We begin with adaptation, and consider the ways in which creators, through the years, have responded to Bleak House.
Bleak House was well received by the readers of 1852 and 1853. Mr Dickens wrote it as a serial in his very popular magazine, Household Words. Each month, three more chapters would appear, and Mr Dickens took care to listen to his readers, to think about pacing and developments in his stories.
For some reason, however, Bleak House has not been much adapted by writers in later years.
Perhaps it is the scale of the novel, which would daunt even the most hardy of adapters.
Perhaps it is the split narrative. The power of Mr Dickens’s narrative voice, and my own, less certain one, make for a shifting tone and perspective in the novel that might be difficult to adapt.
Perhaps it is the huge cast of characters, though a skilful adapter can dispense with all but the most important of figures.
Victorian novels, with their well-ordered stories of rich and varied characters set against a believable social canvas, seem ripe for adaptation. At the same time, their length, density of incident, accretion of detail, and psychological penetration all pose what one might call exemplary challenges to cinematic adaptation. Thomas Leitch, ‘Introduction: Reframing the Victorians’ in Victorian Literature and Film Adaptation, eds Abigail Burnham Bloom & Mary Sanders Pollock, Cambria Press: 2011, pp.1-18
Perhaps it is the dark tone of the novel, its despair at the corruption of England! Perhaps it is contemporary unease with my own perspective. As I have commented above, my own character has been found wanting by those who wish for a more forceful and satirical tone from me!
Whatever the reason, we have very few contemporary films, television serials, or even novels and stories to choose from in considering how modern writers have responded to and adapted from this novel.
Adapters return time and again to narratives enshrined in the literature of the Victorian period, not in pursuit of faithful reproduction of their historical moment, nor in imitation of their stylistic and linguistic motifs, but in search of ways to re-present their timeless, universal concerns to a contemporary audience. Yvonne Griggs, The Bloomsbury Introduction to Adaptation Studies, Bloomsbury Continuum, forthcoming publication in 2015
I show you the few I have thus far been able to find.
The Death of Poor Jo.
This is an early film, from 1901.
It focuses on poor Jo, the crossing sweeper, and his death, nearly alone, on the streets of London. Note that my dear Mr Woodcourt does not appear. Note that Jo appears rather more well-fed than perhaps you or I might imagine him! Nevertheless, his death is tragic, indicating the timeless appeal and pathos of his story.
The Death of Poor Jo
A compilation of adaptations of Mr Dickens’s work, hosted by the British Film Institute.
For comparison’s sake, you may wish to see some other adaptations of other works by Mr Dickens, in a compilation of adaptations hosted by the British Film Institute.
The Television Serial of 2006.
In 2006, the British Broadcasting Corporation developed a long serial adaptation of Bleak House. It was widely well-received. Indeed, television is particularly well-suited to adapting Mr Dickens’s work. The serial format of television aligns quite closely to Mr Dickens’s approach in his journals, and permits for a longer production than might be possible in film or theatre work.
Here is a link to information about the adaptation. It includes clips from different episodes. For copyright reasons, we are not able to include clips here (and we must remember how passionately Mr Dickens felt about copyright!).
And Mr Andrew Davies, the writer-adaptor of this television production of Bleak House discusses his work at the University of Warwick.
Among the many followers of Mr Dickens’s work are those who have a comic approach to things. We see some parodies of his work, which make witty comments about the style and manner of Mr Dickens’s many novels.
I myself find these parodies quite amusing, and I like to think Mr Dickens would as well. In any parody of a subject, we often see a kernel of truth. I hope you will look at them and see what they teach us about Bleak House, and Mr Dickens’s work more generally!