- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2003

This guy Dickens seems to be one of Hollywood's busiest writers. Probably no author besides Shakespeare has had so many works produced for film and television as Charles Dickens, whose latest screen adaptation is a new version of "Nicholas Nickleby," which opened Friday.
The list of Dickens adaptations is expansive, which is appropriate for an author whose books can run to 800 or 900 pages. The Internet Movie Database lists 167 projects based on Dickens works (Shakespeare has 494), stretching back to scenes from "Oliver Twist" adapted for short silent films in the late 1890s.
Since then, there have been David Lean's classic 1940s versions of "Great Expectations" and "Oliver Twist"; the musical "Oliver!" that won the best picture Academy Award for 1968; and multiple productions of "David Copperfield," "A Tale of Two Cities," "The Old Curiosity Shop" and "The Pickwick Papers," among others.
"A Christmas Carol" alone has been filmed in numerous variations, including Alastair Sim's perennial favorite 1951 version; Albert Finney's 1970 musical "Scrooge"; Bill Murray's 1988 comedy "Scrooged"; Vanessa Williams' recent TV take, "A Diva's Christmas Carol"; and incarnations featuring Mickey Mouse, the Muppets and Mr. Magoo.
"You could argue that Dickens is the greatest storyteller," says Douglas McGrath, director of the new "Nicholas Nickleby," which stars Charlie Hunnam in the title role and features a huge ensemble cast including Christopher Plummer, Jim Broadbent, Nathan Lane, Jamie Bell and Anne Hathaway.
"He writes wonderful dialogue. Sparkling, vicious, romantic, whatever you need, it's there. You could argue he created more indelible characters than anyone else. 'Nickleby' alone has 15, 18 characters who are just as vivid as they could be. Even when he's biding his time and just telling back story, his back story is more interesting than most people's front story."

Scenes from "Nicholas Nickleby" were made into film shorts during the silent-movie era. The full book was adapted in a 1947 British film and several times for television, including a nine-hour 1982 rendition, newly released on DVD, that was adapted from a Royal Shakespeare Company stage production.
For his version, which runs just over two hours, Mr. McGrath had to narrow the scope, dropping or reducing the roles of secondary characters and focusing on Nicholas. The plucky hero encounters rascally villains and colorful, kindhearted souls as he tries to make his fortune after his father leaves the family penniless.
With strong central characters around whom the action swirls, "Nicholas Nickleby," "Oliver Twist" and other early Dickens novels lend themselves more to film treatment than dense and diffuse later works such as "Bleak House," Mr. McGrath says.
"With these kind of eponymous roles in Dickens, the title character often is the straight-laced one," says Mr. Hunnam, who plays Nicholas with an earnest naivete. "He leads you through this journey, this circus of characters."
Dickens is a popular source for filmmakers because, like Shakespeare, he wrote for the masses, not a literary elite, says screenwriter John Logan, a Dickens enthusiast who owns a first edition of "David Copperfield."
Published in monthly installments, Dickens' tales presented earthy working-class characters, sharp commentary on ill treatment of the poor, and melodramatic cliffhangers that "teased the story out over time and were so seductive the audience would have to come back a month later and buy the next one," says Mr. Logan, whose credits include "Gladiator" and "Star Trek: Nemesis."
"He was getting inside the viscera of his characters, which is exactly what movies allow you to do and why we see his stuff on screen so many times," Mr. Logan says.
"Shakespeare, Dickens, why have they endured so well? It's got to be that they speak to the audience. Not above them, not below them. They look straight in your eyes and talk to you."

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