The Ghosts of Dickens’ Past A Charming, Insightful Piece
by Kristin Battestella
I wasn’t sure what to make of the 1998’s The Ghosts of Dickens’ Past when I stumbled upon the DVD on Netflix. I was looking for Christmas films as well as films about books and authors. The title fumbled around in my queue, and when it finally came to the top of my list, the disc sat for a few days before I took the time to sit down and watch this ninety minute tale dramatizing how Charles Dickens came to write his beloved A Christmas Carol. Though largely fictional, the Dickensian charm and recreation of Victorian highs and lows make The Ghosts of Dickens’ Past worthy for any fan of family friendly film.
While enjoying his literary successes at a lovely party, Charles Dickens (Christopher Heyerdahl) is approached by a young fan William ( Sean Gallagher, Leap Years). Confessing of his love for Dickens’ latest work A Christmas Carol, William inquires how the story came about. The gentlemen sit down together, and Dickens shares his most intimate writing inspirations and philosophies- from how a young girl he helps in the streets helps him to his impoverished youth and its lingering shame.
Although the narration is a bit much in some segments, the bookends of an older Dickens reflecting on his poor and shameful past fit The Ghosts of Dickens’ Past. We read about his strive for social reform and semi autobiographical tales of debtor’s prisons time and again in Dickens’ books, but tying these real life sad tales to the shaping of A Christmas Carol adds an extra sentimental touch. Director Bruce Neibaur (Beyond the Horizon) balances Victorian speeches with cruel action from the streets of London, giving adult viewers food for thought and swift, spooky action for the kids. Although folks in the know may recall Dickens’ real life muses and lady lovers probably aren’t so kid friendly, Neibaur’s fine script and accurate production values forgive any artistic license and film liberties.
Naturally, no one in the cast of The Ghosts of Dickens’ Past turned out to be famous. The supporting actors looks mostly like stock players from a poor man’s Masterpiece Theatre, but strangely, this fits and they serve their parts. Modern American actors just don’t look the period piece role. The hair on Heyerdahl (Stargate: Atlantis) is a little annoying, and the hackneyed accents one would expect from a Victorian London picture are mysteriously absent. The film rests solely on Heyerdahl, and he plays the part of the conflicted Dickens perfectly. Today, we would joke about the creepy nature of a society man snooping about kid’s poor houses, but Heyerdahl’s shame at needing money and his struggle to achieve writing inspiration trump any naysayers.
We’re treated to the high life of opulent Victorian parties, but The Ghosts of Dickens’ Past also gives us glimpses of England’s underbelly. The look and feel is perfect at both ends; Colorful and fun with lots of laughter against the dark, violent, smudged world of children’s workhouses. The soft score gives us plenty of cheer and melancholy heartstrings as well. There’s a touch of Christmas here naturally, but not enough to relegate The Ghosts of Dickens’ Past to December viewings only. There’s no subtitles or Dickensian features on the disc, but teachers might enjoy a viewing and discussion. Period piece fans will enjoy the stylings and sentiments no doubt. Though an independent feature, The Ghosts of Dickens’ Past doesn’t look on the cheap. Actually, it makes me wonder why more dramatizations are not made about Dickens and his rise to literary greatness. Please, sir, I’d like some more?
Unfortunately, The Ghosts of Dickens’ Past appears out of print, so netflix or another loan source might be the only way to find this film- unless you are extremely lucky in your video hunt. Fans young and old can enjoy this charming tale of bookish hopes , society’s troubles, and literary dreams.