Little Dorrit

In the days before the 30-hour miniseries, moviemakers who sought to adapt a lengthy novel were faced with an obvious problem. Charles Dickens, for instance, was a particular hurdle; how does one boil down the teeming, sprawling brilliance of David Copperfield or Pickwick Papers into a two-hour movie?

Somehow it was done, in innumerable adaptations. And, except for the occasional long-form made-for-TV opus, such as the BBC’s recent Bleak House, that’s how it always has been done. Until now.

Little Dorrit runs six and a half hours. Adapted and directed from Dickens by Christine Edzard on a shoestring budget, the film is in two distinct parts, of more than three hours each.

The most intriguing thing about Edzard’s approach is that she tells the story not just in two different ways. Part I, called Nobody’s Fault, covers virtually the entire novel, as it would have been seen through the eyes of one major character, Arthur Clennam.

As the film opens, he returns to England after 20 years abroad. Clennam finds a passion for Amy, the daughter of William Dorrit, who is a resident of the Marshalsea, London’s debtor prison. Clennam begins his own business and endeavors to get Dorrit released from the prison.

The second film, Little Dorrit’s Story, covers the same time from Amy’s point of view. She is born within the walls of the prison and raised there, though it is she who cares for her father and two older siblings. Both films end in the maelstrom surrounding the collapse of the mighty financier, the great Merdle.

The novel is one of Dickens’ greatest, and the characters provide a banquet for actors. Alec Guinness, who made his first major film appearances in David Lean’s versions of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist in the 1940s, plays William Dorrit, the grandiloquent debtor who behaves like a Duke despite his insolvency. Guinness has his great moments, though at the risk of sounding a blasphemous note, I found his performance almost too theatrically florid, even though it is in his character’s nature.

First published in The Herald, October 1988

I’d like to know what I said in the rest of this review, which has been cut off, especially because the film has fallen off the map (it snagged a Screenplay Oscar nomination at the time). Presumably I was about to say more about the cast, which includes Derek Jacobi as Clennam, Joan Greenwood in her final film, and a loooong line of British actors – Miriam Margolyes, if I’m remembering right, has a standout part. Little Dorrit is played by Sarah Pickering, whose only film role this was. My review doesn’t reach a particularly excited pitch (do they ever, really?), but I remember liking the film a lot, and it made my Top Ten list for 1988 – I guess I’m wrong, though, because apparently it came out in the UK in 1987.

2 Responses to Little Dorrit

  1. Bill Treadway says:

    Little Dorrit may have been released in the UK in 1987 but it didn’t reach the US until March 1988 when it played a few film festivals. Which was where The Cannon Group picked it up for US theatrical distribution later in the fall. So putting it on your 1988 Top 10 list was appropriate if you go by US release dates.

    I recorded it off TCM over a decade ago but still haven’t watched it. Both discs are in that growing pile of DVDs and tapes I’ll eventually get to one of these days.

    • roberthorton says:

      Release dates are such a bugaboo. Do check out the disc if you’ve got six hours to kill sometime – it’s a really interesting approach, and the movie has a distinctive look. The background of the director is unusual, if you ever feel like Googling it.

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