19 December 2004 | jandesimpson
"Building a Library"
BBC Radio 3 puts out a fascinating programme each week entitled "Building a Library" in which CDs of classical works are compared and evaluated culminating with a "best buy" recommendation. This would hardly be possible with works of cinema where very rarely are there more than two versions, the first invariably the winner as a movie can only be that good to tempt a remake. I suppose one could do a "Building a Library" with "Hamlet" but I wouldn't be in a position to take that on as I only know two versions (Olivier and Branagh) really well. How about a collective "Building a Library" - film versions of Dickens, say, - now that would be a real challenge. Here goes! I won't deal with all as that would take up too much user comment space. Just a few for good measure. Remember Noel Langley's "Pickwick Papers" of 1952 - great fun with a host of good cameo parts from people such as Joyce Grenfell, Hermione Baddeley, Donald Wolfit, Harry Fowler and others but all rather lightweight compared with the rest I have chosen. Earlier still was Cavalcanti's version of "Nicholas Nickleby" for Ealing, some good sets and the scene where wicked Uncle Ralph gets his desserts wonderfully atmospheric, but so much to cram into a film of moderate feature length that scenes scarcely have time to breathe. Although a good try it all seems too rushed. The oddball in this little collection is undoubtedly a 1988 Portugese version of "Hard Times" set in modern day Lisbon by Joao Botelho, well worth seeing as a curiosity but hardly to be compared with my remaining four choices, each very special in its own right. I would have to include one TV version in my shortlist as the BBC generally do their classic serials so well and were on superlative form with their 1999 "David Copperfield", even capping George Cukor's richly entertaining 1935 film. (Just occasionally a more recent version is better!) The reason I admire the BBC version so much is the wonderful casting with Maggie Smith, Pauline Quirke and Nicholas Lyndhurst playing roles they were just born for. There is even a diminutive Harry Potter playing young David most affectingly. It is probably the Dickens adaptation that moves me the most though I suppose it has to be eclipsed by the three that have that greater degree of cinematic imagination. These are the marvellous David Lean '40s adaptations of "Great Expectations" and "Oliver Twist" and most recently Christine Edzard's "Little Dorrit". For a long time "Oliver Twist" was my favourite of the Lean pair, oodles of atmosphere, wonderful art direction and camera-work and a rooftop climax to take the breath away, but I suppose "Great Expectations" has it for libretto, late as opposed to early Dickens and Lean an ever faithful interpreter of the novel's range and subtleties. Without Christine Edzard's "Little Dorrit" it would be the winner. Her remarkable independent production for length alone (two films totalling six hours) dwarfs all contenders. She cleverly tells the same story from the different perspective of the two main protagonists, Arthur Clennem and Amy Dorrit, this "Rashomon" like approach dominating the first half of each film. The pace is leisurely but always purposeful - none of those irritating longueurs of characters taking up time to cross a street or room that bedevil so many TV adaptations. Street scenes in particular have an amazing sense of realism with hoards of people bustling along giving the feeling of just how busy Victorian London must have been, the credit sequence of Part I wonderfully effective in depicting this. We sense from this very opening the loving care with which every background detail of Dickens's vast fresco of society will be unfolded. As in the novel everything revolves around the theme of money and the misery that both possession as well as dispossession can bring. The casting is faultless with marvellous swansongs from Joan Greenwood and Max Wall and Alec Guinness possibly at his finest as William Dorrit, a superb portrayal of a shallow man with delusions of grandeur. Throughout Edzard is at pains to eschew anything that smacks of pathetic fallacy by not over dramatising atmosphere, but the film never looks plain. Although most of the exteriors are studio constructed the interiors have an extraordinary sense of authenticity down to the last detail. Everything looks and sounds exactly right such as the shabby wallpaper of a livingroom in the Marshalsea with at one point the seemingly endless buzzing of a solitary fly. Unlike the Lean films this is one that seems constructed out of everyday incidents rather than great dramatic setpieces. It is not a film that moves and excites as much while one is watching it, until, that is, the final half hour. When it reaches the tragedy of William Dorrit's mental confusion at a society banquet followed by the terrible scene leading up to the suicide of Merdle where he visits his son and daughter-in-law to borrow a knife we have the realisation that to search for an adaptation that more perfectly realises Dickens's intentions would be an impossibility.