A Tale of Two Inspirations: Dickens and Griffith

In Sergei Eisenstein’s “Dickens, Griffith and Film Today”, he makes a claim that Charles Dickens’ description of characters and the world around them in his novels shaped how characters are conceived in film in a post-Dickens world.  His discussion focuses specifically on the impact Dickens’ narrative had on director D.W. Griffith’s work, as Eisenstein uses examples from Dickens’ novels such as A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist to show how Griffith’s scenes, like Dickens’ works show a commonality between their “inner emotional line, as well as in the unusual sculptural relief and delineation of the characters; in the uncommon full-bloodedness of the dramatic as well as the humorous traits in them…”  (218).  The characters of Dickens are synonymous with film tropes such as being “slightly exaggerated” like the “screen heroes of today.  (208).  On top of that, Eisenstein shows how the description of the world around us inspires  how we portray it in it’s novelization, as is true for both the works of Dickens and Griffith.  Dickens often wrote about social discrepancies and human issues and Griffith’s films also had social issues woven into them to a point.  Ultimately, a solid link is established between Dickens’ form of novelization and Griffith’s novelization of film.

While I agree with Eisenstein’s comparison of Dickens and Griffith as inspiration and inspired, I wonder: couldn’t the same be said of any story teller?  There must be some source, some sort of comparative benchmark to stack against the story one creates, regardless of the medium.  Eisenstein even demonstrates this in the opening of his article, describing in great detail the bustling streets of New York City, much like Charles Dickens’ paints a verbal picture of the streets of Paris in the highlighted passage from A Tale of Two Cities found in the same article.  While I’m not tearing down Eisenstein’s assertion of Dickens inspiring Griffiths and by proxy the art of cinematography as a whole and I acknowledge that Eisenstein seemingly chose to highlight this particular inspiring relationship between film and literature, but I am certainly thinking that the same could essentially be said of any adaptation to one point or another.

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One Response to A Tale of Two Inspirations: Dickens and Griffith

  1. amelia daly says:

    I was thinking about how the Cohen brothers were inspired by literature, specifically O Brother where art thou? and No Country for Old Men. In the first, while only loosely based on the Odyssey, we see great epic characters. In the latter, the film is said to have kept close to the text, and in both the directors were able to maintain their artistic signature style. I agree that many relationships such as that of Dickens and Griffih exist.
    Eisenstein seems particularly interested in this relationship because of the vast similarities in the construction of their work. Not only was Griffith inspired by the character development but he later seems to have read Dickens from the perspective of director recognizing the images of his favorite author as a new standard in cinematography.

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