LONDON -- A six-hour adaptation of "Little Dorrit," one of Charles Dickens' lesser known novels, has become a hit movie in Britain and just might restore the epic to the cinema.

The movie starring Derek Jacobi, Alec Guinness and newcomer Sarah Pickering opened last month at the Curzon West End cinema to rave reviews and near-capacity houses.

In the past, a project of this scope might have landed on television, as adaptations of Dickens' "Bleak House" and "Nicholas Nickleby" have both recently done.

But its producer and director believe "Little Dorrit" belongs in the cinema and that audiences exist in sufficient numbers to support the $9 million effort.

"We're filmmakers; we have been all our lives, and we firmly believe that cinema audiences of the world are looking for events," said producer Richard Goodwin. His previous projects, with his partner John Brabourne, have included the Academy Award-winning "A Passage to India" and the all-star "Murder on the Orient Express."

The cast is an event in itself, a virtual roll call of esteemed British performers. Jacobi, currently starring on Broadway in "Breaking the Code," plays the virtuous Arthur Clennam, who returns to England after 20 years in China to find a newly industrialized country rife with injustice and insensitivity.

Pickering has the title role as the diminutive Amy Dorrit, who has been raised in a debtors' prison.

Guinness, who has appeared in such Dickens-inspired films as "Great Expectations" and "Oliver Twist," plays William Dorrit, Amy's father and a long-term inmate of the Marshalsea jail where much of the film is set.

The supporting cast, some 200 strong, includes two actors who have since died -- Joan Greenwood and Bill Fraser -- as well as Max Wall, Cyril Cusack, Eleanor Bron and Patricia Hayes.

Charles Osborne said in the Daily Telegraph that "no one who loves Dickens or cinema or acting . . . should miss this film," adding that Guinness gives "what must surely be his finest screen performance."

Derek Malcolm in the Guardian called the movie "one of the most remarkable undertakings of recent British cinema," and said "the extraordinary cast . . . alone would make the film worth seeing."

So far, the movie seems to be finding its public.

It played to about 90 percent attendance its opening weekend at the 630-seat Curzon West End at a ticket price for both three-hour segments of $18.30.

With an advance sale of $54,122, the film stands likely to extend its Curzon engagement beyond Feb. 4, its present closing date, Goodwin said. A concurrent exhibition of costumes from the film is on view at the Museum of London through April 10.

Its apparent success happily concludes director-screenwriter Christine Edzard's four-year effort to get the novel filmed.

"It's the Dickens novel I liked best -- one of the richest, the one very much closest to today," said the Paris-born Edzard, who was trained as an economist and has been married to Goodwin since 1968.

Both she and her husband agreed that Dickens' popularity is not dated. "He has never faded in terms of literary fashion," she said. "Underneath his work lies a constant appeal."

"Dickens wrote for everybody, and I do mean everybody," echoed Goodwin. He called the novel, written in 1855-57, "a fairly virulent attack on a society which, in my opinion, hasn't really changed."

The film, shot with a Dickensian social conscience, tells its story twice, and from two different points of view. The first part, "Nobody's Fault," focuses on Clennam, a man Edzard described as "confused and a bit lost."

The second part retells the tale through the eyes of Little Dorrit, "someone who sees very closely and clearly," said Edzard.

The movie has yet to be sold for distribution overseas, but the couple are optimistic that a market can be found.

"The public is always smarter than people give them credit for," said Goodwin. "We're not going to do ' "Crocodile" Dundee' business, {but} there are a number of people around the world who want to see good movies, and it's ever-increasing."

And is length a problem? Sarah Pickering says no.

"People sit and watch snooker {pool} for six hours in a row and don't bat an eyelid, so why shouldn't they go watch Dickens?"