If cinema, born 1895, was the child of Victorian visual technology and the entrancement of the eye, then the Victorian novel stood it god-parent. Its direct ancestors were the photograph, the panorama, and the magic lantern; the circus and the melodramatic theatre; the railway, which turned the world into “moving pictures” and opened up touristic pleasures; the ghoulish waxwork and the tableau vivant; and the overwhelming, kinetic city. But it was from fiction that film inherited its mass audience, its social function, its plots, and its techniques of narration. And from no other author did film inherit so much as from the Victorian writer who most imaginatively absorbed the influences of those other ancestors: Charles Dickens.
Since 1897, when the Mutoscope Company put the Death of Nancy Sykes [sic] on the screen, more films have been made of works by Dickens than of any other author’s: there are 130 Dickens films on record and only Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde beat out Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol (of which there are 30-plus versions each) for the status of most-filmed single fiction in history. Part of Dickens’s lure is the childhood appeal of his fiction, along with the “Inimitable’s” proto-modern celebrity status, and the sheer familiarity of the texts, reinforced by frequent theatrical adaptation; part derives from the “mythic” characters who – like the film stars of Hollywood’s golden age – seem larger than the stories that contain them. The attraction is partly economic: all of Dickens’s fictions were out of copyright by 1920. It speaks both of national identity and of international appeal and interpretive openness.
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