That Magic Lantern: Dickensian films


7 February 1812. In the seaside district of Landport, Charles John Huffam Dickens is born to an unremarkable Victorian family, the second of eight children. He will not only change the face of literature, but of all the arts. Two hundred years later, he is still one of the greatest and most recognisable names in the world. But how has film contributed to the spread of Dickens mania?

Even in the nineteenth century, the works of Dickens were superbly adaptable. After all, he himself was many things: author, journalist, husband, father, social reformer and boot-blacker, to name but a few of his faces. This was a man whose voice spoke not for one, but for many; a man whose protean personality seeped into every word and every page. His serial publications were routinely used in stage adaptations, sometimes before they were even finished — and without the help of a fully developed Copyright Act, which only came into force in 1842, he was forced to let well-meaning rascals run amok with his ideas, making not a shilling from their efforts. Doubtless he wouldn’t have liked The Pirate Bay. Nonetheless, my instinct tells me he would have been delighted to see his works reproduced in the ultimate modern medium: film.

The Victorians are well-known for their love of spectacle and image. In the pre-cinema days they used smoke and mirrors to create phantasmagoria and light shows. The idea of ‘film’ was understood primarily in the context of the Lanterna Magica, or magic lantern. This nifty bit of hardware is thought to have been developed by Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens in the seventeenth century. It was used to project a single image on a slide using light — usually from a candle — and a concave mirror. The quality of the image improved progressively with the invention of stronger light sources like the Argand lamp and the limelight. Mass production of slides was enabled by the copper plate process, which allowed the outline of an image to be printed directly onto the glass. Previously they had been hand-drawn. The first ‘motion pictures’ only appeared in 1879, when Eadweard Muybridge developed the zoopraxiscope. This worked like a flip book to create the impression of motion using rotating glass disks. By the end of the Victorian era, one of the first ever films, Sortie de l’usine Lumière de Lyon (1894), had been released by the Lumière brothers using the new cinématographe, and the world’s first cinéma had been opened in La Ciotat. By the time the first cinematographic screenings took place in Paris, however, Charles Dickens had been dead for over 20 years.

Living in the city, Dickens would have been constantly bombarded by the Victorian fascination with image; he referred to London as ‘that magic lantern’. His novella The Haunted Man (1848) was used in a lantern show, as was A Christmas Carol (1843). Dickens gave many public readings for which he edited his own stories, highlighting the most pivotal scenes, which were then used in lithographic lantern slides. After his death, adaptations of his novels filled the world of film. Around a hundred were made across the world during the silent era alone. The first full-length Dickensian feature film, David Copperfield, was produced in 1913, closely followed by Barnaby Rudge (1915), which has sadly been lost. The last silent adaptation was A Tale of Two Cities (1925).

Two centuries later, Britain is still in love with the inimitable Boz. From Carrey to Disney, Kingsley to Polanski, everyone seems to have dipped into Dickens — and this year, Helena Bonham Carter will fill the role of notoriously nutty Miss Havisham for BFI’s Dickens on Screen season. Let’s hope she meets our expectations.


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