Monday, August 20, 2012
Why Dickens' Bleak House resonates today
I stuck both BBC versions of Bleak House in my Netflix queue for a couple of reasons. First, it's a Dickens story that I wasn't familiar with, but I also loved that there were two versions - twenty years apart - with the same number of episodes. (Point of fact: the 1985 version has eight; the 2005 version has an hour-long episode and 14 half-hour episodes, but Netflix streaming combined the shorter ones to make eight, hour-long ones.) I thought it would be interesting to watch both versions simultaneously - an hour from 1985 followed by an hour from 2005, then back again and so on. From a storytelling standpoint, that sounded like a cool way to study different ways of adapting the same material. Sort of like I started doing with A Christmas Carol last year.
I like both versions a lot, for different reasons. The 1985 version does an excellent job of hammering home the major theme of Dickens' novel, while the 2005 version is better at telling a compelling story with interesting characters. I liked them so much that I bought them and shared them with Diane, who also dug them, but wondered what drew me to the story. That made me stop and think.
Like I said, my initial attraction was a geeky desire to compare adaptations, and I told her that. But that didn't explain why I wanted to watch them both again and share them with her. In order to answer her question, I had to figure out why that was. Once I did that, I wanted to share it here, because the story of Bleak House feels especially timely in 2012.
In Dickensian fashion, there are several plots going on in Bleak House that keep bumping up into each other, but the TV versions reduce them to a couple that are connected by an important, but convoluted and eternal court case called Jarndyce and Jarndyce. An immensely wealthy man named Jarndyce left competing wills when he died and no one's ever been able to figure out who inherits the money. The case has gone on for decades and the only people seeing any money from it are the lawyers. Most of the story focuses on two groups of people connected to the case.
The first is a couple of young people named Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. They're both orphans, so they've been invited to live at Bleak House, the estate of John Jarndyce, who also has a theoretical stake in the case. Mr. Jarndyce has plenty of his own money though and is resolved not to pursue his interests in the inheritance. He's seen what doing so has done to other people (including his own great-uncle, who killed himself) because they invest everything they have in legal fees to get at money they'll likely never see. Since Ada is a minor and Jarndyce is unmarried, he provides a companion for her, another orphaned ward of his named Esther Summerson.
Meanwhile, another potential heir is Lady Honoria Dedlock. She's the wife of an immensely rich baronet and doesn't particularly care about her inheritance either, but when she expresses unusual interest in the handwriting on some legal documents and then swoons, she arouses the suspicions of her husband's lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn. As Tulkinghorn investigates the handwriting, he begins to uncover deep secrets from Lady Dedlock's life that also impact the group over at Bleak House. Everything comes crashing together in an emotional storm that eventually leads to murder and an excellent mystery. It's a very cool story with a lot of great characters and I recommend both versions to fans of Dickens or just great period dramas.
The 2005 version is the most accessible. It stars Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) as Lady Dedlock, Carey Mulligan (Never Let Me Go, Drive) as Ada Clare, Denis Lawson (Wedge from Star Wars, among many other things I'm embarrassed not to have known about) as Jarndyce, and Charles Dance (The Golden Child, Alien 3, Gosford Park, Game of Thrones) as Tulkinghorn. It's fast-paced and - like I said earlier - does an outstanding job bringing these characters to life in a relatable way. If you're only going to watch one, this is the one.
Don't ignore the 1985 version though. It stars Diana Rigg (The Avengers TV show, On Her Majesty's Secret Service) as Lady Dedlock and Denholm Elliott (Raiders of the Lost Ark, A Room with a View) as Jarndyce. What it does better than the '05 version is showing how insidious not only the court case is, but the entire legal system of Victorian England. It's unsubtle about doing so, but then, Dickens isn't known for his restraint in pointing out social problems of his day. When Denholm Elliott rages against lawyers and compares them to vampires - sucking not only money from their clients, but hopes and dreams as well - there's no question about how we're supposed to feel. Practically every character in the '85 version is presented in relation to their feelings about the legal system, even when - for some of them - those feelings change. The '85 version fully embraces Dickens' sense of melodrama, with all the advantages and disadvantages that entails.
By highlighting that theme in a really obvious way, the '85 version helped me to see why I love not just these two adaptations, but Dickens' story so much (I've just started reading the novel now). At its heart, Bleak House is about people trying to persevere against a powerful system that exerts a great deal of control over them. In the U.S. right now, it may not be the legal system as much as the banking or health care systems, but I envy the attitude of Jarndyce and the other Bleak House characters who are able to reject the oppressive in favor of living lives of revolutionary kindness and charity. Of course, they're all crazy rich, so they can afford to buck the system, but it's still an inspirational reminder that things need not be the way they are.