A tale of 3,000 adaptations

Few writers have seen their work adapted to the stage and screen more than Charles Dickens. By some estimates, Dickens's 15 novels have been adapted more than 3,000 times.

This holiday season, in addition to the regular crop of "A Christmas Carol" productions, a new version of "Nicholas Nickleby," with a cast that includes Christopher Plummer, Tom Courtenay, and Alan Cumming, will hit movie theaters.

It's probably safe to say that most people first meet Scrooge or Oliver Twist through an adaptation and not the original.

The urge to retell these stories has a long history, as a current exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, "Best of Times: The Theatre of Charles Dickens," reveals. As soon as he wrote his first novel, "The Pickwick Papers," Dickens was transformed into Victorian England's first literary celebrity. The young author chose to publish his debut novel in serial form, as he did with all of his tales, and the story quickly inspired pirated dramatizations around London.

One play, "The Pickwickians," opened seven months before Dickens finished writing the novel. Several versions quickly followed, with characters, plots, and endings quite different from the author's own.

This process repeated itself with each of his subsequent novels. "There were few copyright laws at the time, and the ones that existed were unenforceable," says Bob Taylor, curator of the NYPL's Billy Rose Theatre Collection. "Dickens made no money from the adaptations, and some were very bad." Although the author occasionally asked trusted friends to adapt his work, the pirates remained beyond his control.

Love of the limelight

These proliferating adaptations never dampened Dickens's enthusiasm for the stage. An avid theatergoer, he attended several of the pirated performances, offering his own opinions and criticisms of the playwrights' efforts. He also spent countless hours working as an amateur actor, director, stage manager, and playwright.

Although he rarely translated his own work to the stage, he "eventually found a way to adapt his writings" through public readings, says Michael Slater, professor emeritus at the University of London and author of a coming biography on Dickens. Beginning in 1858, these performances enabled the theater-loving novelist to be "author, director, sole actor, and sole financial beneficiary of the production," Mr. Slater explains.

The NYPL exhibit displays several of the reading copies that Dickens used for these events. The author made careful notations by hand, adding arrows and marks to indicate his own gestures and voice inflections. He invested so much emotion and energy into these performances that many people believe they contributed to his untimely demise in 1870.

But even death could not end Dickens's popularity. As time passed, some of his stories - most notably "A Christmas Carol" - became even more popular. And with the advent of the silver screen in the early 20th century, the movie versions of his novels began to roll.

Stories perfect for the stage

So what makes Dickens's work so popular? His novels have the "essential elements for theater," according to Mr. Taylor: intricately plotted storylines and robust characters. Professor Slater agrees, noting the "wonderful parts for star actors," "funny dialogue," and "good melodramatic plots" that transfer easily to the stage.

Yet adapting Dickens's stories is not easy. His novels contain multiple plotlines and numerous characters, and while this makes for a leisurely read over several weeks, it presents problems when entertaining a captive audience. Very few producers in theater or film have the luxury of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which staged a nine-hour version of "Nicholas Nickleby" in 1981. It was this production which inspired film director Douglas McGrath. Reading the book confirmed his feeling that it would make a great movie - if he could somehow reduce the story to two hours.

Dickens's third novel is more loosely woven than his subsequent ones. The plot follows the fortunes of Nicholas, his sister Kate, their mother, and their villainous Uncle Ralph, with various subplots delving into the stories of a diverse array of characters.

How do you cram 795 pages into 2-1/2 hours?

As a screenwriter, Mr. McGrath had to decide what to leave out, a process he describes as "agonizing." "Dickens is a great artist, and I was loath to cut things," he says. Twice as long as Jane Austen's "Emma," which he adapted in 1996, "Nicholas Nickleby" presented McGrath with the challenge of finding the heart of the story. In his view, this boiled down to Nicholas's search to create a new family.

Dickens was a "reform-minded philosopher," McGrath observes, and the novel reflects the author's belief that life is filled with "acts of random cruelty, but also goodness and charity that are as inexplicable as evil."

Slater adds that "Nicholas Nickleby" is the most theatrical of all Dickens's novels. This combination of qualities led the director to choose Vincent Crummles (Nathan Lane), the comic actor-manager who befriends Nicholas, to act as the story's narrator.

McGrath's "Nicholas Nickleby," which was nominated for a Golden Globe last week, is more streamlined than previous adaptations, which include several TV miniseries and a 1947 movie directed by Alberto Cavalcanti.

Of his effort, McGrath says, that "it can't replace the novel, though I hope it can suggest something richer. Of course," he adds, after a pause, "my first hope was to make a great movie."

The exhibit 'Best of Times: The Theatre of Charles Dickens,' in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, runs through Feb. 15.

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