Following William Raban – is voiceover the future for Dickens adaptation?May 1, 2012 About my museum job, Blogs, Exhibitions
Inspired by William Raban’s film Nightwalks, currently showing in our Dickens and London exhibition, PhD student, Joanna, explores the implications of voiceover in retelling Dickens’ stories for a modern day audience. Joanna Robinson is a PhD student working collaboratively with the Museum of London and the English department at King’s College, London.
Lurking in a dark corner of the Dickens and London exhibition, I bide my time. Ready at a moment’s notice to spring forth and pounce upon some unsuspecting member of the public, brandishing a questionnaire. William Raban’s film, The Houseless Shadow, is the exhibition’s final flourish and clearly makes an impact – I know because everyone stays seated throughout, exiting en masse when the film finishes and sending me into a questionnaire-touting frenzy!
The Houseless Shadow aims to expose links between the city of Charles Dickens and life in our modern metropolis by overlaying Raban’s film of the city at night with Dickens’ famous essay, Night Walks. Those kind enough to put up with a few questions from me were all impressed by the film, and had been convinced that Dickens’ topicality endures. Londoners in particular felt a peculiar affinity with the film, in a similar way to the old maps of London – almost as if these artefacts allowed them to reclaim a close relationship with Dickens through the city, despite the distance of two centuries. Yet although the film helped to create a sense of ownership over the city through voyeurism, and brought some people to Dickens through this, a London postcode was not a limiting factor. Everyone wanted a piece of Dickens! It was fascinating to witness how people looked for a personal or family connection to Dickens in the exhibition, yet whether through a familiarity of place, or a concern with continuing social issues, most people found this through the film.
This made me wonder whether Raban’s film could start a new breed of Dickens adaptations. I am as easily pleased by extravagant costumes and a happy ending as the next person, but let’s face it most of Dickens has been done to death. And despite this somehow the adaptation never seems to approach the brilliance of Dickens’ writing! Of course, the original has authority by default, and it would be impossible (and dull) to try to attempt a word for word adaptation. Earlier this year I attended a talk by Simon Callow, where he suggested that the reason adaptations fail, and similarly why Dickens’ writing for the stage was so awful, is because they exclude his narrative voice. This is certainly necessary – any attempts I have seen to include Dickens’ voice always make me cringe. Like when the BBC’s most recent version of Bleak House had Denis Lawson look moodily out of a window as he soliloquised: ‘Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen…’ etc, I could only reply ‘oh why, Denis, why?!’ Could it be that a voiceover could solve this problem?
Although voiceovers in movies are generally scorned by film buffs, the narrative voice in Raban’s film allowed people a novel perspective on Dickens that was (in my brief survey) universally well-received. People at the exhibition praised its freshness, and the new relevance it brought to Dickens’ work. Raban’s success in bringing Dickens into conversation with the modern city undoubtedly influences these favourable reviews, yet The Houseless Shadow is also striking for reintroducing Dickens’ narrative voice to film. Night Walks features some of Dickens’ finest writing, so it could be argued that this mode would not translate well across all of his oeuvre – but imagine how much better a voiceover would have been than just putting Dickens’ words into the mouth of a character! Others may argue that voiceovers would detract from the realism of adaptations, but to them I say – this is fiction. It is Dickens’ unique voice that keeps us reading him today, so why shouldn’t it keep us watching him too?
You can catch Nightwalks by William Raban within the Dickens and London exhibition at the Museum of London until 10 June 2012.