How Dickens has been turned into a soap opera

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Image :Pixabay

It’s a risky premise.

Take a large handful of characters from some of the best known and most widely read 19th century novels in the English language, all written by an author so famous, an adjective has been coined to sum up the flavour of his works. Shake these characters together – regardless if they originally shared the same pages or not – weave them around a murder mystery, and fling them at the television screen to see if the idea sticks.

What the humbug are you talking about, you mad limey besom?

I hear you cry.

Well, to the uninitiated – I suspect anyone living outside the UK – I’m talking about Dickensian (there’s that adjective I mentioned early!).

The creators have taken characters from Dicken’s Bleak House, A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Martin Chuzzlewit, Our Mutual Friend and possibly more books I’m too poorly read to recognise and had them all live in the same London neighbourhood at the same time, frequenting the same pub and shops and money lenders.

Now, if you’re thinking this Victorian-set soap opera sounds like a recipe for disaster, you could be right.

The project is overseen by Tony Jordan, best known for writing hundreds of scripts for Eastenders, the UK’s most depressing, grimy (East London-based) soap. It’s a show known for hard storylines including rape, murder and suicide – and all in an early evening time slot.

So, Dickensian could have been a trashy, nasty, sensationalist way of stamping on Charles Dicken’s oeuvre. And there’s nothing more painful than having someone stamp on your oeuvre. Oeuvres, my friend are not for stamping on.

But I don’t think it is.

The clever thing the writers have done is gather the characters together before we see them in their respective books. So we have the novelty of seeing Miss Haversham when she’s still a pretty young thing, full of girlish promise, of seeing Bill Sykes adore Nancy – of seeing Scrooge in full money-grabbing, tight-fisted, pre-redemption glory.

For anyone who has read the books, it’s a melancholy experience.

We know the fates of Nancy, Miss Haversham, Little Nell and the future Lady Dedlock, and we watch them stumbling towards their respective, unpleasant and sticky ends, helpless to warn them of how much trouble lies ahead and how to avoid it.

The production is up to the Beeb’s usual high standards – the acting is generally great, the sets and costumes fantastic, the dialogue has the right tone and the mystery intriguing.

It’s been a fascinating watch so far and I can’t wait to see if the murderer is one we know well – Artful Dodger? Fagin? Surely not the sweet, kindly Bob Cratchit?

So, the question I want to ask you lovely people is this – what do you think of writers who take famous characters and do as they will with them? Do you think we should leave well alone? Have you watched Dickensian and if so, what did you think?

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If you’d like a quick overview of Dickensian’s main characters, take a look here.

 

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19 thoughts on “How Dickens has been turned into a soap opera

  1. So, on the on the one hand, this sounds like a brilliant and creative idea that could appeal to both those who love Dickens and those who haven’t read a word of him. And for the latter, maybe there will be some motivation to dive into his books.

    On the other hand, I could see how people who love Dickens might be furious with these folks mucking about with their world.

    I’ve never read much, if any Dickens. But I think that if this were happening with Salinger characters, or Lord of the Rings, or something else I know and love, I might not be to open to it, myself. I prefer my fictional universes to be more or less closed, I think.

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    1. It’s a dangerous area to dabble in and one that writers approach at their peril. For instance, I’ve never been tempted to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, though to be fair, I guess that’s a bit different as it’s so obviously a fanboy mashup. Jean Rhys did well when she wrote a prequel to Jane Eyre – Wide Sargasso Sea – and British crime writer P.D.James also revisited Pride and Prejudice in Death Comes to Pemberley, twisting a murder investigation around the original characters – and that’s thought highly of. But you have to have balls of steel to attempt such things!
      If you ever fancy dabbling in Dickens, may I recommend by way of introduction Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol – both rattling good stories. The prose is tricky at the outset (or at least I found it so) but once you’re into the rhythm, he’s much more readable than some 19th C authors.

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      1. Good poins, Lynn. I think with something like P&P & Zombies, which is a ridiculous idea (which is not to say it’s not also great fun), you have a lot more leeway and forgiveness coming to you if it’s no good, maybe? I mean, no one would take that seriously to begin with, anyway.

        What I’ve often wondered is why rewriting classic novels is not a thing. I don’t mean mashups, or prequels, or what have you, or what Maguire does with Oz, or how classics are dumbed down for kids, or anything like that. I mean just a straight out rewrite. Take an old classic that most people don’t want to read, Moby Dick, say, take out the chapters on the history of whaling, tighten it up, and rewrite it for a modern day audience. Movies are remade all the time. Why not books?

        Now, I’m not saying it’s a good idea, or that I want it to happen. In fact I think I’d prefer if it didn’t. I’m just wondering why it doesn’t.

        Oh well, anyhoo, lunch break over. Must return to the grind!

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      2. What a really good point – why doesn’t that happen? And there have been some atrocious film remakes, Psycho for one – what was the point of that?
        And yes, readers will be much more forgiving of P&P & Z because it is so daft. Someone just commented on here that there’s a Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, which sounds fantastic. I don’t really mind these iconoclastic ideas – I did enjoy Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter!

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    2. It couldn’t happen with many authors. Dickens world is so, well, Dickens, that it lends itself to this type of re-imagining. Read Dickens, I recommend Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield or Bleakhouse; and you will see what I mean.

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      1. You’re right. Dickens had a good range of characters – heroes, villains, ridiculous people, comic relief – so it gives other writers a lot to play with. Some good choices on your list – I loved Our Mutual Friend too, with the wonderfully named Rogue Riderhood. He did have a talent for names, old Charles!

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  2. Ooh great post Lynn! I love Dickensian – the idea of Miss Havisham and Lady Deadlock as BFFs warms my cockles. And yet for the most part it is depressing knowing the end everyone will come to. I can’t help hoping that since it’s only Dickensian and not Dickens it won’t necessarily pan out as expected.
    In general I’m fairly sanguine about “mucking about” – it’s not like it harms the original (especially books – they will still exist). But the more I like the original, the better they’d be at it, or else why bother? And Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is much better than P&P&Z…

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    1. Haha! Never heard of SS&SM – funny.
      Yes, I agree with you about the characters – especially the women, as so many of the featured females die in their original incarnations. I can’t see them changes the outcomes – that would be a step too far. It’s a great idea – I wonder if they’ll make another series? Dickens created enough interesting characters to sustain at least a couple of runs, I’d say.

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      1. True. At the moment, poor Miss H really doesn’t deserve decades of unhappiness and then burning to death – horrible.
        There are a good dose of deaths in Dickens – wasn’t there a spontaneous human combustion case in one? Could be it wasn’t SHC, but arson by person or persons unknown …

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  3. I’ve been dying to watch this show. But I think I also want to read a little more Dickens, too, before I do. I’ve read a couple, but I just want to bathe in his words for a while. I am keen on seeing Miss H before the nightmarish scenes in Great Expectations!

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    1. I highly recommend the show. I think you can enjoy it without knowing too much Dickens, but obviously knowing the fates of the characters adds poignancy. Yes, poor Miss H. She’s so sweet and loving at the moment too – not sure if we’ll see her transformation to bitter, scorned woman. Heartbreaking stuff, really

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    1. No, no Dickens, and many of the characters are not the main ones from the books – or at least not the title characters. So no Oliver Twist or Pip from Great Expectations, or Esther Summerson from Bleak House. And that probably helps give the writers leeway, for of course, we know the main characters stories already.
      I do hope you get to see it, Cynthia – it’s been very enjoyable.

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  4. Was waiting for the series to end before commenting, Lynn, but after the last couple of really dramatic (and traumatic) episodes finding it hard not to sing its praises, slow-burning as it is. I’ll get back to you!

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    1. Yes, just a couple more to go – I have the last two on the box as I was Valentine – ing at the shop last week and too tired to give them my full attention. Have a mixture of excitement to see the denouement and sadness it has to end 🙂 We’ll talk later on it!

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