All Adaptations of Dickens’ ‘David Copperfield’

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(poster for 1935 Hollywood version)

This is a list of all filmic David Copperfield adaptations I’m aware of. I’ve omitted stage and radio productions, but am very interested in any information you have on these, and may at some point start to look at them as well. Please comment if you know any more television or film adaptations! I suspect the list may not be very complete outside the Anglosphere.

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(still from 1935 Hollywood version)

Some notes:

  • There are three productions for children, including two animated versions, one of which departs radically from the plot. Two of these cut Uriah Heep.
  • There are five BBC miniseries.
  • There are eight tv miniseries, counting BBC offerings and not counting television films.
  • Not one version double-casts Uriah, though we meet him when he’s about 15 to David’s 11 (and Steerforth’s 17) and “Explosion”/the climax of the novel comes when David’s roughly 23 to Uriah’s 27 (based on Molly Katz’s timeline). At least four double-cast Steerforth (it is sometimes difficult to determine and a child actor is more likely to be ambiguously or uncredited), while the rest that include him rely on a youthful actor. Only two I can think of could be said to have a youthful Uriah: Italian 1965 and the BBC 1974 (this one reads as perhaps mid-20s throughout rather than 15). 1999 DC Uriah’s actor was 38 and 2000 DC actor’s Uriah was 33.  Italian 1965 Uriah’s actor was 30. As happens today, working-class Victorians were subjected to a variety of physical hardships that could indeed appear to age them more rapidly than their better-off contemporaries. David initially thinks Uriah older than 15, but he’s a child looking up at an older boy, and there’s a world of difference between a teenager looking old for his years and one actually being played by a 35 year old.
  • All other adaptations persistently age Uriah up to perhaps his 30s, which visually locates the problem with his desire to marry Agnes in his age rather than his class. If he looks 35 when David and Agnes are about 11, even if he still somehow looks 35 when David and Agnes are in their early 20s, a relative age has been conceptually established that does not permit the modern viewer to treat the prospect of their union as reasonable. Consider for example Austen adaptations, which almost uniformly ‘soften’ the canonical age differences between Brandon and Marianne and between Emma and Elton for a modern audience via casting, rendering Georgian marriage practices and stories concerning them acceptable to contemporary viewers. A union between Uriah and Agnes thus becomes not a problem of class and (to the extent you can separate these elements) personality, as in the novel, but of age and personality (even if age is not explicit mentioned as an issue: we have been visually cued). Class is elided in this formulation, as are the ‘there but for the grace of god’ parallels between David, Uriah and Steerforth.
  • There are six foreign language productions (counting the silent Danish version with cards). Only one (Brazil 1958) adaptation seems to have been made outside of either Europe or the Anglosphere.
  • None of them that I’ve seen seem interested in ‘Easter Egg’ nodding to other Dickens’ productions, one another, the events of the period or those of Dickens’ life. I could be wrong here! This is a casual observation.
  • All of them go with ‘David Copperfield’ as their title (unless they’ve been listed wrong where I grabbed them), choosing to use no other elements of the actual book title (The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account)) (or of the 14 variant titles Dickens employed).
  • I’ll probably use this page to link to reviews of all of these as I work (it may be some time before I’m done).

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David and the only even slightly age-correct Uriah (possibly still a little too old-looking for 15?), Italian 1965 version

For comparison: Young Bruce in the very Dickensian Gotham, as played by 15 year old David Masouz.

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Title (year and medium), national origin, adult actor for David if known, any other identifying information

  1. David Copperfield, consisting of ‘The Early Life of David Copperfield’, ‘Little Em’ly and David Copperfield’ and ‘The Loves of David Copperfield’, (1911 film) American, Ed Genung, 3 reels, black and white, first non-British version, probably no Uriah and possibly no Steerforth
  2. (1912 film) British?, Bolton cites in Dickens Dramatised
  3. (1912 film) French, from Pathe, distinct from above (same source)
  4. David Copperfield (1913 film) British, Kenneth Ware, 3 Davids (child, youth, adult), silent, a contender for the title of first British feature film, black and white
  5. David Copperfield (1922 film) Danish, Gorm Schmidt, silent, black and white, first non-Anglosphere version, possibly no Steerforth or Emily
  6. The Love Stories of David Copperfield (1924 film) British, silent, black and white, first
  7. David Copperfield (1935 film) American, Frank Lawton, Hollywood, black and white
  8. David Copperfield (1954 two-part television film? unsure) American, David Cole, black and white, possibly no Steerforth or Emily
  9. David Copperfield (1956 tv miniseries) British, Robert Hardy, BBC: first BBC miniseries, black and white
  10. David Copperfield (1958 tv miniseries), Brazilian?, Márcio Trunkl, first and only  non-continental/Anglosphere version (if indeed Brazilian), black and white
  11. [Excerpt from] David Copperfield (1958 short teleplay) British, BBC, part of the series “Fact in Fiction: Children at Work in the Last Century”
  12. David Copperfield (1965) tv miniseries) Italian, Giancarlo Giannini, black and white, watch here, filmed like “The Leopard”, very interesting, two Steerforths
  13. David Copperfield (1965 tv miniseries) French, Bernard Verley, Uriah written out of plot, ‘Le théâtre de la jeunesse’ suggests possibly for children which would make it the first children’s production, black and white
  14. David Copperfield (1966 tv miniseries) British, Ian McKellen, BBC: second BBC miniseries, black and white
  15. David Copperfield (1969 television film) British-American, Robin Phillips, first colour production (assume colour from here on out unless indicated), two Steerforths
  16. David Copperfield (1969 tv miniseries) Spanish, Paco Valladares, black and white
  17. David Copperfield (1970 tv film) British, Robin Phillips, two Steerforths
  18. David Copperfield (1974 tv miniseries) British, David Yelland, BBC: third BBC miniseries, rebroadcast in 1976
  19. David Copperfield (1983 animated film) Australian, unclear, second production for children
  20. David Copperfield (1986 tv miniseries) British, Colin Hurley, BBC: fourth BBC miniseries, Simon Callow as Micawber (which is interesting because Callow has a good line in playing Dickens, so playing a character based off Dickens’ dad makes sense for him)
  21. David Copperfield (1993 animated musical film) American, Julian Lennon, no Uriah, Emily or Steerforth: in fact the crackiest plot changes you could possibly imagine, third production for children, watch here.                                                                                          Screen Shot 2017-02-25 at 18.28.25.png

    Clara Copperfield looking as confused as I am.

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Murdstone looking like a budget Ratigan (I suspect this film’s entire planning meeting was  someone saying ‘like Great Mouse Detective, but awful’).

18. David Copperfield (1999 tv series) British, Ciarán McMenamin, BBC: fifth and currently final BBC miniseries, child David is Daniel Radcliffe–this is the role that got him cast as Harry Potter, two Steerforths
19. David Copperfield (2000 long tv film) Irish-American, Hugh Dancy, not good
20. David Copperfield
(2009 long tv film) Italian, Giorgio Pasotti
21. David Copperfield (2018 treatment, STILL IN DEVELOPMENT), British

UPDATE:

Per the Dickens Fellowship: “Presumably you have seen Dickens Dramatized by H Philip Bolton. Lists 2 DC films in 1912.”

I hadn’t, as it turns out, but now I have:

Dickens Dramatized David Copperfield Section

This includes a wealth of information on theatrical and radio productions, but it stops in 1987, either to celebrate my birth or on account of the publication of the book. I’d love to see a modernisation that brought Bolton’s work up to the present, double-checked for productions outside the Anglosphere (with an emphasis on the UK and US) and was more accessible. This hefty academic volume, of which I’ve reproduced a very small portion above, is not a reference text most libraries possess, and the printing format is almost reminiscent of contemporary fanzine listings. It’s no doubt a great resource, and the product of an incredible amount of research, but think how much more navigable and searchable it’d be as an online database, and how much more information about productions it could provide via linking?

An updated listing could also give more attention to plays produced outside London and NYC/the American East Coast.Even within the Anglosphere, this feels a little lopsided. Given the density of plays, I really feel there must have been more going on in, say, northern England than we’re seeing. (It’s probable Bolton’s front-matter, which I don’t have access to, talks about his process and lacunae, or that there are reasons I’m unaware of such things wouldn’t have occurred.) I feel as though the accounts Bolton’s drawing from (various Dickens society publications, it looks like?) are metropole-centric. They seem more likely to include something happening in Brighton (i.e. stroll out of Croydon: you are in Brighton now) than in Manchester (stroll out of Euston: keep going forever). It’s not until 1884 that I see Manchester in here, and it’s 1906 for Edinburgh. Can there really have been no Scottish or Lancastrian productions, even minor ones, against all these London outings? There’re very active trade publications for actors in this period which discuss ‘provincial’ productions–I wonder if DD is cross-referenced with these, and with extra-London theatrical archives? I also can’t believe Australia and Canada aren’t staging productions earlier and more prolifically than is here reported.

SOME NOTES ON BOLTON’S LISTING:

  • It omits a lot of productions, as I suspected it would: the internet has made this job so, so much easier.
  • In 1914 a production got ditched for more patriotic fare, which is interesting because it indicates a conception of Dickens as insufficiently nationalistic. I wouldn’t necessarily have thought that. Perhaps DC just isn’t ‘blood and thunder’ enough, but still, when you think literary nationalism you think of Shakespeare beyond and outside of Henry IV and the Richard II speech. You think of a whole idea of Shakespeare-osity.
  • It’s interesting how earlier formulations of DC center ‘Em’ly’. If that happened today I might consider it a feminist gesture, but at the time it seems to have been about finding the melodrama in DC. So many theatrical productions look to be her story. That fallen woman redemption arc did work for these audiences in a way it just doesn’t or can’t for me. Sure they had to scrub some serial numbers, but when they chose to obscure and condense, for them this was a key element. I don’t think it necessarily would be, now.
  • In theatrical terms Steerforth and Uriah used to be considered character parts, and David a male ingenue.
  • Young David was sometimes, initially very often, a trousers role, i.e. played by a woman or child (as in a panto). Some American productions do it too. Grown David was seemingly always played by a man. This might make Betsey’s ‘I wish you’d been a girl!’ almost a visual gag?
  •  ‘1870 at Theatre Royal, Croydon’ ayyyy (I live in Croydon)
  • Three French theatrical versions crossed over DC and Oliver Twist.
  • A 1930 play in Budapest includes Dickens as narrator, a la Muppet Christmas Carol.
  • A 1933 version played to Wandsworth Prison. Dickens would have liked that.
  • There was an Australian opera called David and Dora.
  • WE MEET AGAIN, UNCLE TERRY! Terrance Dicks produced a BBC Copperfield. Who and Dickens always have a kinship.
  • Dora was almost universally cut from early adaptations.

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As a final note, Bolton briefly mentions a 1981 American musical Copperfield. Here is a hilariously mean review of this apparently abysmal production.

“This is the kind of musical that sends you out of the theater humming every score other than the one you’ve just heard.” lol

“often incoherently told melodrama in which all the villains literally wear black.” To be fair at least two of them (the Heeps) canonically do that for plot reasons, but point taken.
“Barrie Ingham’s Uriah, who looks like an attenuated porcupine with red quills, makes the most of his inevitable song (” ‘Umble”) and gets the evening’s two laughs. One could picture him being quite jolly in a Christmas pantomime at the London Palladium.”
— Could one? I’m interested
— 1981 was a halcyon time, when an NYT theatre critic might be expected to know what the flying dutchman a pantomime was.
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