a little Dickens

by blue_sock_monkey | created - 18 Dec 2012 | updated - 24 Dec 2012 | Public

With my ratings & comments.

Dickens's stories have vivid characters and great dialogue--perfect for translation to film. Here are some of the best adaptations (plus a few misfires).

Please note that I am stingy with stars, and try to rate based on criteria more objective than simply "I loved it/hated it"--a movie has to be really outstanding to earn an 8 or higher from me.

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1. Great Expectations (1946)

Not Rated | 118 min | Adventure, Drama, Mystery

8.0
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8/10 X  

A humble orphan suddenly becomes a gentleman with the help of an unknown benefactor.

Director: David Lean | Stars: John Mills, Valerie Hobson, Tony Wager, Jean Simmons

Votes: 19,170

10/10 This is the gold standard for Dickens on film. A wonderful concoction distilled from memorable characters and personal growth, gorgeous cinematography, strong pacing; vivid, funny, and heart-breaking in turn. If you love Dickens, you must see this.

2. Great Expectations (1999 TV Movie)

168 min | Drama

7.3
Rate this
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.3/10 X  

A humble orphan suddenly becomes a gentleman with the help of an unknown benefactor.

Director: Julian Jarrold | Stars: Ioan Gruffudd, Justine Waddell, Charlotte Rampling, Laura Aikman

Votes: 1,577

8/10 An intelligent modern version. Gruffudd delivers a strong, believable performance. Beautifully filmed too.

3. Great Expectations (1998)

R | 111 min | Drama, Romance

6.8
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 6.8/10 X  
55 Metascore

Modernization of Charles Dickens classic story finds the hapless Finn as a painter in New York City pursuing his unrequited and haughty childhood love.

Director: Alfonso Cuarón | Stars: Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Hank Azaria, Chris Cooper

Votes: 45,973 | Gross: $26.33M

The dreamlike quality of Dickens's fairy tale for adults dissipates quickly in the Florida sun. I'm still trying to figure out the reasoning behind this dreary modernized adaptation.

4. Great Expectations (2012)

PG-13 | 128 min | Drama, Romance

6.4
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 6.4/10 X  
60 Metascore

A series of events change the orphaned Pip's life forever as he eagerly abandons his humble origins to begin a new life as a gentleman.

Director: Mike Newell | Stars: Toby Irvine, Ralph Fiennes, Jason Flemyng, Sally Hawkins

Votes: 10,716 | Gross: $0.26M

Haven't yet had a chance to see it. From the reviews, this sounds like it's rental material rather than add-to-your-Dickens-home-video-collection.

5. Oliver Twist (1948)

Not Rated | 105 min | Drama

7.8
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.8/10 X  

An orphan named Oliver Twist meets a pickpocket on the streets of London. From there, he joins a household of boys who are trained to steal for their master.

Director: David Lean | Stars: Robert Newton, Alec Guinness, Kay Walsh, John Howard Davies

Votes: 9,490

4/10 The plot is intelligently pared down and magically told, with the focus on Oliver's personal journey. Great performances, great cinematography, great great film. One of the Dickens essentials.

6. Oliver Twist (1985– )

360 min | Drama

7.6
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.6/10 X  

An orphan named Oliver Twist meets a pickpocket on the streets of London. From there, he joins a household of boys who are trained to steal for their master.

Stars: Ben Rodska, Eric Porter, Michael Attwell, Pip Donaghy

Votes: 252

8/10 Follows Dickens's coincidence-filled plot closely. Good performances all around; Oliver is spunkier here than in other versions. The direction is a bit loose, but this mini-series is satisfying in a way that leaner versions are not. Recommended.

(The DVD has a bonus feature of Simon Callow recreating Dickens's own public reading version of Sikes & Nancy. It's terrific!)

7. Oliver Twist (I) (1922)

98 min | Drama

6.8
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 6.8/10 X  

An orphan named Oliver Twist meets a pickpocket on the streets of London. From there, he joins a household of boys who are trained to steal for their master.

Director: Frank Lloyd | Stars: Jackie Coogan, James A. Marcus, Aggie Herring, Lewis Sargent

Votes: 626 | Gross: $2.00M

7/10 Not stunningly brilliant like the Lean 1946 version, but silent film fans will enjoy this. Coogan is an appealing Oliver, and Chaney is vivid, less of a caricature than Guinness in the later film; Gladys Brockwell broke my heart as the doomed Nancy. There are some imaginative flourishes in the direction.

8. Oliver! (1968)

G | 153 min | Drama, Family, Musical

7.5
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.5/10 X  

Young Oliver Twist runs away from an orphanage and meets a group of boys trained to be pickpockets by an elderly mentor.

Director: Carol Reed | Stars: Mark Lester, Ron Moody, Shani Wallis, Oliver Reed

Votes: 28,852 | Gross: $16.80M

8/10 Snooty Dickens fans don't always like this. I do. It captures Boz's own exuberance, sentimentality, and empathy for the poor. Memorable score and fine performances, especially Wallis and Reed.

9. Oliver Twist (2005)

PG-13 | 130 min | Crime, Drama

6.9
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 6.9/10 X  
65 Metascore

An adaptation of the classic Dickens tale, where an orphan meets a pickpocket on the streets of London. From there, he joins a household of boys who are trained to steal for their master.

Director: Roman Polanski | Stars: Barney Clark, Ben Kingsley, Jeremy Swift, Ian McNeice

Votes: 27,670 | Gross: $1.99M

5/10 Attractively if emotionlessly shot in golden light. Polanski has stripped the story down to the bare bones, and along the way he lost its heart, as well as most of the dramatic tension.

10. Oliver Twist (1999– )

386 min | Drama

7.9
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.9/10 X  

An orphan named Oliver Twist meets a pickpocket on the streets of London. From there, he joins a household of boys who are trained to steal for their master.

Stars: Sam Smith, David Ross, Julie Walters, Annette Crosbie

Votes: 700

4/10 Great cast, costuming, sets--what went wrong here? For starters, flabby direction, plus a script that adds weird things to Dickens's text (like the endless prologue explaining Monks). Worse still, it utterly lacks atmosphere. Catch the David Lean version or the 1985 mini-series instead.

11. Oliver Twist (1933)

Not Rated | 80 min | Drama

5.0
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 5/10 X  

An orphan boy in 1830's London is abused in a workhouse, then falls into the clutches of a gang of thieves.

Director: William J. Cowen | Stars: Dickie Moore, Irving Pichel, William 'Stage' Boyd, Doris Lloyd

Votes: 272

3/10 I can't imagine why anybody would choose to watch this instead of the 1948 David Lean adaptation.

12. David Copperfield (1999– )

Unrated | 185 min | Drama

7.8
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.8/10 X  

Charles Dickens' haunting semi-autobiographical tale of a boy who is sent away by his stepfather after his mother dies but manages to triumph over incredible adversities.

Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Trevor Eve, Michael Elphick, James Thornton

Votes: 3,585

9/10 My personal favorite among the different versions of this tale. The Steerforth-Rosa dynamic works especially well. This really feels like Dickens's novel. Highly recommended.

13. David Copperfield (1935)

Passed | 130 min | Adventure, Drama, Romance

7.5
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.5/10 X  

A gentle orphan discovers life and love in an indifferent adult world.

Director: George Cukor | Stars: Freddie Bartholomew, Frank Lawton, Edna May Oliver, Elizabeth Allan

Votes: 3,151

8/10 Assured direction that carefully shapes the mood, humour and pathos. I hate Freddie Bartholomew as the child David, but everyone and everything else works well. Breakneck pace.

14. A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

Not Rated | 128 min | Drama, History, Romance

7.8
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.8/10 X  

A pair of lookalikes, one a former French aristocrat and the other an alcoholic English lawyer, fall in love with the same woman amongst the turmoil of the French Revolution.

Directors: Jack Conway, Robert Z. Leonard | Stars: Ronald Colman, Elizabeth Allan, Edna May Oliver, Reginald Owen

Votes: 4,333

8/10 Made with energy, taste, and tremendous flair, this is relentlessly exciting; not ashamed of sentimentality, nor of Dickens's gleeful humour. Colman is perfect as the cynical lush at the center of it all.

15. Masterpiece Theatre: Bleak House (1985– )

391 min | Drama, Crime

7.6
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.6/10 X  

The great case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce drags on, an obsession to all involved. Then a question of inheritance becomes a question of murder.

Stars: Diana Rigg, Denholm Elliott, Suzanne Burden, Jonathan Moore

Votes: 281

7/10 Deep Dickensian atmosphere, well-cast and scripted. Unfortunately, the Jelliby family was omitted, and there's not much humour (admittedly, this is an exceedingly dark novel)--although Guppy's proposal is hysterically funny.

16. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1982)

540 min | Drama

8.9
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.9/10 X  

A young, compassionate man struggles to save his family and friends from the abusive exploitation of his cold-hearted, grasping uncle.

Stars: Alun Armstrong, Suzanne Bertish, Janet Dale, Jane Downs

Votes: 416

8/10 Exhaustive, exhausting, and very very good. Moving at breakneck pace, 39 actors perform all of the essential (and much of the lesser) parts of the novel in 505 minutes. Rees is a dynamic hero. The only failure here is the weird over-the-top unDickensian characterization of Smike, which leads to some seriously sappy scenes. (This was shot in England at the same time as An American Werewolf In London, which employs many of the same character actors.)

17. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947)

Approved | 108 min | Drama

6.9
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 6.9/10 X  

A young, compassionate man struggles to save his family and friends from the abusive exploitation of his cold-hearted, grasping uncle.

Director: Alberto Cavalcanti | Stars: Derek Bond, Cedric Hardwicke, Mary Merrall, Sally Ann Howes

Votes: 521

7/10 Very enjoyable, with strong pacing and exuberant performances.

18. Nicholas Nickleby (2002)

PG | 132 min | Adventure, Drama, Romance

7.2
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.2/10 X  
71 Metascore

A young, compassionate man struggles to save his family and friends from the abusive exploitation of his cold-heartedly grasping uncle.

Director: Douglas McGrath | Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Jamie Bell, Christopher Plummer, Jim Broadbent

Votes: 10,285 | Gross: $1.59M

6/10 The first half was great--the second didn't hold up for me; maybe the meta-theatrics were overdone. It's worth seeing for Plummer's terrific performance as Ralph.

19. A Christmas Carol (1984 TV Movie)

PG | 100 min | Drama, Family, Fantasy

7.9
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.9/10 X  

An old bitter miser who rationalizes his uncaring nature learns real compassion when three spirits visit him on Christmas Eve.

Director: Clive Donner | Stars: George C. Scott, Frank Finlay, Angela Pleasence, Edward Woodward

Votes: 9,850

9/10 There are dozens of film, television, and audio Carols available. This is my absolute favorite. (See my "A Christmas Carol" list for a comparison of more than 20 adaptations.)

20. A Christmas Carol (1951)

Not Rated | 86 min | Drama, Fantasy

8.1
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.1/10 X  

An old bitter miser is given a chance for redemption when he is haunted by three ghosts on Christmas Eve...

Director: Brian Desmond Hurst | Stars: Alastair Sim, Jack Warner, Kathleen Harrison, Mervyn Johns

Votes: 16,889

8/10 Sim is exceptional in this outstanding b&w film version; his scene with his nephew at the end has never been outdone. My only quibble is with what the script adds to Dickens's plot, which unbalances the story.

21. A Christmas Carol (1971 TV Short)

28 min | Animation, Family, Short

7.7
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.7/10 X  

An old bitter miser is given a chance for redemption when spirits visit him on Christmas Eve.

Director: Richard Williams | Stars: Alastair Sim, Michael Redgrave, Michael Hordern, Diana Quick

Votes: 933

8/10 The perfect short version, which uses John Leech's original 1843 illustrations as the basis for great animation.

22. The Pickwick Papers (1985– )

360 min | Drama

7.3
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.3/10 X  

A twelve-part BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens first novel. The story follows Samuel Pickwick and three other members of The Pickwick Club as they travel throughout the English countryside... See full summary »

Stars: Nigel Stock, Clive Swift, Alan Parnaby, Jeremy Nicholas

Votes: 146

6/10 Well-cast, but with undistinguished direction; the pacing feels off (to be fair, this is one of Dickens's weaker plots). Still full of fun, period charm, and beloved characters.

(DVD bonus feature: Simon Callow recreates Dickens's own public reading version of the trial scene, which I enjoyed immensely.)

23. The Pickwick Papers (1952)

Approved | 109 min | Comedy, Drama

7.1
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    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.1/10 X  

The Pickwick Club sends Mr. Pickwick and a group of friends to travel across England and to report back on the interesting things they find. In the course of their travels, they repeatedly ... See full summary »

Director: Noel Langley | Stars: James Hayter, James Donald, Nigel Patrick, Joyce Grenfell

Votes: 350

I haven't yet seen this well-regarded adaptation.