Charles Dickens’ great masterpiece David Copperfield begins with uncertainty:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
With those few words the author gives us one of the most memorable lines to be found in 19th-century fiction and gets us thinking about who or what a hero might be.
A new film version of the novel is about to open in cinemas in the UK after being premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019 and opening the 63rd BFI London Film Festival the following month to glowing reviews. Written by Armando Ianucci and Simon Blackwell, the movie stars Dev Patel in the title role, who – as producer Kevin Loader told The Guardian, is one of those “actors who are capable of embodying the character as perfectly as possible, regardless of their ethnicity”.
The young Copperfield certainly shows some heroic promise: he’s an orphan – which is often a good start for a Victorian hero – and he manages to walk from London to Dover alone as a young boy to extricate himself from a life of dull labour. But he also lacks a certain amount of agency: Copperfield is buffeted around by chance and coincidence, relying on the hospitality and generosity of those he meets. So the strange and eccentric characters he encounters also operate as heroes to him.
We could argue, in fact, that the book meditates on the necessity of everyday heroism in a world that is often cruel and unfair. Copperfield witnesses these acts of generosity from early on in his life. When he visits Daniel Peggotty (his beloved nurse’s brother) Copperfield openly admires his heroism in offering a home to his orphaned nephew and niece and to the morbidly depressed widow, Mrs Gummidge.
Copperfield soon has cause to rely on this sort of heroism himself – when he too is orphaned, set to work, and then runs away to throw himself on the mercy of his aunt. His aunt, the eccentric Betsey Trotwood, adopts Copperfield, having already taken on the care of the troubled but amiable Mr Dick, who had been destined for life in an asylum when emotionally traumatised by an undisclosed event in his past.
And of course, we must admire the ultimate heroism shown by Ham who drowns attempting to rescue the shipwrecked Steerforth – seducer of Ham’s beloved Little Em’ly. Fostering children, prison visiting, care for the elderly, the homeless, and the mentally unwell, are the acts of heroism that make Copperfield’s life liveable. They are the stitches through which a 19th-century society, without the mechanisms of a modern welfare state, holds itself together.
Of course, the novel also has plenty of antiheroes, most memorably the sadistic Edward Murdstone, who squelches Copperfield’s childhood freedoms, and the insidious Uriah Heep, who defrauds Copperfield’s family. At times the novel’s small individual acts of heroism seem to be overwhelmed by forces of wrongdoing, indifference and ignorance represented by characters such as those two.
But, of course, this is Dickens – and the way in which David Copperfield’s plotlines come together reveals Dickens’ vision of the world as interconnected. The handy coincidences of converging plots are not just a sop to satisfy mawkish readers, but an embodiment of Dickens’ philosophy.
In the preface to his magazine, Household Words, Dickens tells us that he wants literature to: “bring the greater and the lesser in degree, together … and mutually dispose them to a better acquaintance and a kinder understanding”. By inculcating sympathy with others in his fiction, Dickens thought he could encourage minor acts of heroism such as those that run through the plotlines of David Copperfield.
The new film version promises to give us an energetic and modern re-working and has received 11 British Independent Film Awards nominations, including best screenplay and best actor.
By all accounts it will entertain us with its fast-paced frolics through a diverse Victorian London and its cast of eccentrics played by Hollywood stars including Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood, Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick and Peter Capaldi as the incorrigible Mr Micawber. But it will also show us the poverty, child labour and homelessness that form the backdrop to Copperfield’s early life.
Ianucci’s film is part of a long succession of adaptations. As soon as the novel was published, adaptors began working on stage versions. It was actually the Little Em’ly fallen woman sub-plot that had most appeal for Victorian theatregoers who were already more than familiar with the poverty of industrial London.
More recent film versions of Dickens’ novels have had to make similar choices about which of Dickens’ multiple plotlines should be emphasised. David McGrath’s 2002 adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby favoured the joyful romp over the brutality of the novel’s early scenes. But McGrath’s Nickleby retains more of the Dickensian sentimentality than seems to be the case in the new David Copperfield.
The snappy trailer gives a curt but comic announcement of the death of Copperfield’s mother, whereas the novel narrates the deathbed scene in a chapter I defy anyone to read without crying. Even Dora, Copperfield’s young wife, apparently receives a reprieve from her untimely fate in the new film.
Screenwriters and directors have become wary of Dickensian sentimentality but I hope that this new version of Dickens’ own favourite novel retains those links of sympathy and acts of everyday heroism that bind the novel together. If it shows us a hero navigating his way through a difficult world aided by humour, eccentricity and kindness it will be an adaptation that sends us back to the novel to locate those elements once again in Dickens’ work.