Charles Dickens, that bane of junior high and high school students across the world, is notoriously difficult to adapt. His novels are long and dense of florid prose and plot, the nuances of which are often lost in cinematic translations. There is a reason why A Christmas Carol is the Dickens novel that receives the best, most well-praised adaptations. Its brevity makes for an easy transition to the screen.
Not so much with David Copperfield. Sure, they’ve tried. Kind of a lot. The earliest cinematic adaptation of Dickens’ semi-autobiographical tale about a young boy with dreams of being a writer came in 1911, though not many of them have hit the mark. There’s always a stuffiness to the adaptations that belies that moments of levity Dickens imbued his tale with.
Which is, perhaps, why Armando Iannucci’s adaptation, The Personal History of David Copperfield, feels so fresh and exciting. Key to this adaptation is the memory that Dickens was, on occasion, hilarious. We tend to associate Dickens with the worst of the Victorian Era, his characters replete with soot stains and suffering. As such, we tend to forget how funny he often was.
Dev Patel stars as the titular character, bringing the appropriate sense of wonder to the character who navigates the perilous and often amusing world of Victorian London. Most importantly, he brings an appropriate sense of wide-eyed wonderment to the role, one appropriate for what is, ultimately, one of Dickens’ most uplifting tales.
Iannucci, director of irreverent films such as The Death of Stalin and In the Loop, as well as the creator of Veep, brings his charms out in full force for The Personal History of David Copperfield. While not quite irreverent, he does show his adeptness at the madcappery that does mark certain sections of the novel. He is helped endlessly by the strength of his cast, which includes the likes of Peter Capaldi as Mr. Micawber, Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick, and Tilda Swinton as Aunt Betsey (just to name a few).
It all adds up to a vivaciousness that is impossible to ignore. Dickens has rarely felt so alive as he does in The Personal History of David Copperfield, and never has he been more accessible. At its core, his novel was about the need for individuals to take charge not just of their lives, but of their stories. What Iannucci, and frequent screenwriting partner Simon Blackwell, have done is strip the novel down to its most essential elements to create a veritable wonderland of joy in which to play around in.
Even as the story gets dark (it is, if nothing else, still Dickens) Iannucci and his cast never lose sight of how ultimately uplifting and empowering the story is. There’s an almost musical sensibility to this staging that embraces not just the power of the narrative but also the empowering message that drives it.
Their technique does, of course, mean that several well-known and beloved moments are left out of the story, a move that will no doubt annoy purists. But, by the end of the film, it’s so hard to not be rapt by the swells choreographed by Iannucci. The end result is one of the best adaptations of Dickens to hit the scene in decades, and a heartfelt reminder of how relevant that author and his works can still be.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is now playing in select theaters.