I have a pet peeve regarding film adaptations.
Because a book or a play or a TV show or a video game can become a movie, doesn’t mean it ought to be. Beloved, authored by Toni Morrison, is nearly unparalleled as a work of literature. Oprah Winfrey understandably loved the book and wished to see it turned into a motion picture. Her version wasn’t bad, but some things are better left alone—advice she did not heed (if anyone was brave enough to give it).
My peeve antennae flared when screening The Personal History of David Copperfield. This is not to say I believe the Charles Dickens novel should not be adapted for film or TV. Indeed, it has many times and is well suited to other mediums. But this David Copperfield feels like it would have been best left in the minds of its creators and not on screen.
The filmmakers clearly wanted to do something bold and different, which is their right, but the end result is not so much Dickens imagined freshly but the imprimatur of the great author employed frivolously.
I’ve always believed that any film version of another work, as long as it remains faithful to the spirit of the source, can succeed no matter how different it may look. Thus, the movie Clueless, an outrageous and loopy rendering of Jane Austen’s Emma, works, despite its modern setting.
Had the producers of The Personal History of David Copperfield (let’s just go with David Copperfield for brevity’s sake) approached the film this way, I might have given them more credit. Quite the opposite, however, happens, as the filmmakers keep Copperfield in its time and era yet make choices that boggle.
The outlines of the story my high school English teacher made me read are there. David Copperfield, from youth to maturity, undergoes a series of misfortunes and triumphs and meets a wealth of eccentric characters along the way. He comes of age, falls in love, knows want, finds success, and battles villains—not necessarily in that order. In this regard, the filmmakers did the story justice.
Nevertheless, one doesn’t need close and recent readings of Dickens to understand the bulk of his stories are rife with despair and degradation, and this David Copperfield chooses to elide that tone. The few dark moments that intrude are as brief as a “Good Lord,” or an “Aye Governor.” More often than not, the picture feels closer to a Monty Python sketch, with one absurd character after the next appearing to chirp nonsensical dialogue or make merry rather than evoke Dickensian dread.
Moreover, the filmmakers stray further from Dickens in a way that is becoming all too familiar in cinema. David Copperfield’s most risky endeavor is its racial politics, although I’m not sure what the actual politics might be. David Copperfield is played by Dev Patel, a man of Indian extraction. Armando Iannucci scripts and directs the film, which he populates with people of color.
It’s curious that the filmmakers go to great trouble to get every waist coat button and pocket square period-accurate yet choose to situate racial minorities in key roles—positions they would never occupy in 19th century England or in a Dickens book. Was it unjust that people of color were second, third, and worse class citizens in this time period? Of course, but why use Charles Dickens to make this point and then not in any kind of serious way? It’s a reimaging that wants it both ways. The film desires the authority of the Dickens rubric but at the same time dismisses it when inconvenient to its posturing on matters of race or the hue of the novel.
It’s not all dire. The film is well made with some wonderful flourishes of editing, set design, and cinematography. The actors are quite capable of comedy, and, brief as they are, more sober moments. There’s great spirit in this movie, but when a film’s best asset is its panache that’s not saying much. Fellini could do it in films such as Amarcord, but he didn’t confuse matters by adhering his vision to a pre-existing work.
David Copperfield stands out even as it tries to normalize. In one sense, it’s not really an adaptation of anything, just a borrowing of a few character names a thread of a story and some top hats, and from there the creators are improvising to shoehorn contemporary attitudes into an era which did not possess such sensibilities. A few anachronisms are forgivable, but this movie makes a conscious choice to stir the racial pot. And again, to what end I cannot really say.
David Copperfield will likely receive Oscar nominations and not undeservedly so. It is an unabashed, new approach to the Dickens classic, but it labors in many respects, even as its tone is buoyant and insouciant. If that’s peevish of me to say, I’ll accept opprobrium, but I can’t put it in the top rank of film adaptations recent or otherwise.
Blast Rating 2.5 out of 4 stars
Directed by: Armando Iannucci
Screenplay by: Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell
Produced by: Kevin Loader, Armando Iannucci
Cast: Dev Patel, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Paul Whitehouse, Gwendoline Christie, Anthony Welsh, Benedict Wong
Running Time: 119 minutes