If you didn’t see Armando Iannucci’s elegant argument that Dickens’s world is our world too, it is time to fire up iPlayer. If only to see him discuss Bleak House with three lawyers.
One of his most interesting points is that endless adaptations of the novelist’s work have led his skills to go unappreciated. I think he has a point. There is a tendency to think Dickens is a difficult read (and he can be) so best to wait for the radio or TV adaptation. The problem is that if you do that, you end up losing one of the best part of Dickens – his words, his voice.
This was bought home to me by the recent adaptation of Great Expectations, a novel that I have a long and difficult relationship with and which, through the hard work of David Lean, I am slowly learning to love. Blame GCSE English Literature.
I started watching because I was so fascinated by the new take on Miss Havisham. Gillian Anderson, whose Lady Dedlock I adored, looked amazing on the previews – younger and more noticeably adrift from reality than any adaptation I had seen before. But from an early stage I was unnerved by the dialogue.
It wasn’t Dickens for the most part, it had been rewritten. This saddened me, because in the early chapters the interplay between Joe Gargery, Pip and Mrs Joe bites like a knife. I stuck with it though.
After the first episode, however, I did not return the next night. Simply because the following piece of dialogue;
Miss Havisham: Do you play cards, Pip?
Pip: No, maam.
Fairly innocuous and probably misquoted, but it replaced, for no reason I could fathom, one of my favourite pieces of dialogue in the book:
“…Let me see you play cards with this boy.”
“With this boy? Why, he is a common labouring-boy!”
I thought I overheard Miss Havisham answer – only it seemed so unlikely – “Well? You can break his heart.”
“What do you play, boy?” asked Estella of myself, with the greatest disdain.
“Nothing but beggar my neighbour, miss.”
“Beggar him,” said Miss Havisham to Estella. So we sat down to cards.
Beggar him. Is it an instruction for the card game or for the decades to come?
Either way it is full to bursting with menace and intention.
So if you do one thing this year, don’t wait for the next Dickens adaption on radio or television. Go back to the source material and discover one of the most distinctive authorial voices and some of the most glittering characters and dialogue in the English language.