The theater, the cinema and ourselves (1947)

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3. DESCRIPTIONS AND THE TYPES DEPART Great expectations hardly lived up to its title and Nicholas nickleby was certainly disappointing, though Dickens was just the kind of author that any film producer would choose—until a few years ago. He anticipated the material of which films were made by a hundred years, his characters were types, drawn with a bold brush—people often remarked "there goes a Dickens character"—he wrote "scenarios", he could be blood-curdling, he could be pathetic. He belonged to an age when to describe was not to destroy but to amuse, the great author was essentially a great describer. But just when the Dickens films were being prepared the cinema became aware that the future held something quite different in store. Types were growing old- fashioned, descriptions tedious. The thunder storms, the blasted heath, the cowering boy, the terrifying ex-convict had little to do with this new world and it was these things that the film makers had arranged to copy in great expectations and copy so truthfully that the film and the original illustrations were almost exactly the same. A bolder production might have tried to re-create Dickens in its own imagination, not merely made an attempt to imitate him. How well the cinema could have given us the opening scene of Mr. Pickwick, the distant hills with the sun bursting through, and a moment later Mr. Pickwick, in the form of say Edmund Gwenn, bursting a very personal radiance through the gap in the windows he had just flung open. Or imagine the death of the clown on the screen. A few years ago the cinema would have tried to out-Dickens Dickens—"a glaze in the eye", "a rattling noise in the throat", "a short stiffled moan", "walls and ceilings alive with reptiles", millions of them. But they would not attempt that now. They would probably give us a clown far more of a whole, far more himself, than a Dickens' character. Dickens wrote with one pair of hands and they were, alas, always his own; the film is capable of give us unexpected surprises, it has begun to create, not merely to impersonate. Of course even the greatest writers sometimes describe types—there are Shake- speare's fops, Sheridan's snobs, Shaw's dummies on which he pinned his witty labels, but these were merely the playthings of the period. With the great parts it was very different. Shylock was Shylock, not just a Jew; and Ophelia's "there's Rosemary, that's for remembrance" is not just "the sort of remark a girl like that would make". It is extraordinary how little effect these descriptive characters have on the life of their times. Galsworthy's skin game, a perfect anecdotal picture, put no brake on the hatred of Jews, nor did Wells's realistic forecasts stop two world wars. Victorian England did not start an immediate crusade to alleviate the miseries that Dickens so vividly described. Perhaps everything was so real that there was no room for anything else, morals were there but so sharply obvious that they seem as petrified as the rest. The Greek love of tragedy as an end in itself was over and one living human being who was not a type and who was not being described might have suggested a better world. 10