Charles Dickens, Father of TV
“One of the things that we talked about early on when doing a big saga was Charles Dickens. Most of his novels were written in one-chapter segments from the newspaper, so that’s why they have that big serialized feel to them. He never knew quite where they were going. He was just writing them one chapter at a time. We’re doing obviously the same thing here, so the art of the coincidence becomes a big part of the show, how people cross, how people’s lives come together, and it’s a very fun way to tell stories”
- Tim Kring, creator of Heroes
Carlton Cuse: [Dickens]’s getting a lot of play on Lost, isn’t he?
Damon Lindelof: He is indeed. He’s a favorite writer of ours. He wrote serialized stories just like we did. He was accused of making it up as he went along, just like we are.
Cuse: That’s right…he didn’t even have a word processor.
Cuse: And Charles Dickens was also a wonderful inspiration, because here he was, writing these great, wonderful, sprawling, serialized books…
Lindelof: Also, Dickens, the master of coincidence. Y’know… his stories always hinged on the idea of interconnectedness… in a very strange an inexplicable way.
- Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, producers of Lost
I found it kind of ironic that in season 5 there are a few really great scenes where you’re mocking the editors of newspapers who are asking for a Dickensian vibe, and then a lot of critics and writers compared The Wire to Dickens.
It was fun goofing on the Dickens comparison because I understood what they meant by Dickensian when they said it. You get this sort of scope of society through the classes, the way Dickens would play with that in his novels. But that’s true of Tolstoy’s Moscow. That’s true of Balzac’s Paris. It’s been done a lot in a lot of different places by a lot of writers. And I’m not the one doing the comparing. I’m just saying if you use those tropes you can go to a lot of places other than Dickens. The thing that made me laugh about it with Dickens was that Dickens is famous for being passionate about showing you the fault lines of industrial England and where money and power route themselves away from the poor. He would make the case for a much better social compact than existed in Victorian England, but then his verdict would always be, “But thank God a nice old uncle or this heroic lawyer is going to make things better.” In the end, the guy would punk out.
Now that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great writer and they’re not great stories. They are. But The Wire was actually making a different argument than Dickens, and the comparison, while flattering, sort of fell badly on us.
- Vice interview with David Simon, creator of The Wire
It’s a leap of faith doing any serialised storytelling. We had an idea early on, but certain things we thought would work well didn’t. We couldn’t have told you which characters would be in which seasons. We couldn’t tell you who would even survive…You feel that electricity. It’s almost like live TV. We don’t quite know what might happen. I’m sure when Charles Dickens was writing, he had a sense of where he was going – but he would make adjustments as he went along. You jump into it, knowing there’s something great out there to find.”
- J.J. Abrams, creator of Alias, Lost, Fringe
“[Shows like Damages are] like Dickens for the 21st century.”
- Glenn Close, actress on Damages
“[The Sopranos] has a novelistic sweep… Each character is defined multidimensionally. Instead of going back to drama’s theater roots, as TV did in the 1950s, it employs many of the techniques of, say, Charles Dickens and revitalizes them. This has been an interior journey from the beginning. Viewers took that trip with a bona fide sociopath, defying television’s time-honored prohibition against unlikable protagonists. In that regard, (creator/executive producer David Chase) created perhaps the darkest series of all time.”
- Ron Simon, curator of the Paley Center for Media
Several critics have commented on The Wire‘s “literary” quality. In particular, The Wire has echoes of the Victorian social panorama of Charles Dickens (who gets a mention this season, as an obscene anatomical reference). The drama repeatedly cuts from the top of Baltimore’s social structure to its bottom, from political fund-raisers in the white suburbs to the subterranean squat of a homeless junkie. As with Dickens, the excitement builds as the densely woven plot unfolds in addicting installments. The deeper connection to Dickens’ London is the program’s animating fury at the way a society robs children of their childhood. In our civilized age, we do not send 12-year-olds to work in blacking factories as the Victorians did. Today’s David Copperfield is instead warehoused at a dysfunctional school until he’s ready to sling drugs on the corner, where his odds of survival are even slimmer.
- Slate’s Jacob Weisberg
Driver: [as the coach races down the road after the hearse] Everything in order, Mr. Dickens?
Charles Dickens: No it is not!
The Doctor: What did he say?
Charles Dickens: Let me say this first. I’m not without a sense of humor…
The Doctor: Dickens?
Charles Dickens: Yes?
The Doctor: Charles Dickens?
Charles Dickens: Yes.
The Doctor: The Charles Dickens?
Driver: Shall I remove the gentleman, Sir?
The Doctor: Charles Dickens. You’re brilliant you are! Completely one hundred per cent brilliant. I’ve read them all. “Great Expectations”, “Oliver Twist”, and whats the other one? The one with the ghost?
Charles Dickens: “A Christmas Carol”?
The Doctor: No, no, no. The one with the trains. “The Signalman”. That’s it. Terrifying, The best short story ever written! You’re a genius!
Driver: You want me to get rid of him, Sir?
Charles Dickens: No, I think he can stay.
- Doctor Who, “The Unquiet Dead”
Master Sergeant: Set of keys; one pocket watch, gold plated; one photograph; one book, Our Mutual Friend. Why didn’t you bring that inside?
Desmond: To avoid temptation, brother. I’ve read everything Mr. Charles Dickens has ever written – every wonderful word. Every book except this one. I’m saving it so it will be the last thing I ever read before I die.
- Lost, “Live Together, Die Alone”