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Why do Dickens characters still resonate 200 years on?

Peter Jeary / NBC News

A bust of Charles Dickens in the author's former home in London, now a museum.


LONDON – Having fallen victim to a pickpocket on my journey through London this morning, it feels curiously appropriate that Tuesday marks the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens.  The great chronicler of Victorian England's underworld would probably have been amused – and literally inspired – as I was adroitly parted from my cell phone.

As the country tips its collective hat to celebrate his 200th birthday – Prince Charles is leading ceremonies by laying a wreath on the writer's grave and actor Ralph Fiennes will give a reading, among other notable events – I wonder why does this most "modern" crime feel so immediately "Dickensian" in nature? Why do the settings, such as the workhouse of Oliver Twist, and characters, such as Ebenezer Scrooge, which Dickens drew in word portraits, still resonate today?

I believe the answer lies in the fact that millions in the English-speaking world – and countless more who don't speak English as a first language – are able to conjure up a name, plot or title for something associated with Charles Dickens. But here's the rub – it is the transformation of his work into other media that has fuelled this ubiquity.

Peter Jeary / NBC News

Billboard for an 1837 theatrical production based on 'The Pickwick Papers.'

At my English elementary school, our rare cultural day-trips were reserved for worthy matters.  In one case, there was a trip to the movie theater to see a black-and-white screening of Great Expectations, which opens in the bleak landscape of the Kent marshes. 

Just a few years later, Lionel Bart's stage-musical-turned-Academy-Award-winning Oliver! transported me to an equally strange Technicolor world, where Victorian London encountered the Swinging Sixties. 

The start and end of my teenage years were marked, like solid wooden bookends holding up a shelf-full of Dickens books, by Smike (a musical TV adaptation from Nicholas Nickleby) and Nicholas Nickleby itself – an eight-hour stage epic, in two parts, written by David Edgar and produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Google pays tribute to Dickens with a special 'doodle'

And so it transpired that I felt like an expert in Dickens, without ever having read a word.  The Jeary family volume of A Christmas Carol remained unopened for many years, apart from the well-thumbed pages with illustrations.

Peter Jeary / NBC News

Dickens acting the part of Captain Bobadil in an amateur production, portrayed in an engraving of an 1846 painting by C.R. Leslie.

To a large degree, the blame must lie with Dickens himself.  He was a keen amateur actor, and adored his staged readings and lecture tours. His work was so "theatrical" it was often pirated – illicitly transformed into a stage rendition before the serialization was complete. 

The plots and settings are quintessentially cinematic – there are around 100 known movies dating from the silent-movie era based on Dickens' novels.  He is also, without question, one of greatest authors of flawed characters in English literature. 

As the Archbishop of Canterbury said at Tuesday's service at Westminster Abbey to honor Dickens, "the figures we remember most readily from his works are the great grotesques.  We have, we think, never met anyone like them – and then we think again." 

And so it was inevitable that Miss Havisham, Smallweed and Sir Leicester Dedlock would creep in to the common psyche, as the TV mini-series became the modern-day literary periodical.

These media transformations produce incredible interest in Dickens and his literature.  The London Museum has a special Dickens exhibition that's proving hugely popular and the line for the Charles Dickens Museum – right around the corner from the NBC London bureau  – ran out the passage and down the street (the fact they were offering free birthday cupcakes may have had something to do with it).

Peter Jeary / NBC News

A bookcase in the author's London home, now the Charles Dickens Museum.

The trouble is, as wonderful as adaptations are, they can never recreate the complexity and density of the original.  Reading Dickens is like embarking on the trans-Siberian railway-- a marathon journey encountering multiple characters in unfolding landscapes.  I remember feeling punch-drunk upon completing my first full read-through of a novel (Bleak House) and still need to be in the right frame of mind before starting a new one.

But there is something compelling and inspiring about his writing that becomes infectious. I have made my own dismal attempt to adapt Martin Chuzzlewit for the stage, but it's proving hellishly difficult; so unfortunately "Pecksniff and Pinch" won't be at a theater near you anytime soon... but please keep an eye out for my cell phone.