On PBS Masterpiece Classic, Dickens' 'Great Expectations' and 'Edwin Drood' from the BBC

Left to right: John Jasper (Matthew Rhys), Rosa Bud (Tamzin Merchant), Edwin Drood (Freddie Fox).  BBC
Left to right: John Jasper (Matthew Rhys), Rosa Bud (Tamzin Merchant), Edwin Drood (Freddie Fox). BBC
Posted: April 01, 2012

Instant fame may be the order of the day in the age of American Idol and Keeping Up With the Kardashians, but it was virtually unheard of in 1836, when it struck, lightning-bolt style, an obscure 25-year-old newspaper scrivener named Charles Dickens upon the publication of his first serialized novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club.

Even more remarkable is the author's enduring popularity. Dickens, who wrote 34 books, including 24 novels, remains one of the best-selling writers of all time. His 1859 masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities, has sold more than 200 million copies, and his body of work has inspired more than 180 films.

PBS Masterpiece Classic marks Dickens' bicentennial beginning Sunday with two films produced by the BBC, Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

A sweeping three-hour epic, Great Expectations features Ray Winstone, David Suchet, Vanessa Kirby, and a superb Gillian Anderson as the abandoned bride, Miss Havisham. It will be shown in two parts on Sunday and April 8.

It will be followed on April 15 by a particularly gothic two-hour adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, featuring Matthew Rhys (Brothers & Sisters), Freddie Fox, and Tamzin Merchant. One of Dickens' least known novels, it's a fascinating murder mystery left half-finished at his death in 1870.

Temple University literature professor Peter Logan says Dickens' popularity is due in no small part to his willingness to portray the lives of ordinary people.

"Dickens was one of the first novelists who really did identify with â ¦ the disenfranchised, people who really led a precarious existence," says Logan, a scholar of Victorian British literature. "And he had a real indignation for social injustice."

Not surprising, considering the author's own life. Born into a destitute family, Dickens was working at a shoe polish factory by the time he was 12 to support his parents, both of whom had been sent to debtors' prison.

Dickens' popularity and his populist ethos made him a natural for Hollywood.

Great Expectations was made into a feature for the first time in 1917 and went on to inspire 16 more films. (This year will see the release of yet another version, directed by Mike Newell and starring Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes.)

The novel follows the fortunes of an orphan named Pip (Douglas Booth), who is raised from poverty to great wealth through the graces, and guineas, of an anonymous benefactor. In the process he loses, and eventually recovers, his soul. (Never one for theological abstractions, Dickens defines the soul as one's capacity to love.)

The BBC production opens with an arresting image: We're looking out across a barren, flat marshland to the sea. A half-dozen ships slowly crawl toward the dark horizon. Suddenly, in the foreground, a bald-headed, mud-covered behemoth of a man strains, grunting, out of the water and the muck.

It's our first sight of Abel Magwitch (Winstone), whose changing fortunes will help shape Pip's twisting and twisted fate.

A convict on his way to the other side of the world, Magwitch is treated as an animal by his guards. Pip earns his devotion through a simple act of compassion.

Magwitch is "this huge man, this huge, powerful beast of a man," says the film's writer, Sarah Phelps, "with this tender, cracked, vulnerable heart."

Phelps, who also wrote the BBC's 2007 adaptation of Oliver Twist, says the filmmakers stress the characters' physical presence because so much of the story is about "how we value human life, how we put value on human flesh."

Logan notes that in Dickens' world, people not born into wealth were evaluated by society according to their bodies' capacity for work, for giving sexual pleasure, or for taking punishment.

All three activities, he says, were tightly controlled by rigid institutions and their representatives - factory owners, the police, lawyers, prison guards, and landlords, who had license to detain, injure, trade, or sell any person, anybody lacking the means to defend themselves.

"That's what Dickens was writing about," says Logan, "the little guy caught in the horrors of these large institutions that are really dehumanizing."

Pip and Magwitch's social status means they can't be masters of their own fate. Not so the county's richest landowner, Miss Havisham. One of the most famous characters in literature and on screen, Miss Havisham is the ultimate jilted bride. Left at the altar years ago, she's a living ghost who wanders around her grand house in a tattered wedding dress.

In a radical departure, Phelps makes Miss Havisham a young woman just approaching middle age. "Show me the page where Dickens says how old is," Phelps challenges. (Dickens never does.)

"Miss Havisham has always been portrayed as this doddering, waxwork old woman, which makes her a comic figure," Phelps says. "It was crucial to me that you played her as a tragedy, so that you could get inside her head and feel that anguish and that hate and that heartbreak."

He adds, "The real tragedy is that she is still young enough â ¦ to be healed, but won't be healed."

The broad social sweep of Great Expectations and Tale of Two Cities is virtually absent in the claustrophobic psychological thriller Edwin Drood. The book is a screenwriter's dream - or nightmare, depending on your perspective. Dickens not only failed to complete the story, but he also left no working notes and no solution to the murder mystery.

Mystery writer Gwyneth Hughes, who wrote the film, says Drood was conceived as part of a friendly rivalry between Dickens and novelist Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White) over which writer could invent a new genre - the mystery.

The book features one of Dickens' more ambivalent protagonists, John Jasper (Rhys). A failed composer and opium addict who makes a living as a provincial choirmaster, Jasper is neither heroic nor good. He's more pitiable than likable. A failure in his field, he's also a failure in love: Still single and in his 40s, he becomes sexually obsessed with 17-year-old Rosa Bud (Merchant), who is betrothed to Jasper's rich, accomplished nephew, Edwin Drood (Fox).

One day Edwin disappears and is presumed murdered. Jasper, who is often consumed with homicidal fantasies about Edwin, decides to investigate.

He finds himself investigating himself: Did he kill Edwin in an opium-fed rage? Or was it just another fantasy?

It's an ingenious ploy - and it is given a singular, very Dickensian twist by Hughes. Bet you can't unravel this puzzle before the film's end.

Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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