The List: Top 10 Dickens’ novels in movies or TV

Valerie Hobson and John Mills star in the 1946 film adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations." (Courtesy The Criteron Collection)Valerie Hobson and John Mills star in the 1946 film adaptation of Charles Dickens‘ “Great Expectations.” (Courtesy The Criteron Collection)

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of British writer Charles Dickens, the List looks at the best adaptations of Dickens books on the silver screen and television. The oldest surviving film version of a work by Dickens, an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” is from 1901, and more than 100 years later, Dickens‘ works are still being filmed for cinema and TV, and every one of his 15 novels has been filmed at least twice. Here are our top 10 Dickens adaptations.

  • 10. Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983) — How can we forget Scrooge McDuck from this wonderful animated short film, which introduced so many young children to the Dickens classic? The film involved a host of Disney characters, including Rat and Mole from the classic “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.” It was the first original Mickey Mouse theatrical cartoon produced in more than 30 years and was nominated for an Academy Award for best animated short film in 1984.
  • 9. Our Mutual Friend (1998)Dickens created a world where landfills and bodies pulled from the River Thames are plundered for money. Julian Farino’s 1998 version of this lesser-known and complicated Dickens tale was riveting. Keeley Hawes (“Ashes to Ashes”) plays Lizzie Hexham, while Timothy Spall is perfect as the taxidermist and articulator of bones, Mr. Venus. The miniseries ran in the United States in 1999 on “Masterpiece Theatre.”
  • 8. Martin Chuzzlewit (1994) — The BBC hit another home run with this amazing adaptation of one of Charles Dickens‘ more obscure books about greed and family bickering. Paul Scofield (“A Man for All Seasons”) as Old Martin Chuzzlewit and Tom Wilkinson(“Michael Clayton”) as Seth Pecksniff are brilliant combatants. Julia Sawalha and the late Pete Postlethwaite, are also excellent, while John Mills stars in one of his last roles, as Mr. Chuffey. The PBS miniseries was nominated for an Emmy in 1995.
  • 7. Little Dorrit (2008) — Matthew Macfadyen, who starred as Mr. Darcy opposite Keira Knightley in “Pride and Prejudice,” plays Arthur Clennam in this BBC miniseries. He falls for the young seamstress Amy Dorrit (Claire Foy). Tom Courtenay, who has been nominated for two Oscars (“Doctor Zhivago” and “The Dresser”) is remarkable as William Dorrit languishing in a debtors prison before Clennam discovers the old man is the heir to a large fortune. This five-part adaptation ran on PBS in 2009 and was nominated for an Emmy.
  • 6. Bleak House (2005) — This big-budgeted BBC production starred “X-Files”’ Gillian Anderson as the tortured aristocrat Lady Dedlock in a dark story that includes murder, opium addiction, illicit lost love, poverty, smallpox and, most of all, nasty lawyers. The character of Lady Dedlock is one of Dickens‘ most sphinxlike creations, and Miss Anderson brings her to life without losing that sad sense of mystery in what could be her best performance. Both the miniseries, which aired on “Masterpiece Theatre” in the U.S. in 2006, and Miss Anderson were nominated for Golden Globes.
  • 5. Oliver Twist (1948) — This brilliant and stark film, directed by David Lean and starring Alec Guinness, Robert Newton, Kay Walsh and 8-year-old John Howard Davies, is often considered the best version of the classic Dickens story on the big screen. Jewish groups complained that Guinness’ portrayal of the Jewish pickpocket Fagin was an anti-Semitic caricature. Protests in the U.S. kept it out of release until 1951. The British Film Institute placed it at 46th in its list of the top 100 British films.
  • 4. A Tale of Two Cities (1935) — It is a far, far better thing for you to watch this film of Charles Dickens‘ “A Tale of Two Cities” than any other version. Ronald Colman — plays Sydney Carton, the self-sacrificing barrister and one literature’s great noble characters. “For more than two hours it crowds the screen with beauty and excitement, sparing nothing in its recital of the Englishmen who were caught up in the blood and terror of the French Revolution,” wrote the New York Times in the year of its release.
  • 3. Oliver! (1968) — This enduring classic of child neglect and crime was put to music by Lionel Bart and then directed for the screen by Carol Reed, exposing the world to such favorite songs as “Consider Yourself,” “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” and “Food, Glorious Food.” It’s a stunning film that was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won six, including awards for best picture, and best director for Carol Reed. Ron Moody, who created the role of Fagin for the stage version, reprised it for the film and won a Golden Globe. The fact that it didn’t make the AFI’s Greatest Movie Musicals list in 2006 is an outrage.
  • 2. Scrooge/A Christmas Carol (1951)Charles Dickens‘ Christmas classic, “A Christmas Carol,” has been adapted more times than we care to remember — most recently by Jim Carrey in Disney’s 3-D 2009 version. The 1951 production starring Alastair Sim is the definitive portrayal of one of the enduring characters of Western literature. Sim is brilliant in this giddy and flamboyant performance of greed and redemption. It was released as “Scrooge” in the Britain. In the U.S., it was released under the title “A Christmas Carol.”
  • 1. Great Expectations (1946) — In this timeless Dickens story of ambition and avarice, orphan Pip (John Mills) discovers through a lawyer that a mysterious benefactor wishes to ensure that he becomes a gentleman. This superlative adaptation was directed by David Lean with stunning camerawork from Guy Green. The opening graveyard scene, where Pip encounters an escaped prisoner, is frighteningly brilliant. The film won two Academy Awards (best art direction and best cinematography) and was nominated for three others. Jean Simmons plays the young Estella in this breakout role, which earned her an Oscar nomination. The British Film Institute placed it at fifth in its list of the top 100 British films.

Compiled by John Haydon, whose grandmother was born in London’s Marylebone Workhouse, a place visited by Charles Dickens in 1850.

Sources: fandango.com, The Telegraph, dickens2012.org, Wikipedia, Associated Press, The New York Times and The Washington Times.

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