Charles Dickens in the silent era

This article was originally published by the Toronto Star on December 28, 2012.

The silent era saw the production of about 100 films based on Dickens’ work. Eight shorts, made between 1901 and 1912 — including the earliest filmed version of A Christmas Carol — will be shown on Monday as part of the Dickens on Screen series at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Capturing Dickens on film was an obvious leap for filmmakers, says Adrian Wootton, series curator and chief executive of the British Film Commission. “There was enormous familiarity with his work,” he says on the phone from New York City.

The mass public’s awareness of Dickens came mostly from the adaptation of his novels into other media, he says. From popular ballads and theatre to magic lantern shows, “filmmakers knew that they were tapping into popular conscience. The public knew and loved the stories and characters.”

How faithful were the earliest adaptations? “With the shorts they were certainly involved in gigantic acts of compression but tended to be faithful to particular scenes in terms of what Dickens wrote and said in his public readings.” Wootton says the most obvious example is the murder of Nancy by Sikes in Oliver Twist. “In three early versions, the technology changes, but the perspective of the scene stays the same and is essentially faithful to the original work.” The program features a nine-minute version from 1909, an interesting bridge between theatre and film.

The majority of the silent era’s output is lost, including a big budget version of Barnaby Rudge from 1915. “There was much balyhoo when the film came out, but it hasn’t been seen since the teens. All that exists now are still photographs.” The film was directed by Thomas Bentley, who helmed several Dickens films throughout his long career.

Surviving, however, are two versions of A Christmas Carol — both utilizing ghostly double-exposures — and favourites of Wootton.

“Although Dickens did not invent Christmas, he surely popularized it,” he adds. By 1843, when he wrote A Christmas Carol, the holiday had become more popular in Britain and America, and Christmas trees, cards and seasonal carolling were common.

“He loved Christmas and wanted people to celebrate it, but he also wanted to use it for a way to prosecute through fantasy his anger about social injustice.”

Dickens died in 1870, a quarter century before the invention of cinema, but Wootton supposes he would have enjoyed seeing his characters flicker on screen. “He loved performance. He would have embraced cinema.”

Pausing, Wootton adds: “And Twitter, for that matter. He loved all means of reaching the public.”

Dickens Silent Shorts screens Dec. 31 at noon at TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St. W., with piano accompaniment by William O’Meara. Info at

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