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NICHOLAS NICKLEBY: DOUGLAS MCGRATH

FAMILY FIX FOR FAULTY SOCIETY
If the lack of a nourishing human connection is the problem, then what is the answer? Over and over again in his books, Dickens provides it: family, says Douglas McGrath, the writer/director of the latest adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. But he means a family that’s perhaps larger, more forgiving, more generous in its parameters than the standard unit we think of. And in that regard, Dickens is as contemporary as if he were writing today.


Dickens was not just a storyteller but a reform-minded philosopher. He was not only ambitious for himself, but for a better world. He did not create his novels merely to exercise his storytelling skills but to expose the cancers of the society in which his readers lived and, through their exposure, inspire improvement. By creating the stories he did and wounding us when terrible things happen to the people he has made us love, he enlists his readers in his causes. It’s a sly type of persuasion, equivalent to the approach Twain took at the beginning of Huckleberry Finn: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished.” 

He shares many qualities with his American contemporary, Mark Twain: both were great wits, both had an ear for refined as well as vernacular speech, and, despite their financial aspirations at which Dickens was more steadily successful (Twain made a series of unlucky investments), both cared very much for the poor and distressed. They each had a compassionate and fondly humorous gift for bringing fictional youth realistically to life. But perhaps most of all, each man seemed to embody the essence of his country. Twain seems as quintessentially American as Dickens seems English. Yet both men were unsparing critics of their homelands, and used their talents to expose, ridicule and correct these failings. 

"gripping plots, sparkling dialogue, unforgettable characters"

So there we are: gripping plots, sparkling dialogue, unforgettable characters and numerous ideas for a better world. No wonder filmmakers and playwrights return to Dickens with the dedication of a stalker. Adapting Dickens must be the easiest work in the world, you say.

And yet.

With all Dickens had to think about, one thing that did not occupy him was constructing a story that could be nimbly compressed to the average length of a motion picture. (Interestingly, Dickens’ structuring anticipated – perhaps suggested – the crosscutting overlapping storylines that are standard in film storytelling. For a more detailed and graceful explanation of Dickens’ influence on film, interested readers should find an essay written by the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein entitled “Dickens, Griffith and the Film Today.”)

Most modern films are in the two-hour range. There is the rare case when a filmmaker can persuade a studio to release a film that is as long as three hours. But it is the rare case, and even three hours of a Dickens novel would involve an enormous reduction of the story. The Royal Shakespeare adaptation of this book, and even that had some compressions, was three times that length. 

Having previously adapted Jane Austen’s Emma for the screen, I knew well the painful choices involved. Nickleby, at more than twice Emma’s length and no less delightful, would require a more extensive, and more excruciating, surgery. I could not merely keep what I loved in the story; the film would run three days. (Don’t ask me why, but theatre owners steer clear of films that only accommodate a biweekly showing.)

So I did what I did with Emma: I reread the novel, and made a note at the top of every page stating the action. Not reading purely for pleasure, my eye assessed everything against the equation, “Keep it or lose it?” Each new page brought alternating waves of delight and alarm. “Oh, no!” I kept thinking. “This is good, too.” I wasn’t finding much that I wanted to lose. Most readers begin a new chapter with the hope that it will have something interesting in it. I often kicked off a new chapter with the hope that it contained something boring I could remove. 

"essential to its reconstruction"

While my desire to be bored went regrettably unsatisfied, I was able to take a clearer view when I assembled my outline, away from the charm of his prose. I studied it, over and over, searching for the heart of the story. Once I knew what the heart was, I could more easily decide what was essential to its reconstruction. 

The outline revealed that Nicholas Nickleby had the same peripatetic looseness of structure that marked the wandering exploits of Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers, a style then in vogue by Fielding, Smollett and other of his contemporaries. (Thematically though, Nicholas Nickleby shares many of the same interests as its immediate predecessor, Oliver Twist: the physical or emotional abuse of young boys; the sense of being young and unprotected in the world; the loss of parents and the sometimes terrifying dependence a child must have on strangers. Given the astonishing fact that Dickens wrote Pickwick and Twist simultaneously, Nicholas Nickleby is their love child: it merges the wandering, comic qualities of the first with the gothic social vision of the second.)

Though the title is Nicholas Nickleby, the novel follows the adventures of the whole Nickleby family, not just Nicholas but his sister Kate, his mother, and most importantly his Uncle Ralph. It delves into the lives of their friends and sometimes their friends’ friends. This widened focus actually made the book easier to adapt than his more tightly constructed later novels. I needed to narrow its focus and concentrate on the stories that best supported the ideas behind the novel. 

As I studied the book, I saw two stories continually intersect, each causing a sharp, sometimes explosive, reaction in the other: it was the story of Nicholas and his Uncle Ralph. They were the heart of the story, their struggle, their contrasting philosophies, the starkly different choices they made. I decided that I would only retain those sections of the novel that best brought to life their intertwining histories. 

"more rigid ideas"

An audience comes to a film with more rigid ideas about plot than it brings to a novel or play. Maybe it’s the word “movie” that plants the idea that things should continue to move, but people do not allow a film the digressions and ruminations that they accept in a novel. Thus went the many side stories and their characters. Sadly went the Mantalinis, beloved of memory, on page and stage. (They were superbly brought to life in the RSC production.) They were influential in Kate’s story, but I only used her story in how it affected Ralph or Nicholas. So while we hear of her employment at the Mantalinis, we are denied the pleasure of seeing her under their “demd” supervision. So, too, went the Kenwigs, Miss Petowker, Mr. Lillyvick, Peg Sliderskew and Arthur Gride. There were outright removals, and some people, like Miss Lacreevy, who were substantially reduced. 

Occasionally, I would merge two characters, as I did with Sir Mulberry Hawk and Arthur Gride. They were similar in a number of ways and performed similar services in the plot. One is introduced quite late in the story and again, by the mysterious laws of cinema, it can be unsettling to have a major character introduced in the last part of a movie. It lends the film a quality of being disjointed. (Perhaps because one rarely reads a novel straight through, one is less sensitive to this issue with books.) 

Always, in all my decisions, I sought to honour the spirit of the novel. An adapter must sometimes turn a cold eye to the letter of the book. Drawn to be a writer in part because I loved reading great writing, making changes in a cherished author’s work was often agonising. The feelings of presumption and inadequacy were only quelled by the knowledge that my film is not meant to replace Nicholas Nickleby, as it never could, but to be a walking, talking supplement, one that might bring new readers to the joys of a classic.

For many people the word “classic” wears the musty shroud of age. But the very thing that makes it a classic, which is to say something that has long outlasted the time in which it was born, is the natural and illuminating way it applies to any era in which it is being read. Dickens’ stays fresh because he is not just writing about human events, which are always changing and dating, but human nature, which is constant.

On the surface, the world Dickens offers the 21st century reader in Nicholas Nickleby is as different from ours as Star Wars. But once you get past the coaches and bonnets and foolscap, you have a world eerily like our own. Nicholas’ father, a sweet-natured country gentleman, loses his savings in an unlucky speculation in the financial markets. What could more perfectly describe the cold-blooded fleecing of small-time investors that has highlighted the recent past on Wall Street than this sentence about the failure of Nicholas Senior’s investment: “Four stock brokers took villa residences in Italy and four hundred nobodies were ruined.”

Nicholas Nickleby was conceived in part to expose the notorious Yorkshire boarding schools that were common dumping grounds for illegitimate or unwanted children. Indeed, Dickens based one of the villains of the piece, Wackford Squeers, on the infamous headmaster William Shaw, whose neglectful cruelty caused the blindness of two of his students. The barbarity of the Yorkshire school system is what you might call the local, or “period,” issue, long gone from our daily worries. But surely the abuse and neglect of children continues its mad way in our world, whether it is the pedophiliac scandals of the Catholic Church or the terrible rash of child kidnappings and killings that have recently filled the news.

"three ideas"

More and more, as I analysed the story, I saw that there were three ideas to which Dickens returned again and again. And it was around these three ideas that I organised my film. The first idea is that there is evil in the world, and that it must be confronted. 

The next idea is that there is evil in the world but it must understood. If we do not comprehend its origin, we can only knock it down and wait for its resurrection. Evil does not spring up. It takes the nurturing of violence or, more often, neglect. Surely no murderer ever had his mother sat by his bed too often at night, kissing away his fears. No dictator’s father ever cupped his face too lovingly in his hands. In showing us the seeds of evil, Dickens allows us to understand, even pity, his villains.

This is one of the many qualities that links Dickens to Shakespeare: a thrilling, almost disorienting ability to induce in us a sympathy for the villain. In Nicholas Nickleby, one of the triumphs of the storytelling is that by the end, the man we have come to hate the most, the man whose downfall we have prayed for most fervently, is exposed and given his punishment, and it evokes from us no happiness, no victory, only a sort of pitying sorrow. This is because Dickens has shown us how this person has lost his way in the world: the wrong choices he made, and the costs that came with them. As they are revealed to us, so, too, is he revealed to us in a way that surprises and complicates our reaction to him. He is still a villain, but now we know how he became that way. By valuing fortune over affection, he denied himself the vitality of human connection. This, more than anything, seems to be the theme of Dickens’ work: that villainy is born from the feeling that we do not belong in any joyful way to someone else. 

And this brings us to the third idea. If the lack of a nourishing human connection is the problem, then what is the answer? Over and over again in his books, Dickens provides it: family.

Being an artist, Dickens does not mean it in the simplistic and manipulative way that our politicians do. He means something more complex. Indeed, in Nicholas Nickleby, one of the villains is a part of the hero’s family. So, though Dickens offers the idea of family as an answer to the problems of a society whose lust for money permits cruelty to children and widows and men unlucky enough to be born without a sense of vicious competitiveness, his answer carries a question in its wake: what is family? Is it merely one man, one woman, one son and one daughter? Or is it perhaps something larger, more forgiving, more generous in its parameters?

"to answer those very questions"

In my film, the story is shaped to answer those very questions. The film begins with a single image of Nicholas’ father in the center of the screen, mirroring his place in his family’s universe. The next scenes show him proudly raising his two children: coddling them as infants, lifting them to the sun, pushing them in swings, posing for their portraits, tucking them into bed. He is everything to them. And when he dies, the family loses its bearings. They turn to Ralph for help but when he abuses their trust, Nicholas knows he must make his own way in the world. My film begins with a narrator asking us, “What happens if too early we lose a parent, that party on whom we rely for only everything?” At the end of the film, the narrator answers his own question. He says we must “build a new family, person by person.”

What is so beautiful and democratic about Dickens’ story is that the family Nicholas builds is most unorthodox. He does not, as in a lesser fairy tale, merely fall in with rich people. Except for the Cheeryble Brothers, the people he comes to cherish most are, by the terms of that society, largely outcasts: the alcoholic servant Noggs, the crippled Smike, the destitute Madeline Bray, the coarsely boisterous John Browdie and, of course, the Crummles, a troupe of actors. In Victorian society, especially middle-class society, actors were the very idea of undesirable. But not to Nicholas. 

*This is an extract from the New Penguin Edition of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, by Douglas McGrath.

Published November 20, 2003

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Douglas McGrath

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