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Alastair Sim was Scrooge in the 1951 version of Dickens' ‘A Christmas Carol.’

Mr. Movie: What the Dickens

I wondered how many films had been made from the works of Charles Dickens, perhaps the greatest story-teller who ever wrote. Would you believe more than 50? Would you believe that Mr. Movie can pull the very best ones up for you? But of course.


Let’s start with Oliver Twist (1948) with Alec Guiness as Fagin and Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger. It’s the best of several versions. Roman Polanski’s 2005 version with Ben Kingsley as Fagin is not even close. I thought Polanski was a little nuts to even try a remake, and sure enough it is a tepid failure. 


And then there’s the wonderful Oliver! (1968), a musical version that won Best Movie and five other Oscars. It features Mark Lester as Oliver, Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger, Ron Moody as Fagin and a menacing Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes. If you haven’t seen at least one of these films about the beloved orphan, your life really isn’t complete.


Of the many versions of A Christmas Carol, I vote for the 1951 version, which delightfully crams the story into 86 minutes and features Alistair Sim as the best Scrooge ever. Beware colorization of this classic and stay away from the dreadful modernized version, Scrooged (1988).


As well-loved (and well-known) is Dickens’ autobiographical masterpiece, David Copperfield. PBS has had at least two versions, both excellent, and the format of a mini-series is a good one for this rather long tale. But the 1935 Hollywood version is splendid, with W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber, Basil Rathbone as Mr. Murdstone, Freddie Bartholomew as the young David, and Robert Young as the loathsome Uriah Heep. There’s a new one — The Personal History of David Copperfield. But, OK, I haven’t seen I yet.


Nicholas Nickleby is Dickens’ scathing and moving revelation of 19th century British orphanages. There’s a 1982 Royal Shakespeare Company version that ran on PBS and can be found on DVD that’s one of the best things I ever saw. It has Roger Rees as Nicholas, Ben Kingsley as Squeers and an incredibly young (and hateful) Timothy Spall as young Wackford. So imagine my amazement when the Brits remade Nicholas in 2002, and did a bang-up job. When Nicholas joins a travellng theater company containing more hams than a Chicago slaughterhouse, you’ll laugh, and when he helps the stricken Smike, you may shed a tear.


Great Expectations features the intrepid Pip trying to make his way in a very hostile world. A modern version (1998) with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t too bad, but the 1946 version with John Mills, Finlay Currie and Alec Guinness is one of the finest movies of a Dickens work.


Also definitely worth a look are the 1935 version of A Tale of Two Cities with heart throb Ronald Coleman, and the episodic and loveable Pickwick Papers (1954). 


All of the movies in this article are available on DVD. All are fine for 8 and up.