A tale of too many remakes: why we never need to see a Dickens novel on TV ever again
Television needs to stop rolling out Charles Dickens adaptations – and this is coming from someone whose lockdown project was writing an Oliver Twist prequel about Nancy (binned after three chapters due to insufficient oom-pah-pah). There’s no argument here against these being some of the greatest novels by one of the most important writers who ever lived. But after having been adapted at least 28 times across TV, film and stage, the BBC is about to launch yet another take on Great Expectations.
The latest version of bright orphan Pip’s (Fionn Whitehead) dreams of escaping life as a blacksmith’s apprentice to become a proper gentleman – due to air on BBC One this weekend – is the second dark Dickens adaptation from Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. It follows his 2019 adults-only take on A Christmas Carol – which at a quick count was only the 128th adaptation of the novel. Knight says he chose Great Expectations next because it is “a story of class mobility and class intransigence” that remains “very timely”. This is a fair point – these are Dickensian times indeed.
But even with a refreshingly diverse cast, a potty-mouth script, heady opium scenes and Knight’s personal touch, this adaptation feels staler than Miss Havisham’s wedding cake. Where is the risk that makes TV exciting to watch? Surely there are new stories or overlooked novels that could do something different with that prime time slot.
Part of the joy of hit literary-based period dramas from recent years has been in the unexpected: Gentleman Jack, based on Anne Lister’s diaries, paved the way for a lesbian pilgrimage; Sara Collins’ debut novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton, was an intriguing Black female-led gothic romance; and Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love treated us to BBC One’s most erotic minute with Andrew Scott’s introduction as Lord Merlin.
They were all completely new to the screen and none promised to translate well. Yet Gentleman Jack has become so beloved across the world that upon its cancellation after two series, fans fell over themselves to tell the Guardian how much they love it – even banding together to buy a Times Square billboard ad to talk about its effect on their life. Asking yourself “Will this be any good?” is sometimes half the reason for tuning in. It’s a huge thrill learning that, yes, it’s fantastic.
Yet commissioners seemingly cannot resist putting more Dickens adaptations on screen. Perhaps one big reason is the eccentric allure of Miss Havisham. She has always attracted actors ready to seal their national treasure status. Charlotte Rampling said she immediately accepted the role in 1999 because “free-spirited individuals, however deranged, are people I like”. Next, Gillian Anderson laced up the rotting wedding dress in 2011, and said there’s a perennial fascination with her because “there is something twistedly romantic about the idea that someone is so in love, that their heart is so broken, that they cannot love again and they literally stop time”. Following in their dusty footsteps just over a decade later – there’s a pattern here – Olivia Colman is putting in the most Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham performance imaginable (whatever you’re picturing – that’s exactly it).
In fact, Dickens adaptations seem to be a sure-fire way to get hot acting talent on screen. Anna Friel swapped Brookside for Our Mutual Friend in 1998; an adorable Daniel Radcliffe was David Copperfield in 1999; Bleak House boasted Anna Maxwell Martin and Carey Mulligan in 2005; Tom Hardy revelled in playing Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist in 2007; and Claire Foy broke out as the titular Little Dorrit in 2008.
Impressive casts aside, Dickens novels are also perhaps so beloved by commissioners because he was great at writing for TV before it even existed. He originally wrote many of his stories in serial form, and a love for live performance meant Dickens was an avid theatregoer who initially wanted to be an actor (a bad head-cold meant he missed a fateful audition). Also, despite its utter bleakness, there’s something comforting about being immersed in the Dickensian strand of period drama – this is the man who invented the Christmas we know, after all.
But the fact that most of the productions mentioned are fantastic means there is less reason than ever to keep reproducing them (not least because we can all agree that A Muppets Christmas Carol can never be bettered). Perhaps TV could benefit by taking a lesson from another of the world’s most famous writers. There hasn’t been another straight TV adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by a big broadcaster since the BBC’s 1995 production (its second one) starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth – and rightly so.
It is a perfect adaptation not to be messed with; still adored by fans the world over (ITV announced a remake in 2017 but, after a bad reception, nothing has been said of it since). There have, however, been enjoyable spin-offs, with 2013 mini-series Death Comes to Pemberley (set six years after Austen’s novel ends) and Lost in Austen (the soapy, fun 2008 drama about a modern woman who enters the plot of the novel through a portal in her bathroom). Two contemporary takes have also recently been announced: queer series Trip and Netflix’s The Netherfield Girls.
This, perhaps, is the way to do it. There have been recent Dickens-inspired series that have felt fresh while remaining true to the author’s values. My brother – a man in his 30s – recently raved about what a hoot Dodger, the CBBC Oliver Twist prequel, is. There was also Suranne Jones as a female Scrooge in Christmas Carole, which was good fun while also carrying a modern message about the state of consumerism and single-use plastic.
It’s hard to believe that what audiences demand is yet more of Dickens’ most ubiquitous works. That’s especially the case when he has plenty of other great novels – and many of the existing series are available on streaming services (Little Dorrit is on BritBox; Our Mutual Friend is on Prime Video; Bleak House and Great Expectations are on UKTV Play; A Christmas Carol is on iPlayer). Dickensian, which brought all of our favourite figures together over a mammoth 20-episode series for a Dickens bonanza in 2015, is also available on UKTV Play and Prime Video. They are all there ready to be revisited if and when you want to. They are treasured there, so that we can move on and fall for, despise or champion characters that haven’t yet had a chance to capture the public’s attention.
And yet we will probably still lap up every new revamp served up on our Sunday teatime plates. As TV commissioners have shown, sometimes you just end up doing the easy thing.
This article was amended on 24 March 2023 to state that Colin Firth starred in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. An earlier version said that it was Colin Farrell.