TV Week

Classic Dickens, Modern Lessons

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By Becky Krystal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 29, 2009

"Little Dorrit" is anything but small.

The new television adaptation of the epic novel by Charles Dickens spans eight hours. It hopscotches across a number of literary genres -- mystery, romance, tragedy, comedy -- and tracks the ever-shifting sands of the fate of one family in 19th-century England.

"I just love the range of Dickens -- that it goes from the highest to the lowest, and some of the characters are incredibly rich and some of them are very poor indeed," said screenwriter Andrew Davies, whose other long-form series have included "Bleak House," another Dickens work, in 2005 and the popular adaptation of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" in 1995.

When "Little Dorrit" opens, the Dorrit family is pretty low. Patriarch William (Tom Courtenay) has been living at Marshalsea, a debtor's prison, for decades. His greatest comfort is his daughter Amy (Claire Foy), whose nickname is Little Dorrit.

Amy lives with her father in the prison but can come and go as she pleases. Unknown to Mr. Dorrit, however, Amy seeks a position in the household of the shut-in Mrs. Clennam (Judy Parfitt), who hires her as a sort of charity case.

Mrs. Clennam's son, Arthur (Matthew Macfadyen), returns after many years abroad and begins a relentless pursuit to uncover the connection between his family and the Dorrits. He tries to make amends because he thinks his family somehow wronged Amy's.

Foy said her character "is totally focused on her family, and she's completely selfless and would do anything for anybody." No one has cared for her as she has for others, so Arthur's benevolence surprises her, and she quickly becomes attached to him.

In adapting the novel, Davies said, he increased Amy's share of the story to be more equal to Arthur's. He gave her more power to determine her own fate, such as accepting the position with Mrs. Clennam.

And Foy "gives the character more sparkiness than you would think Little Dorrit had if you read the novel," Davies said.

Foy said she had not read "Little Dorrit" until she was already in the middle of her four auditions for the part. She still won't watch the 1988 two-part theatrical version starring Derek Jacobi and Alec Guinness. She said she doesn't want the "baggage" of seeing someone else's spin on Amy.

The fact that many people are unfamiliar with the novel or other adaptations was a big plus for those involved in the TV project, which airs as part of "The Tales of Charles Dickens" on PBS's "Masterpiece Classic."

"It was a pleasure to be introducing it to a wider audience," Davies said, because fewer people will have expectations of how it should be done.

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