Unlike Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit does not suffer from a surfeit of adaptations; the last one, a self-consciously "authentic" six-hour film with a badly miscast Derek Jacobi, appeared two decades ago. This newest adaptation, which first aired last year in the UK, runs even longer (eight hours), although the US broadcast does not follow the original UK division into half-hour chunks. Writer Andrew Davies, whose very name strikes terror deep into the hearts of some Victorianists, so far appears to be respecting the novel's major plots and conflicts, although I balked at the transformation of Miss Wade into something verging grimly on lesbian stereotype. Moreover, modern readers usually balk--violently--at the conclusion of Tattycoram's subplot, in which her experiences with Miss Wade teach her to control her own resentments: " I have had Miss Wade before me all this
time, as if it was my own self grown ripe—turning everything the wrong
way, and twisting all good into evil. I have had her before me all this time, finding
no pleasure in anything but in keeping me as miserable, suspicious, and tormenting as herself" (bk. II ch. 33). Now that she has seen the error of her ways, Tattycoram returns to her situation with the Meagles as a chastened, dutiful servant, right down to the insulting nickname--thereby aggravating legions of post-Victorian readers, who tend to think that the Meagles have not behaved as well as the novel thinks they have. (Meagles at least grants that "Tattycoram" was perhaps not such a good idea.) But casting Tattycoram with an Afro-Caribbean actress complicates the character's trajectory no end, because the family's condescension (and Tattycoram's occasional explosions of effusive gratitude) now has a racist dynamic. It will be interesting to see if Davies manages to write himself out of this problem.
The most striking thing about the adaptation is the camera work. The director, Dearbhla Walsh, loves shooting characters from directly overhead, thereby squashing them into the floor. In addition, Walsh frequently positions characters right at the edge of the frame or partly outside it, instead of at the center; this either marginalizes major characters within their own scenes or fragments them entirely (an effect heightened by tight closeups). The camera frequently "drifts" slowly across a scene, rather than maintain its original focus, or rotates on its axis so that the scene slides into a diagonal. These techniques, combined with the dirty, dusty settings, suggest an off-kilter world in which all the characters equally struggle under a burden of Gothic oppression. Nobody is at ease; nobody is "whole." Not surprisingly, we frequently see the characters through ironwork or the spindles on a banister, suggesting (as the novel does) that the Marshalsea prison extends to all of London.