Speaking Of Dickens...

PBS has picked up the North American rights to last year’s BBC miniseries based on Little Dorrit, written by their resident miniseries guy Andrew Davies. The first episode will air on Masterpiece Theatre on March 29.

The miniseries didn’t get very good ratings (nothing compared to the response to Davies’ Bleak House miniseries that made him the BBC’s star adaptor), even though it was hyped as being particularly relevant to the times: the theme of the novel is money and its corrupting influence on human relationships; there’s a very Bernie Madoff-ish character in the story, and it’s the book where Dickens introduced the idea that the government has a “Circumlocution Office” devoted to making sure that nothing ever gets done, by tying up every new idea or invention in endless red tape.

But while Little Dorrit may be my favourite Dickens, it’s a very hard book to adapt; the 1988 two-part movie version has fans, but I’m not one of them. It has at least two big problems for adaptors. One is that it doesn’t have as many colourful characters and events as Dickens’ other books; it may actually be his best-written book, but it doesn’t have any characters who have become cultural icons, and it doesn’t have as many violent and spectacular events that made Bleak House such a perfect candidate for Davies’ soap-opera approach. The lack of colourful characters may be part of what hurt it in the ratings; most of the time is taken up with the hero, a man approaching middle age and trying all sorts of failed schemes to give direction to his rudderless life, and the heroine, a tiny, mousy young woman who has great strength of character but a no strength of personality.

The other problem is that even though it has Dickens’ usual complicated, coincidence-heavy plot with melodramatic contrivances that are set up at the beginning and revealed at near the end, the story is split into two separate parts, one when the title character lives in debtors’ prison with her father (“Poverty”), the other when a long-lost plot contrivance has made her family rich but even more dysfunctional (“Wealth”). The break between the two parts is very awkward, yet neither part works as a separate story on its own. So it’s hard for an adaptor to whittle the story down to a manageable size, whereas with Dickens’ other novels it’s at least possible.

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