Great expectations for brand Dickens

Charles Dickens' bicentenary next year is set to make a fortune.

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There is a cartoon of Charles Dickens from 1868, when he was filling theatre halls to the rafters with the most sensational, most lucrative of book tours across America. He is shown standing with his manager, George Dolby, disgruntled as he counts the skyscraper-high piles of dollar bills on the table, and ruing the fact he has not earned more.

The Victorian writer was, by this time, in his commercial stride, a celebrity earning the equivalent of around £30,000 a night in a dynamic one-man act in which he regularly knocked out his "greatest hits" – scenes from A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and Nell Trent's death from The Old Curiosity Shop – to the delight of rapt audiences. This snide, satirising cartoon, that now hangs in the Dickens Museum, reflects how the American press came to see him by the end of the tour – as an author who did little to hide the sharp commercial voracity that ran alongside his abundant literary talent.

Little has changed since 1868. The Dickens brand is as big and as powerful a cultural export as ever, beloved abroad and on the verge of making yet more skyscraper-shaped piles of cash for his bicentenary next year, which coincides with the Olympics and the Queen's jubilee, and which is being globally marketed alongside these two mammoth events.

The Dickens brand will be big business on the home front – there is a bewildering amount of exhibitions, debates, films and plays launching throughout 2012, and an equally dazzling array for overseas audiences. The British Library, Museum of London, and British Film Institute have begun early by staging some of their Dickens fare this month. The British Council is hosting events in 50 countries and Dickens 2012, the umbrella group co-ordinating festivities, anticipates a rewarding return investment.

Florian Schweizer, director of the Dickens Museum and Dickens 2012, explains that, while the latter does not have a central budget, a comparison could be made with the 250th anniversary of Mozart staged in Vienna in 2006, to show the cumulative cost that such campaigns can have.

The budget of £21m (£18m) for the Mozart celebrations in Vienna reaped enormous return dividends through inward tourism – £43m with wider economic production value at £300m. The celebrations led to a hike in Austrian GDP and increased employment.

"It's always difficult to put a value on cultural activity but I can see the Dickens bicentenary being comparable to the Mozart celebrations. Our celebrations will stretch from New York to Zurich to Paris to Toronto. There will be activities in London, Kent and Portsmouth, so it will also stimulate internal tourism. We have the Olympics, the Queen's jubilee and the Dickens bicentenary named alongside each other as the three key events of 2012. The three will feed into each other to the point that it will be almost difficult to pull them apart," says Schweizer. Dickens would undoubtedly have approved. In his lifetime, he had a strong relationship to the money-making machine around him, however distasteful this may have seemed to the American press. Money was important to him, especially given that his father, a clerk in the Navy, spent much of his life overspending, in debt, and imprisoned for it. Dickens aimed to live by the same dictum as the fictional Mr Micawber, who correlated money with happiness in David Copperfield: "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

The young Dickens was hugely insecure about money. He feared his writing would stop appealing to the public and wrote letters in the 1840s citing Sir Walter Scott's fate; as a celebrated, wealthy writer of his time, he died without leaving his family financially secure. Juliet John, Professor of Victorian literature at Liverpool University, and author of Dickens and Mass Culture, says he wrote letters about money all the time. "When he did public readings, which were really PR tours, from the 1850s onwards, he would write to friends literally characterising the audience as pounds or dollars."

The first time he found himself financially secure was 1846, at the age of 34, when he was no longer at the mercy of debtors nor obliged to his publishers. He had become a classic rags-to-riches story – his own Pip. By this time, he had children who proved to be as improvident as his father as well as two households to keep – that of his estranged wife, and his mistress. He fought for copyright in Britain so that his children could receive an income after his death.

Alex Werner, curator at the Museum of London, who has co-written Dickens's Victorian England 1839-1901, published next week, says his work was so popular that, even before a serialised story was complete, theatre managers were staging full productions with their own endings. "He got very cross with these unauthorised works. Copyright laws were in their infancy. In America, his work was being published in pirate publications."

When he went to America for the second time in 1868, he received a starry welcome, yet his immense popularity did not match his earnings there. In his first public speech, he made mention of this, by opening up the touchy subject of international copyright.

"The Americans didn't understand it when the first thing he spoke about was that, if they didn't introduce international copyright, they would never have a literature of their own, and they'd just steal works... by the time he left, he was seen as a greedy, money-obsessed person," says Schweizer.

Victorian Britain did not hold such a cynical view. His public readings were incredible money-spinners but it was clear that he loved being close to his audience and performing for them. A would-be actor, he would put on different voices for characters.

So what does the Dickens brand represent now, and why has his work thrived, endured and continued to bring in investment?

For one, he is among the very few literary figures, alongside Shakespeare, whose characters have gained a ubiquity across cultures. He is on school curricula as far afield as China and his fiction has infiltrated global lexicons ("Scrooge" is used in the Philippines as a noun, as it is in Britain), while Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's new book, Becoming Dickens, lists Dickensian words which have since entered the vocabulary.

It could also come down to the flexibility of his fiction, which represents different things to different people. "Heritage Dickens" gives us a nostalgic slice of Britain, full of fog and narrow streets. "Campaigning Dickens" flags up urban poverty and social injustices that still exist today.

"Even in his own lifetime, he was a genius at presenting different images of himself to different markets. When he spoke to a working men's institute, he would emphasise his class loyalty. In private letters he would talk of his radicalism but never ... in public," says Professor John.

Not only do his novels cross class divides, encompassing the lives of servants and masters in the way that Shakespeare did before him, but they cuts across genres – so within Great Expectations there is adult and children's fiction as well as adventure, detective and romance narratives, rolled into one. Toby Litt, an author and panellist in a British Council conference in Berlin which will assess Dickens's relevance today, talks of a "unique audience that is not subdivided".

"His appeal crosses generations. It's like Harry Potter, written for children and adopted by adults. That's why he's still there in popular culture," he says. There is a universal kind of "survival struggle" at play in many of the stories, he adds. "His characters are in a world which does not have a welfare state. It's a world without a safety net and they are facing basic problems of getting enough to eat, finding friendship, staying warm – basic problems that people around the world still face." Despite the harsh social realities, some maintain that it is the fossilised version of London that charms international audiences – his street urchins and perennially fog-bound urban landscapes provide a definitive, quintessential version of Englishness that is as instantly recognisable as it is unreal. Litt says this side of Dickens hit him when a writer from Shanghai came to visit.

"It was her first time here and she wanted to see Dickens's London. I couldn't think of where to take her to show her the mud, fog, narrow lanes and high tenements of his fiction. She ended up in Starbucks, looking for men in bowler hats. On her second visit, I took her to the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub on Fleet Street, a distilled bit of Dickens."

This is the "Heritage Dickens" that Professor John says has helped to transform Dickens into an international tourist phenomenon. The regular costume-drama TV adaptations have aided the fossilisation, she says. "Very few of them are done in modern dress, in the way you see many Shakespearean adaptations." Dickens World, the themed area in Kent that includes a Great Expectations log flume, a Haunted House of Ebenezer Scrooge and a play area called Fagin's Den, resurrected the debate around the Disneyfication of Dickens when it was built in 2007, with some writers accusing the owners of putting marketability over artistic integrity.

Mr Schweizer does not dispute that the three components – Dickens, Britishness and the 19th century – have become inseparable to some degree. Yet there is so much more at work in his novels aside from nostalgia, he says. The relevance lies in his description of the urban condition. The Dickens festival in the Netherlands is perhaps the biggest dedicated annual event, with 160,000 people attending, many in period costume. A large number choose to dress up as chimney sweeps and orphans, a reminder of the timeless nature of dispossession and social injustice. "He was one of the first people to write in an age of modernity as someone witnessing the speeding up of life and travel and communication. Dickens's England is one we can relate to," says Schweizer.

Werner offers the same explanation for his international appeal. "His London was the first city of the urban, industrial age and we are still living in that kind of environment, there is still a rich-poor divide, there are still poor housing conditions, there is still the red tape of Bleak House – 1851 was the year of the Great Exhibition in London and Dickens wrote Bleak House as a counterpoint to that celebration. In it was also the debate around supporting charitable works in Africa when there was abject poverty on your doorstep. These big issues are still with us.

"Dickens is incredibly popular in a country like China, perhaps because they are going through a similar experience to 19th-century urban British cities in that the city is sucking people in from the countryside, breaking up the family, and leading people to want to rise up the social scale."

Litt, meanwhile, can see why Dickens is big in America. "His characters take a very American trajectory – they give you the idea that anyone can rise from the bottom and live the dream."

What has been acknowledged as especially remarkable about Dickens's fiction is the ease of its adaptability to film and stage. He is the most adapted novelist on screen and it is undeniably the case that his stories have been kept alive, and made more commercial, through this medium. Television adaptations have followed at a steady flow over the decades.

In fact, it could be argued that Dickens's readers are increasingly not readers at all, but cinema-goers whose favourite Dickensian memories are celluloid ones. Ever since the first adaptation of A Christmas Carol in 1902, film-makers have identified all the markings of cinema language in his work, from montages to cliff-hangers to colourful dialogue to cinematic pace. Sergei Eisenstein, George Bernard Shaw, and DW Griffith contended that Dickens wrote in a cinematic language years before cinema. There is a clear cinematic quality to his description as chapters open with large, framing panoramic sweeps – the widescreen shot – and then home in on the particular – a household, a character, a street.

Anthony Wall, the series editor of BBC's arts strand Arena, has directed Dickens on Film, a documentary which makes a claim for Dickens as the progenitor of film. It will launch the BFI's Dickens on Screen season on 15 December, and be broadcast on television in early January. Wall suggests it is the constant reinterpretation of Dickens on film that has given, and will continue to give, the writer his commercial longevity.

"Dickens lives on as strong as ever but that's as much due to the success of cinema and television adaptations as it is to the book themselves. They're there, unchanging forever, but their stay on film is a fascinating trip through the last 100 years. There's every reason to suppose that will be true of the next 100," he says.

Just great: Best Dickens biographies

Not only meant for newcomers in Dickens's world, but for seasoned travellers there, Claire Tomalin's superb biography stands out as the best general passport issued this year: 'Charles Dickens: a Life' (Viking, £30).

However, the bicentenary year has stocked the shelves with other top-drawer commemorations. Merging biography into criticism, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, in 'Becoming Dickens' (Harvard, £20), asks why, and how, the hyperactive young pretender of the 1830s so suddenly won the superstar status that has never dimmed. In contrast, Dickens's first biographer, John Forster, told the life as an almost predestined ascent to greatness. A sumptuous illustrated abridgement of Forster's 1874 'The Life of Charles Dickens' (Sterling, £30) includes a grand gallery of images. 'Charles Dickens' by his great-great-great granddaughter Lucinda Dickens Hawksley (Andre Deutsch, £30) is an evocative collection of documents; worthwhile shorter books include 'Dickens's Women' by Anne Isba (Continuum, £14.99) and Michael Slater's 'The Genius of Dickens' (Duckworth, £10.99).


David Nicholls: Why I adapted Dickens

"I grew up on the musical 'Oliver'. That was my idea of Dickens. I must have been about 13 or 14 when I took a deep breath and got the rather intimidating book, and found it really engaging.

I moved on to 'Great Expectations' and thought it was an extraordinary book that I could identify with very much. I found it engaging, exciting and very touching, even if I didn't understand all of it by any means. I skipped over some passages, but as a way into adult literature, it was perfect. There are lots of writers who have influenced me but certainly my love of adult literature was inspired by Dickens and George Orwell, to a certain extent.

'Great Expectations' is a book that has always stayed with me and of all the authors I love, Dickens has not really influenced my writing but he has stayed with me the longest.

I initially said no to adapting 'Great Expectations' because the David Lean film cast a long shadow.

It was also my favourite novel, which was a reason to adapt it, and also a reason not to adapt it. You inevitably immerse yourself in a book when you are adapting. It can become over-familiar and you see its flaws. I didn't want to fall out of love with it.

I read it again and I was moved by it again. I also sat down to watch the David Lean film after a deep breath, as I had never actually seen it. It was terrific, but the bits it leaves out are not the bits I would leave out. Inevitably, you have to make choices when you adapt, and I felt there was enough material in the book that could justify taking another look at it.

I was pretty faithful [to the text], but when you adapt, it is a combination of original work and the screenwriters' view of the book. There are a lot of things that are reported in the novel that you will actually see this time around.

Like any Victorian novel, it contains a lot of exposition – and within that, there are things that happen off stage, which can be put into a film. You see things in this film version that I have not seen in other adaptations, but it is still faithful to the book. The ending is neither of the two that Dickens wrote, but it draws on something that is referred to in the book that is not usually seen on screen.

There is a strong thriller element to 'Great Expectations'. There's a sense towards the end of Pip as a kind of detective. He uncovers the intrigue of Estella's origin and Miss Havisham's past. Two thirds of the way into the book, when Magwitch returns, the tone changes to one of danger and secrets revealing themselves, and that's certainly the case in the last third of the film version.

Adapting is more editorial than writing an original screenplay. It's about what to keep in and what to lose. I found it creative and satisfying to write the screenplay for 'Great Expectations'. It's different from writing original material because Dickens has done the hard bit. He created Miss Havisham and Magwitch and structured this wonderful plot. That's where the genius lies.

I read the book ten times [before writing the screenplay], and I listened to it on audio book and made notes. I never found myself bored. It is incredibly consistent, with no longueurs or superfluous dialogue. I have always found it moving, even though Dickens is not necessarily celebrated as an emotional or romantic writer. It is touching and heartbreaking. In the end, adapting it didn't ruin my enjoyment of the book at all – and I didn't fall out of love with it.

David Nicholls, who is also the author of the bestseller 'One Day', was speaking to Arifa Akbar. The new film of 'Great Expectations' will be released next year