Books Charles Dickens may have been born nearly 200 years ago, but his stories still resonate today.
A Twist on an old tale
On Saturday, it was once again Charles Dickens's turn to sit atop the "born on this day" lists. True, in 2012 the hugely influential Victorian novelist will no doubt get the same sort of reappraisal as Charles Darwin is receiving this year, as it will be his turn to receive the bicentennial treatment. But Dickens doesn't need the excuse of a bicentennial to reawaken interest. The author of the sure-fire classics Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield and Great Expectations is important right here, right now. Indeed, it's possible to argue he's more popular than ever before. Take London's West End musical revival of Oliver Twist, currently running at the prestigious Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Oliver! took a mind-boggling (and record-breaking) £15 million (Dh81.5m) in advance ticket sales, with Blackadder's Rowan Atkinson playing a creepy, devilish Fagin and the choreographer du jour Matthew Bourne in charge of stagecraft. Enough, already, to pique the interest. Add the fact that it's the revival of Sam Mendes's production (he of the Oscar-winning American Beauty and the Oscar-nominated Revolutionary Road fame), and it's without doubt one of 2009's major theatrical events. Naysayers might point to such incredible interest being fuelled by a BBC reality TV programme which followed Andrew Lloyd Webber's search for a Nancy for the show, but all it really proved was that this production was one of Dickens's timeless tales that could be still filed under "much-loved". People really would do anything to be a part of it. And yet the odd paradox is that Charles Dickens's source novels are often left on the shelf while the adaptations hit the bright lights. While the 1838 version of Oliver Twist is shot through with anger at the wrongs and inequalities of Victorian society, Oliver Twist in the 21st century is really the stuff of pantomime. Perhaps this is inevitable; there's no box-office gold in a gruelling musical where child labourers are exploited by unromantic criminals, after all. It's a similar story where his 1843 book, A Christmas Carol, is concerned. For many people, the saga of Ebenezer Scrooge and his failing life is the quintessential festive tale, enjoyed in musical form with Albert Finney and Alec Guinness in Scrooge (1970), in a contemporary setting (Bill Murray's Scrooged from 1988) and even in muppet form (the much-loved Muppet Christmas Carol from 1992). They are all impressive adaptations in their own way, but essentially Christmas fluff compared to the original, which achieves incredible depth and dignity while chronicling the filth and poverty of London that Dickens was so masterful at describing. What both Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol really ask of their readers is that they consider social responsibility and the plight of the ordinary working individual. And it is in those two subtexts that Dickens's timeless power lives on. No more so than in Little Dorrit, his terrifying serial novel written between 1855 and 1857, which chronicles the life of Amy Dorrit as she cares for her imprisoned father. It was dramatised with some success by the BBC last year and many commentators immediately picked up on the relevance for our times: Mr Dorrit is imprisoned in Marshalsea, a debtors' prison which he is unable to leave until he has paid his dues. Little Dorrit is essentially about debt and the overwhelming power of money - too little of it and too much of it. In that sense, it is a fable for our times as much as it was his, loaded with metaphors warning the reader of the dangers of riches: Mr Dorrit becomes monied but it traps him in the same way prison did. Ostensibly decent human beings speculate their gains for no real reason and end up bankrupt. As Andrew Davies, who adapted it for the BBC said in The Guardian: "Little Dorrit asks the big questions: how are we to live our lives? What do we owe our parents? What do we owe ourselves? How do we find love, and how will we know it? How can we be true to ourselves and survive in a ruthless world? The world of Little Dorrit has many resonances with our own." So what made Dickens want to chronicle such hardships? It was partly out of a sense of deep social responsibility and revulsion at the money-grabbing Victorian era, but also down to his own life story. In 1823, when Dickens was just 12, his father was sent to Marshalsea and Dickens was packed off to a boot-blacking factory to earn a meagre wage. He never forgot it, though he went to extraordinary lengths, later in life, to cover it up. Similar experiences crop up in the early life of David Copperfield. The novel that shows Dickens at the height of his powers. The story of a troubled child growing into a man is perhaps thankfully yet to be adapted into a successful musical (the one attempt on Broadway in the early 1980s was a complete failure) but it is key to understanding Dickens's enduring influence. Its themes of self-improvement - both morally and emotionally - and the style of the biographical epic, would go on to influence writers from Tolstoy to Dostoevsky and Kafka to James Joyce. Its impact can be seen in works as diverse as Jude the Obscure and Huckleberry Finn. Great Expectations, written 11 years after David Copperfield, is initially rather similar - Pip is a blacksmith's boy just as Copperfield is a factory hand, but rather than becoming a writer, he becomes a hardworking businessman. The hero of Great Expectations ends up wanting to earn respect rather than fame, and this difference can be read as Dickens making some kind of peace with his rapid rise up the social ladder that he'd been so keen to satirise. All of this, of course, makes Dickens appear heavy-going and it's true that his books are serious undertakings. But beyond these age-spanning themes and era-defining works, the real reason Dickens has lasted is that he wrote with tongue firmly planted in cheek, fully aware that his readers wanted entertainment just as much as reportage. Dickens may have had the eye of a journalist, but he also had the nous of a consummate storyteller (some have said to a fault). If he was writing today, it's likely he would have been a scriptwriter on a soap or hit US series: his episodic structure means there are cliffhangers aplenty, his characters are often sentimentally caricatured to make the obvious contrast between right and wrong (has there ever been a more unrealistically good hero than Oliver Twist?) and there are the kinds of clanging coincidences that would have critics rolling their eyes in the 21st century. But in a way, that was Dickens's point; that often, good and unexpected things could happen to good people, despite their seemingly doomed situations. And it is that idea, in the end, which filmmakers, theatre directors, musicians and, most importantly, audiences have always clung on to. Dickens was sentimental, but that sentimentality was based in a gruelling real world which the popularity of his writing helped change for the better. Davies may have seen the relevance of Little Dorrit for our credit crunched world, but he also couldn't resist the pull of Dickens's crowd-pleasing writing, either. "Secretly, it's the wonderful characters I'm looking forward to," he said as he began adapting the book. "All the comedy and heart-break? the essence of Dickens is in his extravagance, spawning more and more characters and subplots in a series of explosions of creativity." The author still inspires such creativity today, not just in the many adaptations, but in the work of the best-selling American author Matthew Pearl. The latter's new novel is published the same week of Dickens's birth and is called The Last Dickens. In this literary thriller, an American publisher suspects foul play when the latest instalment of The Mystery Of Edwin Drood fails to arrive and he's forced to enter Dickens's East End world to find out the truth. If that isn't homage to one of the greatest writers the English language has ever known, then what is? Where Dickens is concerned, just like Oliver Twist, we keep wanting that little bit more.