November Offers New Spin On Dickens

It’s been a good week for Charles Dickens.

Author Barbara Kingsolver marked four weeks on the New York Times bestseller list with her modern take on “David Copperfield.” Oprah’s Book Club pick “Demon Copperhead” transfers the themes of Dickens’ semi-autobiographical tome to 21st century Appalachia, where its main characters are plagued by opioid addiction, domestic violence and a broken foster care system.

Nick Hornby’s “Dickens and Prince” was released Tuesday, pairing up the two artists and comparing their “particular kind of genius.” The moving extended essay contemplates the importance of art in the receiver’s life, a value Hornby has analyzed so effectively in previous works like “Juliet, Naked” and “High Fidelity.”

And the new holiday comedy “Spirited” stars Ryan Reynolds, Will Ferrell and Octavia Spencer in a new take on the beloved Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol.” Now streaming on Apple TV+, the musical shifts the narrative from Ebeneezer Scrooge to his visiting ghosts. This quirky and lovable update also establishes a refreshing new theme, pondering what it actually takes to change for the better.

More than two centuries after he was born, the literary and cultural influence of Dickens remains. Scrooge takes the stage every Christmas at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The Dickens Museum in London reopened in 2021 after pandemic closures, and last spring added an audio element from a descendent of the author. Roanoke will mark the 40th anniversary of its “Dickens of a Christmas” celebration this year.

New adaptations of Dickens stories are ubiquitous of course, and not necessarily out of the ordinary. But this year, the release of several new twists on his classics just happen to coincide. All three of these offerings are worth investing in, not just for fans of classic literature. They are not straightforward adaptations of the beloved books, but something entirely different, born of the same spirit: from the deeply depressing but silver lining-laden stories of young Demon, to the pure fun of Reynolds and Ferrell singing about “doing a little good” on a snowy street. From comparing the prolific lives and careers of, as Hornby puts it, a 20th century Black musician from Minneapolis and a centuries-old author from England. In an age of endless and tired remakes, reboots and revivals, it’s nice to know that the Dickens well may never run dry.

Kingsolver begins “Demon Copperhead” with a line from its source material: “It’s in vain to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present.” Dickens’ influence on the present feels palpable, and precious.

But why now? Perhaps the dreary November weather fits a somewhat-bleak Dickensian setting. Or maybe it’s his more hopeful themes that are needed as the Christmas season approaches, another pandemic year coming to an end, plagued by division and inflation. 

More realistically, this crowded season in both the film and publishing industries just happens to have a few offerings inspired by the author. But Dickens never was a realist. Of course, he created an entire genre by painting painfully-real portraits of poverty, oppression, crime and corruption. But he never failed to create characters who stood for the exact opposite: the Agnes Wickfields and Joe Gargerys, the Bob Cratchits and John Brownlows. Underneath his sweeping language, social commentary and bottomless bibliography was that good old Christmas theme: good will toward men.

Reynolds and Ferrell in “Spirited.” (Courtesy of Apple TV+)

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