Dickens, Iannucci, and David Copperfield

There’s a robbery in Iannucci’s 2019 adaptation of Dickens’ The Personal History of David Copperfield. It takes only seconds of screen time, but it’s a thread that can be pulled out to reveal a quite different cloth to that from which the original novel was woven.

Dev Patel, (excellent) as both Dickens and the grown up Copperfield, is walking to Dover to find his Aunt Betsy. Patel’s Copperfield is seen in long shot walking alone, and another figure comes into view walking towards him. We see the two in the distance as they act and react, the man grabbing for David’s jacket, pulling it from him and running away, leaving David to plod on, disconsolately. It’s a comic robbery; almost a silent movie moment, a bit of visual slapstick between two stick figures seen in the distance.

It’s a journey that Dickens’ first person narrator, the eponymous David, makes at the age of ten. He too is robbed, but not quite in the same way, nor of the same garment. In the novel the action is up close and nasty, and there are three people involved: Copperfield the child, a hard-faced young man, and the almost captive girl who accompanies him.

In my late nineteenth century edition, there are page headings – much as one gets in a digitally printed book these days – and these act as a sort of sub-chapter heading. The scene where David is robbed is headed: ‘I Meet A Disagreeable Tinker’. The man calls David to him and demands money.

            “Come here when you’re called,” said the tinker, “or I’ll rip

            your young body open.”

And David, intimidated, does. He is questioned:

            “Where are you going?” said the tinker, gripping the bosom

            of my shirt with his blackened hand.

And then, the demand is made.

            “Have you got the price of a pint of beer about you?”

            said the tinker. “If you have, out with it, afore I take

            it away.” 

The girl mouths warnings – ‘no’ and ‘go’- and is beaten to the ground for it. The man steals David’s neckerchief. The child is frightened. The scene is brutal, uncompromising, threatening. Dickens was not playing; he rarely was in scenes like this, as far as I have read.

Of course, Iannucci has an adult David at this point, and that inequality of thug versus child cannot be replicated, and if tussle came to fight-for-life, whichever way it went, the story would be derailed.

Dickens’ David is robbed, one way or another, several times. A carter boy has taken his box with all his possessions in it, along with the half-guinea (ten shillings and sixpence – and David has been working for six shillings a week) he borrowed from Peggotty to fund his journey to Dover. Earlier in the story a waiter has tricked him out of a meal. Even that misdemeanour, if it has any humour at all, is a dark comedy, for David does not even realise that he is being abused.

In Iannucci’s film there are several scenes of violence. Again adult, Copperfield smashes up the bottling stores after hearing of his mother’s death. In the novel that news comes when he is at school – a much longer segment of the book and placed before the bottling warehouse sequence, which Dickens tells us very little about. But the film fight is another glorious dance, even when Murdstone’s vile sister gets her hand caught in a stamping machine.

In another film scene Copperfield fist fights a butcher’s lad, and gets knocked down, definitively, but again, it’s comic rather than ugly, and this time just as in the book. Yet in the book Copperfield refers to a later encounter with the same person, and to having knocked out one of his teeth.  More frightening is the sound of him being beaten in his room by Murdstone, the incident when he bites Murdstone’s hand. Yet here it is Dickens who tones down the scariness of the scene.

Is it my projection, or are the shades of light and dark differently applied in the two tellings of this story?

Reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens, I noticed the emphasis put on Dickens’ lifelong fear of poverty; his traumatisation, not only by the short time he spent in the blacking factory, believing himself to be, as he paints David believing, abandoned for good and beyond means of escape, but also by the inexorable descent into poverty of his own family. This fear haunted him despite his financial success as a writer – though it did not stop him from supporting financially and politically several individuals and organisations set up to help the disadvantaged and may have prompted his charity.

Perhaps that is why there is something innately threatening, dangerous and unattractive about Dickens’ villains, even when they are driven to that villainy by a poverty that he fought to eradicate. Poverty -or want, as Dickens labelled it- and ignorance were seen as present and future dangers by him, and he explicitly warned us against them in A Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge, and us, the ‘Yellow, meagre, ragged’ children of ‘Man’s’.

‘This boy is ignorance. This girl is want. Beware of them both,

and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on

his brow I see that written which is Doom,’

This is a detail, which I regret to say, has been left out of more than one adaptation of that tale. Not so much dumbing down as sanitising, when we lose these elements of Dickens’ stories, we trivialise them.    

It is these two children, in effect, and grown to adulthood, that David Copperfield meets upon the road and is robbed by in Charles Dickens’ novel.

The film’s equivalent is not similar.

Murdstone, in Iannucci’s film, does not wince as he recognises himself in aunt Betsy’s harangue when he visits her to take back his stepson – that scene does not feature in the film; and the novel’s Micawber is not shown as a man evading ravenous debtors, but as one who pawns his goods to pay his way, and whose debtors, in court, turn out to be quite reasonable. He is not shown, as in the film, making comic attempts to hide behind sides of meat and passing carts. Rather, Dickens’ Micawber is an optimistic man, hoping that ‘something will turn up’. He is not a chancer, like Iannucci’s. There are differences, perhaps consequential on the changing of Micawber’s character, in Mrs Micawber too. As part of the adaptation process many characters are dropped, but pieces of ‘action’ and of dialogue from them are incorporated into the staging of the surviving players. This is not sinister, but merely part of the streamlining that makes a story filmable. We can populate our imagination with as many characters as we like, and, as a Dickens character might have said, it don’t cost us a penny! The film maker isn’t so fortunate.

But when we move the furniture around, we change the whole room and will have done so for a purpose of our own.

Dickens has been described as a writer of caricatures rather than characters, but, I suspect, he is no more so than a modern film-maker might be, though the caricatures and the caricatured have changed over the hundred years since he wrote. The differences between an original and an adaptation are not interesting because they enable us to mark the faithfulness of the latter, but because they illuminate and clarify the processes and the agendas of both the storytellers involved.

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