Dickens turns 200. ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ (1912) celebrates the silence

In case you missed it (I did), it was Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday on Feb. 7 — and in light of the English writer’s mega-stardom, people all over the world are celebrating. Dickens 2012, as the official celebration of the author’s “bicentenary” is named, is just one long party. Think of it as an intellectual Feb Club (and Jan Club and March Club): multiple events will be thrown each day of for the remainder of February, in addition to the daily events that have occurred this past January and that will continue through March.

Here at Yale, of course the celebrations will ensue. On Saturday, the Yale Center for British Art will screen “Nicholas Nickleby” (1912), directed by George Nichols. It is one of earliest film adaptations of Dickens’ famous novel by the same name. The plot follows a young man named Nicholas Nickleby, as he struggles to support his mother and sister after the death of his father. The film condenses the long story into a mere 20 minutes — silently.

The YCBA’s choice to screen the silent version, one of the less popular and lesser-known film versions of “Nicholas Nickleby,” is an astutely relevant decision. Look at the Academy Awards: the current Oscar front runner for Best Picture is “The Artist,” a French silent film that originally didn’t make the competition at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Right before the festival launched, it was moved into the competition category and ultimately lost. But when the film’s lead actor, John Dujardin, took home Best Actor, “The Artist” blew up in popularity. If it wins an Oscar, it’ll be the first silent picture to do so in nearly a century, when the first Academy Awards were held in 1929.

“Nicholas Nickleby” is a little different. On the most basic level, it attempts to fit Dickens’ novel into a small chunk of time. The novel is already popularly criticized for its lack of plot development, and to have such a short film perpetuates this original criticism. The film, too, struggles to connect with a modern audience, who understandably takes the sound revolution of the late 1920s for granted. For many of us, film depends on a combination of audio and picture, and “Nicholas Nickleby” provides only half. To the viewer with less taste for the finer points of this classical form of cinema, the combination of lack of sound and century-old film technique hampers full appreciation.

But the film skillfully utilizes the limited techniques of the early 1900s. The background settings are not simply painted sets as was typical of the time, but are naturally built environments. The characters, too, are clear, defined, and personable without too much help or interruption from captions. Even more, the short length is unlike other depictions of “Nicholas Nickleby” and allows the film to be comprehensible and digestible in a short 20 minutes. Other stage performances of the novel have been said to last upwards of eight hours, with multiple meals served as respites. While all shots are taken from a static camera, it’s important to evaluate the film in its historical context with the technological limitations of the times.

Ultimately, “Nicholas Nickleby” is both culturally relevant and a well-selected choice. The YCBA has outdone itself in screening such a rare interpretation of Dickens’ third novel — you’re unlikely to encounter this rarity anywhere else. Silent film is seeing its resurgence, and so is Dickens’ memory.

Happy 200th, Mr. Charles Dickens.

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