version of the story has a legion of fans, with Michael Caine giving a committed performance as Ebenezer, in his own words:

    “I’m going to play this movie like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I will never wink; I will never do anything Muppety. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role and there are no puppets around me.”

    A shame Caine never took his own advice for the likes of Bullseye, The Swarm, Jaws: The Revenge, Blame it on Rio, Peeper, Escape to Victory etc.

    Scrooged (1988) – Amazon Prime

    Along with Elf (2003), Scrooged has become a Christmas favourite, with Bill Murray relishing the role of the Scrooge-like TV Network boss Frank Cross.
    Having worked long years in TV management, my only comment is that Cross seems quite reasonable compared to some senior executives whose paths I’ve had the misfortune to encounter.

    John Houseman sends himself up as ‘America’s favourite old fart’ whilst Robert Mitchum displays his comic chops as head honcho Preston Rhinelander, who’s keen to increase ad revenue by including pet-friendly tweaks in the network schedule.

    My only problem with Scrooged is the last 10 minutes or so when Cross redeems himself, addressing the assembled viewers with stomach-churning schmaltz.

    Little Dorrit (1987)

    Although Alec Guinness (no stranger to Dickens) continued to play a few roles after his memorable turn as William Dorrit, this mammoth two-part (six hours in total) adaptation stands as a fitting swan song to a great career.
    Guinness’s Dorrit is a debtor whose years long confinement and dignified bearing has earned him the title of the “Father of the Marshalsea” (prison).
    The cast also includes Derek Jacobi, Sarah Pickering (in the title role), Joan Greenwood, Roshan Seth, Robert Morley, Michael Elphick, Miriam Margolyes, Cyril Cusack, David Thewlis, and Max Wall.


    Some readers may think that the musical Oliver! (1968) should be in included, but despite the sterling work of Oliver Reed (as Bill Sikes) and Ron Moody (Fagin), a doe-eyed young Mark Lester in the title role renders the movie a turn-off for me.

    The many tribulations heaped on Lester’s narrow shoulders in the picture bring to mind Oscar Wilde’s cruel (but funny) quote on the sad fate of the heroine in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop – “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

    Charles Dickens has appeared as a character in a number of films and TV series, including The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017, Dan Stevens), Quacks (2017, Andrew Scott), The Invisible Woman (2014, Ralph Fiennes), The Charles Dickens Show (2012, Jeff Rawle) The Riddle (2007, Derek Jacobi), Dickens (2002, Anton Lesser), Dickens of London (1976, Roy Dotrice) and The Great Inimitable Mr. Dickens (1970, Anthony Hopkins).

    The actor Simon Callow is something of an authority on the writer, and has played him on screen and stage frequently, including the one-man show The Mystery of Charles Dickens, the animated Christmas Carol: The Movie (2001), An Audience with Charles Dickens and in Doctor Who twice – in the episodes The Unquiet Dead (2005) and the 2011 season finale The Wedding of River Song.