Charles Dickens on Page, Stage, and Screen

An Upper-Level Author Studydickens


Charles Dickens revolutionized the novel and shaped modern understandings of his period. In this course, we will study Charles Dickens’s novels to better understand their historical, cultural, and formal significance. Additionally, we will examine the many illustrations, public readings, and adaptations (both on stage and in film) that accompanied and succeeded the novels. These supplementary texts molded Victorian readers’ understanding of the novel genre, and they continue to influence our interpretation of Dickens’s works and our memory of the Victorian period. Some of the stage and film adaptations have become canonical works in their own right. We will use these adaptations to explore Dickens’s influence on different cultures and periods, and we will also investigate the reasons for his novels’ enduring appeal. This class will ask you to suspend the initial impulse to declare that “the book is always better!” and instead develop new strategies and criteria for evaluating and appreciating literary adaptations. We will focus on four of Dickens’s major works—The Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood—and their accompanying adaptations. In addition to completing your daily reading, you will also be expected to attend four film screenings. Assignments will include an in-class performance, one short paper, one longer paper, and two exams.


  • To analyze the prominent themes, narrative structures, stylistic details, and social commentary in select works by Charles Dickens
  • To situate Dickens’s novels within their historical, cultural, and formal contexts
  • To explore the history of adaptation
  • To familiarize ourselves with iconic adaptations that reflect Dickens’s influence on specific cultures and periods
  • To challenge fidelity-based theories of adaptation and develop new strategies and criteria for evaluating and appreciating literary adaptations
  • To investigate the enduring appeal of Dickens’s novels through the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries


Unit 1. Introduction to the World of Dickens

Topics: Culture text, Dickensiana, the Christmas Books, Dickensian characters, representations of the Victorian, social class, folklore, children’s literature, Dickens as performer

Week 1: Biography

  • John Forster’s The Life of Charles Dickens (chapters 1-4)
  • Clips from Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman (2013)

Week 2: Culture Text

  • Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843)
  • Dickens’s “Frauds on the Fairies” (1853)
  • Davis, Paul. The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990. (Introduction)
  • Neil Gaiman’s Podcast of A Christmas Carol (NYPL, 2014)
  • Clips of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Ronald Neame’s Scrooge (1970), David Hugh Jones A Christmas Carol (1999), A Sesame Street Christmas Carol (2006), Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009), and Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (2010).

Unit 2.  From Page to Stage: Dickens and the Theatre

Topics: theatrical adaptation, copyright, censorship, violence, representations of childhood, print culture, serialization, melodrama, the Newgate novel, remediation, tableaux, description, Hogarth, depicting race and gender

Week 3: Serialized Novel and Theatrical Adaptation

  • Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838): Installments 1-9 (chapters 1-19)
  • Selections from Bentley’s Miscellany (1838)
  • Barnett, C.Z. Oliver Twist, or, The parish boy’s progress (May 1838).
  • Nicholas Nickleby (short excerpt from chapter 48)

Week 4: Realization

  • Dickens’s Oliver Twist: Installments 10-18 (chapters 20-41)
  • Almar, George. Oliver Twist: A Serio-Comic Burletta (Nov. 1838)
  • Meisel, Martin. Realizations: narrative, pictorial, and theatrical arts in nineteenth-century England. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983. (selections)

Week 5: Violent Ends

  • Dickens’s Oliver Twist: Installments 19-24 (chapters 42-53)
  • Dickens’s Public Reading of “Sikes and Nancy”
  • Selections from The Newgate Calendar

Screening 1: Carol Reed’s Oliver! (1968)

Assignment 1: A 3-5 page analytical paper that explains how one of the adaptations we have discussed (play, illustration, or public reading) complicates, challenges, or enhances an issue or theme from Dickens’s novel.

Week 6: Performing Race and Gender

  • Discussion of Oliver!
  • Weltman, Sharon Aronofsky. “‘Can a Fellow Be a Villain All His Life?’:  Oliver!, Fagin, and Performing Jewishness.”  Nineteenth-Century Contexts4 (September 2011): 371-388.

Screening 2: Timothy Greene’s Boy Called Twist (2004)

Week 7: Appropriation

  • Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. New York: Routledge, 2006. (excerpt)
  • Discuss Boy Called Twist (2004)

Midterm Exam

Unit 3. From Page/Stage to Screen: Dickens and the Cinema

Topics: origins of cinema, narrative film, bildungsroman, fidelity, unfaithful adaptations, the problem of ending, celebrity culture, authorship, auteur theory

Week 8: Theories of Adaptation

  • Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860) (chapters 1-15)
  • Smith, Grahame. Dickens and the Dream of Cinema. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003. (selections)
  • Thomas Leitch, “Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory.” Criticism 2 (Spring 2003): 149-171.
  • Clips from David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946)

Week 9: Narrative Structure

  • Dickens’s Great Expectations (chapters 16-29)
  • Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978. (selections)
  • Clips from David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946)

Screening 3: Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Week 10: The Author and Auteur

  • Dickens’s Great Expectations (chapters 30-39)
  • Discuss Sunset Boulevard

Screening 4: Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations (1998)

Week 11: Problem Endings

  • Dickens’s Great Expectations (chapters 40-59)
  • Discuss Cuarón’s Great Expectations
  • Rosenberg, Edgar. “Putting an End to Great Expectations.” Great Expectations (A Norton Critical Edition). New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 491-527.

Assignment 2: Option 1: A 6-8 page comparative paper that addresses how at least two different adapters approach the narrative challenges of Great Expectations and reflects on the interpretive significance of those approaches. Option 2: A creative adaptation/continuation of Great Expectations that deliberately responds to the novel’s narrative challenges and furthers a particular interpretation of the novel. In other words, there should be an interpretive thesis driving your authorial choices. The creative piece can take many forms, including film, script, graphic novel, new ending, or embedded text (those who choose film may work collaboratively on the creative piece). Additionally, you must submit an analytical paper of 4-6 pages explaining your critical choices and performing a close-reading of your creative piece. You should also consider how your work responds to other adaptations we have studied.

Unit 4. The Unfinished and Unfinishable Dickens

Topics: Detective fiction, death of the author, completions

Week 12: Detective Plot

  • Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) (chapters 1-12)

Week 13: Unfinished Endings

  • Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood (chapters 13-23)

Week 14: Trial of John Jasper

  • In-Class Activity: Students will participate in a trial similar to the Trial of John Jasper conducted by the Dickens Fellowship in 1914. In preparation for this trial, they will research proposed endings (I will provide them with a list of possible sources, many of which are available in the Burns library). They will defend or prosecute the accused using a combination of their own close readings, citations of secondary sources, and references to creative completions.

Week 15: Course Wrap-up and Final Exam Review

Final Exam



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