Celebrate Charles Dickens' Birthday with These On-Screen Portrayals

Albumen photograph of Charles Dickens, circa 1860s. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Public Domain)
Albumen photograph of Charles Dickens, circa 1860s. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Public Domain)

Iconic British author Charles Dickens was born in Plymouth, England on February 7, 1812, he is regarded as one of the greatest novelists in the English language. His timeless plotlines are simultaneously brimming with commentary on the social ills of the Victorian era.

It is Dickens’ richly drawn characters, however, that are arguably the most memorable aspect of his storytelling.  When I say the names Oliver Twist, Miss Havisham or Ebenezer Scrooge, you can probably conjure a image in your head based on the book you read or, just as likely, from one of the many screen adaptations of those stories. Can you say the same of the creator of these iconic characters?

There are plenty of Dickens biographies out there and, as one who works in a library, I encourage you to read as many as you like. Nonetheless, in honor of the anniversary of his birth, I’ve tracked down a number of film and television portrayals of Charles Dickens. Some are more autobiographical than others and the actors portraying him vary greatly, but together they demonstrate that an author born over two centuries ago is still relevant and beloved by people today. 

The Man Who Invented Christmas

This 2017 film follows the rather magical journey of how Dickens created a classic Christmas tale which helped transform a second-rate holiday into the celebration we know today. Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey and Beauty and the Beast) plays the celebrated writer struggling to finish the manuscript of A Christmas Carol in time for publication.

 

The Invisible Woman

A historical biopic, 2013’s The Invisible Woman tells the story of a secret love affair carried on by Dickens though the final quarter of his life.

Having become disillusioned with his intellectually unstimulating wife, Charles (Ralph Fiennes) falls for an 18-year-old actress. He finds in Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) a soul mate who shares his interests and passions.

 

Doctor Who

In the 2005 episode, "The Unquiet Dead", Dickens becomes an action hero of sorts. The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) have traveled back - quite by mistake - to 1869 Cardiff.  Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) happens to be doing a reading of A Christmas Carol in a nearby music hall when he is interrupted by a ghostly apparition. But this is no Jacob Marley! Some gaseous aliens are looking for new bodies to inhabit and the Doctor recruits his favorite writer to help in vanquishing the Gelth.

 

The Charles Dickens Show

Did you know Mr. Dickens was a chat show host? Well in 2012, BBC Learning commissioned a Victorian daytime spoof show which discussed topical subjects such as workhouses, health conditions and child labor.  A-list guests like Lord Shaftsbury, Florence Nightingale and the royal couple, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert also made appearances. Charles Dickens was played by Jeff Rawle who you might recognize from Doc Martin or as Cedric Diggory’s dad in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

(Also of possible interest, Sherlock’s very own Molly Hooper, Louise Brealey produced, co-wrote and appeared as several characters in the show.)

 

Quacks

Speaking of Sherlock, Moriarty himself, Andrew Scott made a recent cameo appearance as the celebrated writer. In Quacks, a 2017 sitcom about four medical pioneers in Victorian England, Dickens appears to be quite enamored of his celebrity, actively seeking praise and flattery.

 

Horrible Histories

If you’re not aware, Horrible Histories is a brilliantly entertaining children’s program that teaches the truth about history using live-action sketches, music videos and animation all with a healthy dose of parody.

In this bit, Matthew Baynton (The Wrong Mans and You, Me and the Apocalypse) is a Morrisey-inspired Charles Dickens, telling his life story though his 80’s indie rock stylings.

 

Thus ends our birthday tribute to Dickens.  This is just a sampling of the many portrayals of the famous author out there.

Other actors who have donned the distinctive facial hair and Victorian garb include Anthony Hopkins, Ben Cross and The Great Gonzo (in A Muppet Christmas Carol, obviously). Please share your favorite works of Dickens, page or screen, in the comments below!