The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Containing a Faithful Account of the Fortunes, Misfortunes, Uprisings, Downfallings, and Complete Career of the Nickleby Family
1838–1839 in serial publication
Publication in book form
Approx. 323,000 words
Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) and Smike (Jamie Bell) escape in 2002 film adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby.
A hero prevails
Nicholas Nickleby (2002): Director Douglas McGrath; writer McGrath; featuring Charlie Hunnam, Jamie Bell, Christopher Plummer, Jim Broadbent, Nathan Lane, Anne Hathaway, Tom Courtenay, Edward Fox, Alan Cumming, Timothy Spall
It may be a second-level Charles Dickens, but that still makes Nicholas Nickleby great enough to warrant numerous adaptations. One of the best is the 2002 British-American film with an international cast of top theatrical talent.
The least accomplished of the actors may be the young man in the lead role. This film was made years before Charlie Hunnan became known as the star of TV's dark biker drama The Sons of Anarchy, and his blond, fresh-faced, good looks serves Dickens's naïve hero well. But as Nicholas learns to confront the evils of the world threatening his family and friends, Hunnan shows he has the acting chops for those dramatic scenes as well.
He's forced to. of course. as he's playing against such powerhouse actors as Canadian thespian Christopher Plummer, who practically steals the latter half of the show as the villain of the piece, Nicholas's money-obsessed uncle Ralph. The camera is kept on his face for long stretches as if it cannot tear itself away from the fascination of watching the man's smugness, comeuppance, brief hope and finally despair slowly and quietly play across those inward-looking features.
At the opposite extreme, the great British character actor Jim Broadbent is all outward as the boarding schoolmaster Wackford Squeers—whinging, roaring, bullying and fulminating as he and his equally despicable wife (Juliet Stevenson) mistreat the children in their care. Hired as a tutor to assist the Squeers, Nicholas has some of his most rousing scenes when he turns on them, stops the whippings and helps a crippled boy Smike (Jamie Bell) escape their service.
Something had to go
One actor we could use more of though is Nathan Lane. The role of the flamboyant theatre troupe owner, Vincent Crummles, seems to have been created for the comedic American actor. A clever bit of casting has Barry Humphries, known for playing Dame Edna on British television, taking the part of Crummles's daffy wife and troupe mother. It would be fun to see more of the shenanigans he and the rest of the colourful group get up to.
But Nicholas and Smike's refuge with them is cut short. This is understandable, as this whole section from the novel is a diversion from the book's main narrative and something has to be trimmed to fit the novel to movie length. But, in a nice touch, Crummles has one more theatrical performance when he and his players are reunited with Nicholas and his family in the film's happy conclusion.
Trailer for 2002 adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby.
Much else has to be cut from the original story—including many of the experiences of Nicholas's sister Kate and their mother—to focus on the titular hero in his escapades in overcoming the injustices directed against his family and friends.
But with a running time of just over two hours, this adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby seems delightfully faithful to the novel. At least on first viewing. It's only afterwards when reviewing the movie that someone who has read the book at some point is likely to remember, "Oh, yeah, this character is missing and that bit there was cut out...."
The spirit Dickens infused into his first heroic novel is there from beginning to end.