The idea of creating an updated version of a classic story is not new. Last year's film version of "Romeo and Juliet," in particular, follows a tradition of chronologically transposed Shakespeare that dates back at least as far as the modern-dress stage production of "Julius Caesar" presented by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater in 1937. Since that time, it has become almost more commonplace to see time-shifted Shakespeare productions than to see a period production. The fact that such treatment succeeds so well is a testament to the timelessness of Shakespeare's themes.
The works of Charles Dickens, on the other hand, are so deeply rooted in their times that an updated version would seem to be inherently self-defeating. And yet it has been done. "Scrooged" (1988), for example, brought "A Christmas Carol" into the modern era. Now, an even more ambitious project has been attempted - a contemporary rendering of "Great Expectations." Although the updating of Dickens is relatively new to the movies, period productions of his novels have been a screen staple since the silent film days. For a sampling of earlier adaptations of Dickens, look for these titles on home video.
"David Copperfield" (1935). Dickens's mammoth novel sprawls across 64 leisurely chapters. Compressing it into a movie of watchable length is a feat akin to putting a ship in a bottle. Producer David Selznick did not shrink from the challenge, however. Four years later, as an independent producer, he would tackle a similar task in adapting "Gone With the Wind" for the screen. In this M-G-M production, the title role is played by child star Freddie Bartholomew as a youngster, then by Frank Lawton as an adult. But it is W.C. Fields in the role of Mr. Micawber who steals the show. This is the role that Fields was born to play, and play it he does. It is a performance for the ages, one that would have guaranteed his immortality even if he had never made the comedies for which he is best remembered.
" A Tale of Two Cities" (1935). Boasting "more stars than there are in the heavens" and specializing in big budget, high gloss adaptations of prestigious material, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had long since reached the top of the pyramid as Hollywood's tiffany studio. It is a measure of their determination to maintain their reputation for quality that this was the studio's second major Dickens adaptation in one year. Dickens's tale of love and sacrifice during the French Revolution gets the full M-G-M treatment here. Once again, Selznick produced. Ronald Colman heads the stellar cast as Sydney Carton, who gallantly lays down his life on the gallows for another.
"Great Expectations" (1946). Despite the yeoman efforts of Selznick at M-G-M, few would dispute that the movies' greatest interpreter of Dickens was director David Lean. In addition to being Lean's first Dickens adaptation, this film represented the beginning of Lean's long and productive collaboration with Alec Guinness. In his first appearance as a featured player, Guinness shines in the role of Herbert Pocket. The lead role of Pip is played by Anthony Wager in Pip's younger days, with John Mills taking over as the adult Pip.
"Oliver Twist" (1948). Lean followed the triumph of "Great Expectations" with another outstanding Dickens adaptation. Again he called on the extraordinary talents of Guinness, this time in the role of Fagin, the corrupter of young street urchins who leads young Oliver astray. Instead of going with an established child star for the lead role, Lean cast an unknown, John Howard Davies, as Oliver. Davies would later move behind the camera to work on "Monty Python's Flying Circus" for the BBC."Little Dorrit" (1988). One of the most intriguing Dickens adaptations ever produced, this six-hour marathon was made in two parts. The first part tells the story from the viewpoint of Arthur Clennam (Derek Jacobi). Part two then repeats much of the action, this time from the viewpoint of Little Dorrit (Sarah Pickering). Their improbable attraction for each other is thus seen from both perspectives, one at a time, each colored by the impressions of one of the principle characters. Somewhere in the difference between the two lies the story. The film is obviously a labor of love, made by a husband and wife producer-director team with, to my knowledge, no other significant film credits. As Sidney Carton might have said, it is a far, far better film than they had ever made.