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Great adaptations: Dickens on screen

As the BFI celebrates the discovery of the first Dickens on film, we look back at classic screen versions of his books logo
Published: Friday, 9th March 2012 at 3:48 pm

The earliest known screen adaptation of a work by Dickens has been unearthed by British Film Institute curator Bryony Dixon in the Institute's archives.


The black-and-white footage, entitled The Death of Poor Joe, was released in March 1901 and is the dramatisation of a scene from Bleak House in which a young crossing sweeper meets his tragic end in the snow. It remains one of the most famous passages to have been written by the Victorian novelist.

Dickens’s epic novels, originally released in weekly instalments and plotted to keep his readers on the edge of their seats, lend themselves naturally to adaptation for the cinema. There are around 22 movie versions of A Christmas Carol alone.

So if you’re looking to refresh your knowledge of the novels or maybe introduce some younger members of the family to the classic author, here are some adaptations the author himself might have been proud of.

David Copperfield (1935)

Selected by the New York Times as one of the best movies ever made, this early American version of the novel, directed by George Cukor, cast Charles Laughton as Mr Micawber. However he was quickly replaced, at his own request, by WC Fields. Fields struggled with his lines and delivered them in his own accent, which must have caused producer David O Selznick some heartache as his aim was for authenticity.

Great Expectations (1946)

David Lean’s intensely atmospheric version of Great Expectations opens with the unforgettable image of a young boy running across a vast, open landscape that is darkening against the brilliant light of a setting sun. Lean’s version of the story, in which a young orphan, Pip, helps an escaped convict who later becomes his benefactor, is regarded as one of the best ever Dickens adaptations. One of the few criticisms was that the adult leads, John Mills and Valerie Hobson, looked older than the youthful characters they were supposed to be playing, but that said, the overall production was compelling enough to win over audiences.

Oliver Twist (1948)

David Lean followed the success of Great Expectations with an equally popular and enduring adaptation of Oliver. The cinematographer, Guy Green, who had created the memorable black-and-white imagery of Expectations returned to capture the feel of Victorian London. A first-rate cast included Anthony Newley as pickpocket the Artful Dodger, Alec Guinness as Fagin, who recruits the young pickpockets and controls their activities, and the angelic John Howard Davies as Oliver, the hungry orphan who dares to ask for more.

Oliver! (1968)

Where David Lean was reverential and authentic, Carol Reed’s musical film version of the West End show is in keeping perhaps with Dickens’s own love of comedy and caricature. Ron Moody as Fagin and Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger reprised their stage roles for this all singing and dancing version that picked up seven Oscars, including best picture, and no doubt introduced the author to a new foot-tapping audience.

Little Dorrit (1988)

This ambitious, lengthy adaptation by Sands Films set out to capture the full scope of the novel over 360 minutes. Released in two parts, the first explores the story from the point of view of the character Arthur Clennam, and the second looks at events through the eyes of Little Dorrit herself. Now regarded as a classic, Derek Jacobi as Arthur Clennam played opposite Sarah Pickering as Little Dorrit, a young newcomer at the time.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)


Ludicrous, insane, totally good fun, and a unique introduction to the works of one of Britain's greatest writers.


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