Nicholas Nickleby was Charles Dickens’ third novel, and it appeared in installments in 1838 and 1839. The novel has been adapted for stage, film and television a number of times, including an unauthorized stage version before the final installment of the novel came out. Dickens took offense at that version, which concluded the story in a way he didn’t like. He added a character to the novel who wrote unauthorized adaptations, and had Nicholas condemn the practice. An extraordinary ten-hour version of the novel was performed in the West End of London in 1980 and on Broadway in 1981 by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The director Douglas McGrath decided to proceed with the picture after positive audience response to a staged reading of his screenplay in New York. The sprawling novel features a vast number of characters. This movie has eliminated some characters and some elements of the novel’s plot. The setting of the novel was moved forward from the 1830s to the 1850s, at the request of the production designer Eve Stewart, who wanted to include elements of the Industrial Revolution in her designs. The music by Rachel Portman very much underlines the emotional effect of the movie.
This twenty-first century film version of a Dickens novel repeats a feature we have seen in this series since the 1930s MGM pictures with which we started: a talented ensemble cast depicting Dickens’ often larger-than-life characters. Charlie Hunnam is featured as Nicholas. Some of the other actors are Jamie Bell, Christopher Plummer, Anne Hathaway, Tom Courtenay, Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Romola Garai, Nathan Lane, and Barry Humphreys, the last in one of his signature cross-gender roles. Roger Ebert said “The movie is exciting and brimming with life, and wonderfully well-acted.” You couldn’t really ask for more than that, so I hope you enjoy watching Nicholas Nickleby with me tonight.