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Dickens The Media King (1): Exploring Author “Longevity”

"Blankets," with art and text by Craig Thompson, is available from Top Shelf Productions.

Question:  all right, so why do I love works as seemingly diverse as…

  • Craig Thompson’s mammoth yet consistently poignant graphic coming-of-age memoir Blankets
  • the remarkable neo-neorealist film Little Girl, about a toddler found and cared for by circus performers
  • Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden’s sweeping, detail-rich, first-person novel of adolescent suffering and love?

Answer: as disparate as these are, they’re all “Dickensian” in some respect—at least to me they are.

Feel free to challenge me on that, or suggest your own favorite works that fall under this banner. The point is that I make my love for Dickens and all things Dickensian known from the outset because there’s an unfortunate tendency to view media literacy education as running counter to a humanistic appreciation of the arts, which includes literature; on the contrary, authors who achieve long-lasting fame and admiration represent an easy—dare I say fun?—way to incorporate media lit objectives into core curriculum.

In fact, this is already done to some extent—it’s just not done explicitly. When we talk about the audience and purpose for a given text, when we discuss adaptations into other media, when lit textbooks provide biographical nuggets as well as discussion questions geared to them, when we have students view various literary movements through a historical/cultural lens…  all these avenues and activities don’t detract from a study of the “content” but enrich it. They simply provide added context. And that means more opportunities to exercise critical thinking skills about both the texts under consideration, and, more broadly, about how literature lives and dies as part of a “media environment.”

With this in mind, and as a supplement to whatever you’ve already been doing to celebrate the Dickens Bicentenary, here are some central questions to open things up a bit. Again, this approach doesn’t mean ignoring textual elements such as “timeless themes” that help an author’s work appeal to audiences across wide expanses of time and geography… but additionally looking at other forces that could be at work.

Government Support

…for example, according to scholar Ting Guo during the 1950’s Dickens was quite popular with Communist-sanctioned “mainland China film makers” who “saw Dickens’s works as offering a model for the criticism of capitalist systems and social life.”

Considering that 2012’s celebration of Dickens is largely spearheaded by official British cultural organizations and institutions such as the BBC, you might ask students what is it about his work that is both so quintessentially British… and so worthy of “export”?

Cultural Colonialism

Even when there aren’t overt attempts to promote a specific author or canon text, creators and audiences who are themselves part of a particular culture can’t help but gravitate to that culture’s highly-regarded texts.

Is it any wonder, then, that Hong Kong, a British territory until 1997, produced An Orphan’s Tragedy, starring a teenaged Bruce Lee?

And, yes, although the overall plot takes some great liberties with Great Expectations, the core elements that relate to an escaped con and the young charge of a poor blacksmith are clearly evident in the above clip.

In any case, because of the legacy of colonialism one might similarly expect that India would have a long tradition of valuing Dickens’s work… and according to this BBC audio documentary, it does.

From the BBC: "A schoolgirl reads a book by Dickens." Credit: Nicola Barranger

Addressing a Range of Audiences

How many of us first encountered “A Christmas Carol”—or maybe Dickens more generally—via the inspired animated version with Mister Magoo? For more on this landmark TV special, which just so happens to be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, check out this blog from author Darell Van Citters.

Instead of dismissing pop culture works such as this, educators may want to guide students to grasp how broadening the demographic appeal of authors can help cement their cultural status—and how children’s media can be instrumental in this regard since a new audience is thus “grown” from an early age.

Here’s a much more recent work from the same medium, the 2005 adaptation of Bleak House.

So who is the target audience for this kind of television series? Moreover, how does media marketing such as that embodied by the trailer serve to create, and promulgate, a Dickens “brand”? Indeed, you might want to ask students what other authors—both canon and popular/contemporary—enjoy their own brands that media publishers carefully leverage in support of specific releases? Going deeper still, you could follow up by asking in what ways these media releases, depending on their success or cultural prestige, in turn shape the parent brand, helping it evolve.

Addressing a Range of Genres and Media

Dickens has been big in narrative film almost as long as narrative film has existed. In fact, as you might already know, on the day after the author’s 200th birthday a new “oldest Dickens film” was serendipitously discovered.

And here’s the amazingly condensed Thomas Edison-produced version of “A Christmas Carol” in its entirety. You might opt to screen it simply as an excellent, if extreme, example of the kind of narrative reduction that often occurs when moving from one medium to another.

More importantly, through moving image of this sort countless works by Dickens have been brought to audiences who, even if they never crack open a book with his name on the spine, help extend the author’s fame and cultural influence.

“The Crickett on the Hearth” in a landmark stage production by the Moscow Art Theatre back in 1914.

More often than not, though, the success of Dickens across various media has created multiple entry points for the public to discover the source material, thus adding to his cultural longevity. The same is true regarding the success of his work across multiple genres. Both of these movements, in genre and medium, occurred when in 1960 Lionel Bart adapted Oliver Twist into Oliver! Dickens on stage was nothing new, but here it became a hugely popular musical that has been in production ever since.

Of course one more phase in cross-media content-repurposing is represented by the 1968 Carol Reed film that was based on Bart’s hit. Note how in its exploitation of the film’s Oscar-winning status this trailer shows how “prestige” signifiers such as awards can also pump up an author’s reputation–even if those awards are presented for non-print media that the author did not contribute to directly.

A true expert in Dickens could probably go on and on in this vein, but you get the idea. It’s all too easy for those of us who prize literature to see ourselves as passing down certain classic texts as if they existed in some kind of print-only, marketing-free vacuum. But to acknowledge the role of promotion and extra-textual forces on the longevity of authors doesn’t diminish their achievements. Rather, it enables young people to become intensely aware of the role of such forces, which include (gulp) recommendations from folks like us, on the issue of choice. It’s an approach that doesn’t make literature subservient to “media” but instead empowers readers to take full ownership of their reading.

***

Tomorrow I’ll chat with Lewis Buzbee—a master of historical fiction who knows more than a thing or two about Dickens, the man and his work. And if you aren’t familiar with Buzbee’s writings, this gives you the chance to look them up before we get started… See you then.

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About Peter Gutierrez