15/04/2010

CHARLES DICKENS, HARD TIMES - THE NOVEL & THE BBC ADAPTATION (1994)

I've watched this DVD only recently, though this TV adaptation is 16 years old . It was made by 'BBC Schools', a low cost production. And the sparse sets and Coketown streets are indeed very basic. But this is more than compensated for by the quality of the cast. this version boasts a cast most big budget films would just dream about: Alan Bates, Richard E. Grant, Harriet Walter, Bill Paterson, and the great Bob Peck, magnificent as Gradgrind .Superb actors, who drive the story along and convey the character so essential to Dickens through a glance or a gesture, in what is a very stripped down and shortened version of Dickens' classic novel.
Inevitably a lot of Dickens' complexity is lost, and the effect of its abridgement leads to a rather jerky approach, with abrupt shifts of time and scene. But overall this is a great adaptation, it is a tribute to the BBC's commitment to quality educational films.

THE PLOT
Thomas Gradgrind is an educator and a riter on political questions. He has founded a school where his education theories are put into practice: children are taught nothing but facts, and he educates his own children, Louisa and Tom, in the same way, neglecting their imagination and their affections. He also adopts Sissy Jupe, whose father worked  in a circus.

Mr Gradgrind suggests his daughter should marry Josiah Bounderby, a  rich factory owner and banker of the city some thirty years older than she is. Louisa, desiring to help her brother Tom in his career, consents to the marriage, which naturally proves to be very unhappy.

Tom, who is selfish and lazy, is given a job in Bounderby's bank, and eventually steals some money from it, making everybody think Mr Blackpool, an honest factory worker, guilty of that. Tom's guilt is discovered eventually , but  he runs away and hides among the circus folk, who show  kindness and sympathy by sheltering him . Meanwhile, Louisa has realised she has sacrificed her life and her chances to love. She has met Mr Harthouse, she has fallen in love, she doesn't want to be Mr Bounderby's wife anylonger.

In the end Mr Gradgrind understands the damage caused by his narrow-minded and materialistic philosophy.
(If you want a more detailed plot, have a look here)


HARD TIMES, AN INDUSTRIAL NOVEL - DICKENS AND GASKELL

For this  event hosted by Jenny at TakeMeAway  this week, I've chosen this classic by Dickens. Throwback Thursday  is a weekly corner to write about good reads from the past. Those books we so much loved and we don't want to forget .
 The story is set in Coketown, fictitious name for the typical Victorian industrial town (partially based on 19th century Preston) , where the air is polluted by smoke and ashes and pervaded by the poisonous smell from the canal and the river. The sad , monotonous life of the people is reflected in the grey, gloomy, atmosphere of the setting. The appalling misery of the working classes is embodied by Stephen Blackpool: one of the hands in Bounderby’s factory, Stephen lives a life of drudgery and poverty. In spite of the hardships of his daily toil, Stephen strives to maintain his honesty, integrity, faith, and compassion.
Dickens had visited factories in Manchester as early as 1839, and was appalled by the environment in which workers toiled. Drawing upon his own childhood experiences, Dickens resolved to "strike the heaviest blow in my power" for those who laboured in horrific conditions. That experience must have provided him inspiration while writing his HARD TIMES.

In this novel, published in instalments in 1853 in his review HOUSEHOLD WORDS, Dickens deals with the sufferings of the factory system , the activity of trade unions, the appalling living conditions of workers with  his post-Industrial Revolution pessimism regarding the divide between capitalistic mill owners and undervalued employees during the Victorian era. Another related novel, North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, was also published in this magazine in 1855. Her story was set in another fictitious industrial town of the North of England, Milton, based on Victorian Manchester . Anyhow, in their dealing with the reality of the factory system, the two great novelists show differences. In HARD TIMES the social issues and  the social context are the background of the story and Dickens's main interest is in the effects which that harsh reality has on the characters' lives and affections ; his focus is on the characters' emotions and feelings and, for this reason,  his novel has been defined as "humanitarian". In Mrs Gaskell's NORTH AND SOUTH, or also in her previous MARY BARTON (1848), the social issues and the social context come in the foreground, they are part of the plot as much as the intelinked lives of the characters.

UTILITARIANISM

The Utilitarians were one of the targets of Dickens in this novel. Utilitarianism was a prevalent school of thought during this period, its most famous proponents being Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Theoretical Utilitarian ethics stated that promotion of general social welfare is the ultimate goal for the individual and society in general: "the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people." But Dickens believed that,  in practical terms, the pursuit of a totally rationalized society could lead to great misery.
Bentham's former secretary, Edwin Karbunkle, helped design the Poor Law of 1834 (Dickens' target in OLIVER TWIST 1837-38), which deliberately made workhouse life as uncomfortable as possible. In the novel, this is conveyed in Bitzer's response to Gradgrind's appeal for compassion at the end of the story.
Dickens was appalled by what was, in his interpretation, a selfish philosophy, which was combined with materialist laissez-faire capitalism in the education of some children at the time, as well as in industrial practices. In Dickens' interpretation, the prevalence of utilitarian values in educational institutions promoted contempt between mill owners and workers, creating young adults whose imaginations had been neglected, due to an over-emphasis on facts at the expense of more imaginative pursuits.  Tom and Louisa Gradgrind are sad exemplifications of Dickens' pessimistic vision of the results of Utilitarian educational methods.

10 comments:

Luciana said...

Oh MG, I had to skip directly to the comments part because I'm reading "Hard Times" and don't want to spoil it! I'm almost finishing it and I'm think of writing a post about it too. As soon as I finish it I promise to read your post and to comment it properly!

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Luciana
...and you'll be welcome! I can't wait to read and comment yours, then!

JaneGS said...

I've been meaning to read Hard Times for about a year now in order to compare it to N&S, but the subject matter and mood is so grim that I haven't had the gumption to do so yet. The DVD sounds good though--I don't mind low-budget if the acting is top notch.

I liked your comparison of Dickens' approach with Gaskell's--I wonder if some of the difference stems from the fact that she actually lived in the north, though he, of course, had personal experience with grinding working poverty as a child.

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@JaneGS
Well, probably you're right Jane. Dickens vision of the workers' world was badly influenced by his experience as a child. He felt it as a shame. He even tried to hide that fact from his own family (children) as long as he could. That's why he felt that urge to describe feelings and sufferings on the foreground. Thanks, as usual, for your sensitive and precious contribution.

Judy said...

I'd really like to see this version - the cast looks great. Despite being a Dickens nut, I never saw it when it was broadcast, as I think it was only shown in the schools slot, and also that was around the time my son was born so I had other things to worry about back then! I like your comparisons with 'North and South', Maria - you probably know that Dickens might have given Gaskell the title for that novel, although I suspect in fact she had asked him to decide between two possible titles (N&S or 'Margaret Hale') and he went for that one. I've also read an article suggesting that another novel by Gaskell, 'Ruth', was an influence on 'Hard Times' - it was one of his favourite novels which he reread several times, and there are similarities in the plots although Dickens' style of writing was very different. Really enjoyed reading this.

MARIA GRAZIA said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MARIA GRAZIA said...

Hi, there! Yes, I read Dickens chose the title N&S for Gaskell's novel before publishing it in his review. Instead, I've never read about any influence of HT on RUTH. I read and reviewed Ruth last summer but , honestly, I can't find any immediate link. Is this article on line? I'm interested in reading it. Thanks for your contribution, Judy.

Judy said...

Hi Maria, afraid I can't find the long article about this I remember reading a few years back and don't even remember who it was by (it might have been when I belonged to Questia, which you have to subscribe to), but there is a brief mention at the Victorian Web page on 'Hard Times'
www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/hardtimes/pva27.html
about Gaskell influencing Dickens here:
"The novel appears to be modelled in part on Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth (published in three volumes in January, 1853), according to Norman Page in the November, 1971, issue of Notes and Queries. Mrs. Gaskell's Bradshaw, for example, corresponds to Dickens's Gradgrind."
Sorry to be a bit vague!

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Judy
Thank you, anyway. I'll discover more about this "influence" of Gaskell on Dickens. Have a great Sunday! MG

Luciana said...

I've just finished reading this novel. I think it truly shows what can happen if one important part of human nature is neglected; however I believe it is too one sided. As Dickens shows the reality of the factories, mill owners are bad people and the workers are much better, even if they can kind of make someone feel in the ostracism... It's interesting to see the contrasts between his aproach and Mrs Gaskell's in N&S. I just feel sad I don't like any of the characters! It's so sad! Ok, I kind of like Sissy, Rachel and Stephen. As always, very nice post!