On Dickens’s 200th birthday, TV auteurs Carlton Cuse, Damon Lindelof, Armando Iannucci, and others reflect on how Dickens’s work has influenced storytelling on television. Plus, Jimmy So on why anyone should care about Dickens.
Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens (1812–1870), but the popularity of the writer of such novels as Great Expectations, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield—to name but a few of his immortal works—hasn’t diminished in the time since his death.
In the pantheon of great English-language novelists, Dickens reigns supreme for a number of reasons. He was a master storyteller who created unforgettable characters—a menagerie that included the grotesque, the disenfranchised, the saintly, and the avaricious robber barons of his day—who leapt off the page and continue to live on in the imaginations of those who read his words. And his whiplash-inducing plots, with their constant twists, fused populist entertainment and deft societal commentary.
Despite his fame and fortune, Dickens was a champion for social reform, turning his attention to education, the Victorian workhouse, social inequity, and financial speculation, and offering blistering commentary on the failures of legal and governmental institutions to protect those they were designed to defend, themes that continue to resonate sharply today. Looking for his take on Bernie Madoff? Read Little Dorrit. Feel that the educational system is collapsing? Take a look at Nicholas Nickleby. The war on crime? Oliver Twist. Serpentine legal battles? Bleak House.
Additionally, and unbeknownst to him, Dickens also paved the way for the serialized narrative that television viewers have come to enjoy. The majority of his novels were first serialized in monthly or weekly publications, written just a few weeks ahead of time and typically ending with a shocking revelation or cliffhanger that kept readers eagerly awaiting more. This structure is the one clearly embraced by the creators and writers of serialized dramas, parceling out plot and character development in an episodic fashion while having the ability to react to those engaging with the material.
In celebration of the enduring power of Dickens, The Daily Beast asked several television creators and showrunners—including Lost gurus Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, NCIS executive producer/showrunner Gary Glasberg, Big Love creators Will Scheffer and Mark V. Olsen, and The Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci—to share their thoughts on Dickens’s legacy, his influence, and their own interactions with his books.
Carlton Cuse (Lost)
Because Lost was unlike almost any show before it, when we were trying to figure out the paradigm of the show, we struggled to find similar models of storytelling in TV, so we turned instead to literature. And one of the main writers who inspired us was Charles Dickens.
Dickens told sprawling, complicated, character-oriented, serialized stories in the newspapers and found a huge readership. We thought, why wouldn’t the same model work for TV? Just like writing for TV, Dickens was writing his story as it was being consumed by his audience. The main way he sustained his audience’s interest in his ongoing story was by ending each chapter with cliffhangers. We completely stole that model. In fact, I think no writer is more responsible for the influencing existence of cliffhangers in film (particularly the old Saturday-morning serials) than Charles Dickens—he was the undisputed master of that device.
Reading Dickens made me want to be a writer. The first Dickens novel I read was Great Expectations. I literally could not put it down. I was completely absorbed by his characters. They were larger than life and utterly captivating. I marveled at an author who had the ability to make me want to do nothing else but read his book.
Dickens taught me the importance of character-based storytelling. Despite often having very melodramatic plots, his novels sustain themselves by having incredibly compelling, vivid characters. A Dickens novel makes you not only want to know what happens next, but more specifically, he makes you want to know what happens to the characters next. That became a constant refrain for us in the Lost writers’ room; mythology was important, but more important was telling compelling stories about our characters.
My favorite two Dickens novels are Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. I remember reading about how John Irving so loved Dickens that he had purposely never read Our Mutual Friend because he is saving it to be the last novel he ever reads. I thought this was incredibly poignant and the greatest possible acknowledgment one could make of Dickens’s importance as a writer, so we put this same idea in the show. (We gave it to Desmond, who makes the same claim, that Our Mutual Friend will be the last book he ever reads.)
I think Dickens remains popular because of the incredible breadth of his talents as a storyteller. He was funny and poignant, serious and very socially conscious. He could spin a good yarn while also addressing social inequality. Most of all, he wrote unparalleled characters, who resonate for his readers just as vividly now as they did in his day.
It astounds me that he wrote most of his stuff by the seat of his pants. I remain in awe of his ability to tell large, sprawling, highly serialized stories with such ease and mastery. No one has ever done it better, before or since.
Will Scheffer and Mark V. Olsen (Big Love)
Our personal favorite has always been Oliver Twist because we think it’s just archetypal Dickens. We’re submerged into the underclass (and what a great device he uses to open up that world to his educated, upper-class readers), but also because it’s really about the artist himself—who knows he is meant for great things.
And so it universally captures the notion that we are all made for something greater than we know at the present moment: that we are all “entitled” somehow to ask: “May I have some more, sir?”
Gary Glasberg (NCIS)
I can’t help wondering what Mr. Dickens would have thought of network television. Two dozen hourlong tales of mystery, suspense, comedy, and intrigue delivered over the course of a year. I would like to believe he’d look at me and say, “Better you than me, old chap.” And yet, so much of what I look for in dramatic structure comes from his work. The multilayering of characters combined with the injustice of class and social structure dictates how I approach storytelling each and every day.
Oliver Twist is really an ideal example, especially in a crime drama. Rather than paint thieves and robbers as two-dimensional criminals, Mr. Dickens delivered tremendous duality to the characters of Fagin and the Dodger. They’re witty, conniving, and deeply flawed. They interact as mentor and student. We love spending time with them. And yet they are society’s underbelly. If I could capture even a glimmer of that complexity on a weekly basis, I’d be thrilled.
Another Dickensian storytelling structure I hold near and dear occurs in A Christmas Carol. To be given the opportunity to see one’s mistakes and change as we move forward in life is the kind of motivation audiences responded to in the mid-1800s and still do to this day. We all have our demons. Any well-rounded character is haunted by elements of their past. Ebenezer Scrooge made terrible decisions along the way and lost the love of his life because of it. And yet he’s given a chance at redemption. Isn’t that what structurally drives just about every major crimefighter in television drama today? The desire to defy the demons, do what’s right, and make up for their own shortcomings.
Come to think of it, Mr. Dickens would probably make one hell of a modern-day TV writer. So, Charles, if you’re available, I currently have two freelance assignments that need to be filled. I’d love to base a sweeps episode on Great Expectations. Don’t worry about the commercial breaks. We can add those later.
Damon Lindelof (Lost)
Charles Dickens was a huge inspiration for everything that I love about storytelling. Forgetting the obvious Lost reference to Our Mutual Friend, the way that Dickens published his novels in installments was, more or less, the invention of serialized storytelling over a century before the invention of television itself.
Furthermore, he actually changed the ending of Great Expectations when his readers rebelled ... How’s that for playing directly to your fan base?
I think it’s safe to say there would be no Lost without Charles Dickens.
Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It, Veep)
I admire his ambition, especially as the novels progressed. He started off possibly laughing at people, and as it opens up he’s more humane toward people, but more angry at the power structures those people find themselves in. Look at something like Little Dorrit, which is a whole take on how government doesn’t function. I admire his ability to skip from a very comic moment to something very dramatic or poignant. I find that fascinating, and also his ability to keep a story running at three different levels.
I think he in many ways set the standard for how to have a comic take on the institutions of government or the institutions of the state. I think his influence is tremendous, and people don’t quite acknowledge that side to him. They praise his stories and his characters, and, yes, you can see why there have been so many film versions of this novel and that novel and so on, but it’s actually his comedy. I see Dickens as the forerunner to people like Chaplin and Woody Allen, really.