He will be forever associated with the smog and slums of Victorian London, but Charles Dickens was always an international writer, one who wrote travelogues and essays about visits to America, Italy and France. It’s appropriate, then, that the celebrations for his bicentenary – which include film adaptations, art exhibitions and immersive theatre – should take place not just in Britain, but all around the world, including the UAE.
“Dickens has found an audience in almost every country on the globe,” says Susie Nicklin, the British Council’s director of literature, who is organising the celebrations with the Charles Dickens Museum, Film London and other partners. “To this day, the images of the UK held by thousands of people worldwide are of fog on the Thames, top hats and street urchins.”
Whether or not they share that mental image, people living in the UAE are going to be able to join in next year’s celebrations of his birth on February 7, 1812. Dickens 2012 organisers say there will be film screenings of Dickens adaptations going ahead in the UAE as part of Dickens 2012, with details to be announced in coming months.
No doubt audiences will be crossing their fingers for the new Great Expectations from the director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), due out next year, with Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Haversham and Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch alongside the newcomers Holliday Grainger and Jeremy Irvine as Estella and Pip.
Or perhaps they’d rather see the television adaptation of the same story, starring Gillian Anderson and Ray Winstone, which will be aired the same year. It’s part of a BBC season that will include a TV version of Dickens’s last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and radio adaptations of A Tale of Two Cities and Martin Chuzzlewit.
Also touring across 20 countries will be a programme of 12 Dickens films from the archives, including David Lean’s acclaimed productions of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations from the 1940s, an eight-minute fragment of a silent David Copperfield from 1913 and a contemporary BBC Copperfield, starring a young Daniel Radcliffe.
Regardless of which films make it over, the author’s fans in the UAE can expect to be involved in Dickens 2012 one way or another. Schoolchildren will encounter the writer in the classroom – English-language materials including lesson plans and short films looking at heroes and villains are available online – and organisers of the Emirates Airline International Book Festival, which takes place in March in Dubai, are in the process of finalising their Dickens-themed events to tie in with the bicentenary.
Elsewhere, bicentenary events have already begun. At the Morgan Library & Museum in midtown Manhattan, an exhibition of letters, manuscripts, photographs and illustrations called Charles Dickens at 200 opened in September. This month, two major biographies, Becoming Dickens by Robert Douglas Fairhurst and Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, have been published, providing fresh fuel for familiar debates about the strengths and flaws of both the novelist and the man.
It’s already an exciting time for those who treasure Dickens’s stories, but the biggest productions have yet to come. The innovative theatre company Punchdrunk, which has staged immersive shows in the US and UK, is working with London’s Arcola Theatre and artists in Pakistan to create an audio guide reflecting stories of city life in the country, inspired by Dickens’s travel essays. (It is an adaptation of the company’s immersive audio walk The Uncommercial Traveller, which was performed in east London this summer.)
In Berlin, writers and academics including Tomalin, David Nicholls and Toby Litt will congregate in January to ask: “What would Dickens write today?” The three-day conference will be open to the public and promises to be more than simple hero-worshipping: the debate’s chairman, John Mullan, has written of Dickens as “a writer who broke the rules of tasteful composition”, who “revelled in caricature and hyperbole” and “loved the grotesque”. Expect fireworks.
The UAE joins countries as diverse as Iran, Palestine, Zimbabwe, Syria, China and Myanmar in paying its respects to the English writer, showing that while Dickens might have fallen from favour with critics in the past (Oscar Wilde, the author of, among other things, The Nightingale and the Rose, The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant, found him too sentimental), he occupies a pivotal place in the canon today.
Florian Schweizer, the director of the Charles Dickens Museum, believes that the writer’s popularity today is just as great as during his lifetime, and predicts that the 2012 celebrations “will consolidate Dickens’s iconic status as one of the world’s greatest writers”.