Adapting Dickens for an appJuly 9, 2012 Exhibitions
Joanna Robinson looks back at the creation of the Dickens: Dark London app. Joanna is a PhD student working collaboratively with the Museum of London and the English department at King’s College, London.
There must be a strange sense of anticlimax when an exhibition ends. Museum staff have followed Dickens and London through every stage – the months of research and careful planning, the hype surrounding its opening, and finally (as of Sunday 10 June 2012) an empty space where it has been. Yet this one is special, as even after the exhibit is dismantled Dickens and London will leave two of its own relics to tell future generations of its existence. The first is William Raban’s film The Houseless Shadow, and the second is the app developed to work alongside the exhibition, Dickens: Dark London.
There has been such an explosion of Dickens-related adaptations, documentaries, and exhibitions this year that the first concern of the team building the app was to do something new and exciting. The app offers an innovative and unique way to engage with Dickens, partly because it is interactive. Each issue is plotted onto a map of London in 1862, which links in with google maps on your phone, and is overlaid with modern satellite images of the capital, so that you can trace how the city has changed and links our own era to that of Dickens.
Yet when you tap on one of the hotspots on the map, you are taken to editions of a unique graphic novel, which follows Dickens as a character as he wanders through the streets of London. The interactive nature of the app made it possible for users to compare Dickens’s account to their experience of the modern metropolis. For example, edition one uses a sketch focused on an iconic part of London’s topography, the Seven Dials in Covent Garden. Nothing could be so different from Dickens’s representation of poverty and depravity as the now gentile and exclusive location of boutique shops and expensive accommodation.
Dickens and London laid emphasis on the darker elements in Dickens’s writing, and the direction for the app aimed to recreate this mood. The illustrator for the app, David Foldvari, conveys a sinister style in his portrayal of 19th century London; he likes to work from photographs but then changes them into grotesque caricatures, much like Dickens’s writing. His starting point was a selection of engravings from the era to help him build an imaginative picture of how London used to look. He would send his draft illustrations and then any glaring historical errors would be fed back – for example where characters should have smoked clay-pipes rather than cigarettes – but a certain amount of artistic licence was granted, as it still had to have the feel of a graphic novel. Dickens’s fictionalised city was thus re-imagined through the darkness of this medium and the result is grimy and visceral.
The next debate was how to bring these illustrations to life. It was decided that if we could get a well-known actor to read as Dickens’s narrative voice then the app would prove accessible to an even wider audience. We were lucky enough to enlist the help of Mark Strong, whose success in villainous roles assured us that he would be able to do dark well. Even so, during the recording sessions the direction was always to make his voice darker and gloomier still. So much so that he joked his wife was teasing him about it, but the result made Dickens come to life in a completely new way.
Each adaptation of Dickens has claimed its place in the bicentenary celebrations, but I think that this app has a particular resonance with his original publications: it appears in a serialised format, it is illustrated, it is accessible, but most importantly it moves. The choice to follow Dickens through the streets in a graphic format is precisely what his original writing invites the reader to do. We observe with him the changing scenes that he responds to, and can appreciate that throughout his life Dickens was never responding to a static landscape.
You can download Dickens: Dark London from iTunes. The first edition, Seven Dials, is free while each remaining edition is available to download at £1.49.