20 March 2005 | theowinthrop
A Good Adaptation
Although he wrote "Sketches By Boz" (hence his lifelong nickname) before this novel, "Pickwick Papers" was the work which grounded Dickens reputation. His third book "Oliver Twist" cemented it - by showing him a perceptive social critic and serious (rather than comic) novelist. George Orwell, in his essay on Charles Dickens, says that many people regretted he never could have continued writing the pure comic novels like "Pickwick", but Orwell pointed out that no serious novelist can do that if they wish to show growth. It's true, although some (P.G.Wodehouse, for example) could continue to turn out successfully funny books all the time. But we would have missed "David Copperfield", "A Tale of Two Cities", and "Great Expectations" if Dickens just remained a funny writer.
"Pickwick" is about 850 pages long, and has a shaggy dog construction. Dickens wrote a picaresque novel here, with the Pickwick Club members exploring England, and falling into many misadventures. They are supposed to be sending papers back to their club about their adventures, for they are a learned society. In one great moment in the novel (but not in the movie, unfortunately), they think they find a curiosity - a stone with the words "Bilst umpshi mark +). Their paper on this gains them immense public adulation for their scholarship, but one critic (who is kicked out of the Pickwick Club) investigates and says it should say "Bill Stumps, his mark "+". Nobody cares about the nay-sayer.
One aspect of the novel that is not in the film was Dickens addition of about seven or eight short stories the group hears or reads while on their tours. Dickens wanted to vary his novel, and he would do this again in "Nicholas Nickleby" briefly at the start of that novel. In 1841 Dickens began a large scale literary project called "Master Humphrey's Clock" in which Master Humphrey and his friends (including Samuel Pickwick, Sam Weller, and Tony Weller) tell stories, but two of the stories expanded into full scale novels: "The Old Curiosity Shop" and "Barnaby Rudge". After "Master Humphrey's Clock" Dickens never again wrote a book of just short stories (his "Christmas Novels" were not written and published together but over the years). An occasional short story like "Hunted Down" was published on its own.
The film is a nice distillation of the best sequences in the novel, such as the great lawsuit of "Bardell v. Pickwick" (Dickens first magnificent swipe at British law). Of particular notice in the film is the performances of Nigel Patrick as the trouble making scamp Jingle, and James Hayter as Pickwick (his only real starring role). Jingle (who's dialog looks like a telegram in the novel)is played as a charming rogue by Patrick. When he nearly gets Mr. Winkle (James Douglas) into a duel with two dyspeptic military doctors (with the immortal names of "Dr. Payne" and "Dr. Slammer"), after one diatribe from them Patrick riffles a deck of cards like a "Bronx Cheer". Hayter, a popular character actor in British film and television, had a smooth and warm sounding voice, and (in observing prison conditions) makes the phrase "How pitiable" actually sound correct for the first time. It is not the complete novel - which you should read and enjoy - but it is a nice introduction to it.