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Charles Dickens' 200th birthday: Ralph Fiennes helps set the stage

February 7, 2012 |  6:27 am
Charles Dickens
Tuesday will be a Dickens of a day. Feb. 7 marks the bicentennial of Charles Dickens birth, and plenty of celebrations are planned on both sides of the Atlantic for the literary superstar. Britain's National Film Theatre is holding a retrospective, and a ceremony will be held at London's Westminster Abbey starring actor-director Ralph Fiennes, who, along with Helena Bonham Carter, will act in the latest film version of “Great Expectations,” out next year.

On this side of the pond, New York’s Morgan Library & Museum is showcasing "Dickens at 200," a collection of the writer’s manuscripts, photographs, illustrations and caricatures. The museum also notes that Dickens, who penned 15 major novels, has inspired more film, TV and stage adaptations (about 320, if you’re counting) than any other writer, even Jane Austen. 

“What sustained his success were these larger-than-life characters he was able to create,” says exhibition curator Declan Kiely. “There were 989 named characters in Dickens' fiction. … He was powerful in depicting childhood experiences, and he wrote childhood characters that adult readers could identify with.”

PHOTOS: Unique Charles Dickens adaptations

All of Dickens' works moved from page to stage in his lifetime, with the author sometimes making cameos. “Dickens was inspiring stage adaptations before the ending of his novels were published,” says Kiely. When the novelist came to the States in 1867 for a reading tour, he was met with a host of East Coast theaters playing his books from Baltimore to New York.

Fast-forward a century or so, and staged versions of Dickens works have racked up dozens of awards, making him a favorite novelist among modern-day playwrights.

“The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” an eight-hour stage play based on Dickens' novel by the same name, opened in 1980 at the Aldwych Theatre in London and eventually earned Roger Rees a Tony Award for his portrayal of the title role. “Oliver!” — Lionel Bart’s musical based on Dickens' second book, “Oliver Twist” — premiered in London’s West End in 1960 and three years later landed on Broadway, where it garnered 10 Tony nods. The 1968 film of the musical won the Oscar for best picture.

Dickens' own story wasn’t too far from his tale of the orphan boy. The rags-to-riches writer was born in 1812 near Portsmouth, England, and at 12 worked in a shoe-polish factory while his father served time in debtor's prison. In 1833, Dickens started writing short stories and essays for periodicals and 10 years later penned stage staple, “A Christmas Carol,” which has forever changed the way theaters celebrate the holiday.

“The book was published Dec. 19, and by mid-January, it was already on stage,” says Kiel. “It’s an example of how theaters could quickly adapt to his work.”

The novelist died in 1870 shy of completing "The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” inspired by contemporary writer Wilkie Collins, but Dickens' unfinished work still made it to the stage. Rupert Holmes’ Tony-winning play by the same name was the first musical with a fill-in-the-blank ending, with each performance dictated by an audience vote. 

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— Jamie Wetherbe

Image: Charles Dickens. Credit: Gale Research Co.

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