Nicholas Nickleby: Of Heroes and Family
- Janet Chismar Senior Editor, News & Culture
- 2003 9 Jan
"Every family needs a hero," touts promotional material for Nicholas Nickleby, the latest release from United Artists/Cloud Nine Films. And while the Lord Jesus is not the hero per se in this family or film, the underlying themes of good vs. evil, brotherly love, innocence and the battle against social injustice should resonate with Christian audiences.
Based on the novel by Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby was written for the screen and directed by Douglas McGrath, whose previous work includes Bullets Over Broadway and the adaptation of Jane Austin's Emma.
McGrath, who along with key cast members met with reporters in December, said he wanted to make the film "because it has something really inspiring to say to people." Nicholas Nickleby has a message "it never hurts to hear, and that's what makes it a classic - its message is always necessary to whatever generation hears it." According to McGrath, that message says good can triumph over evil.
"One of the harsh truths is that there is evil in the world," McGrath explained. "How do you go into a world that is full of hostile and unsympathetic people and find the good people? How do you resist the bad ones and hold on to your natural honor? Overcoming these obstacles is what makes Nicholas such an inspiring hero. Nicholas battles the various villains that confront him and retains his own innate goodness, coming out a better, stronger person."
According to McGrath, Charles Dickens was not just a storyteller, but a reform-minded philosopher. "He was not only ambitious for himself, but for a better world. He did not create his novels merely to exercise his storytelling skills, but to expose the cancers of the society in which his readers lived and, through their exposure, inspire improvement. By creating the stories he did and wounding us when terrible things happen to the people he has made us love, he enlists his readers in his causes."
One of the most lovable characters is a kindhearted and mistreated orphan named Smike. Played by Jamie Bell, best known for his role as "Billy Elliot," Smike has led an exceedingly miserable life. But Nicholas brings a ray of kindness and hope into Smike's dark world. According to the young actor, "I think the love that Smike has for Nicholas is a brotherly love; Nicholas is a hero for Smike. He's a savior and I think we all need saving at some point."
Charlie Hunnam, who plays Nicholas, was so passionate about the role that he flew himself to New York to meet with the producers. Hunnam said the role appealed to him because "the general state of humanity and the world is in such a precarious place, that I thought it would be nice to do something based on honor and virtue and goodness. Those are words that aren't too fashionable with young people and not something that many young people aspire to."
Because the character of Nicholas is so virtuous and because he takes on a type of savior role with both Smike and his own sister, some writers have called him "Christ-like." When asked about the comparison, Hunnam said, "The film is about goodness and I guess that was Jesus' whole deal-be good to your fellow man - and Nicholas has a pretty healthy respect for that. There are obvious parallels, too, as Nicholas goes on his journey and touches people's lives along the way and becomes a real champion in the fight of good against evil."
Evil personified, in this case, is Nickleby's Uncle Ralph, played by veteran actor Christopher Plummer. "Ralph Nickleby is a delectable character to sink one's teeth into," said Plummer in the film’s production notes. (Plummer was not available at the time of this interview.) "He's a complex man, a businessman whose aim in life has been only to protect his interests and those of his select friends. Nicholas and his sister are Ralph's nephew and niece, but he doesn't feel the same as they do about the bonds of family - he never has. At the end of the film, it's that one major flaw for which he pays the ultimate price.”
McGrath trimmed down the immense scope of the novel by constructing the film around Nicholas and Ralph - and the notion of family. But, McGrath explained, Dickens does not mean family "in the simplistic and manipulative way that our politicians do. He means something more complex."
Indeed, in Nicholas Nickleby, one of the villains is a part of the hero's family. "So, though Dickens offers the idea of family as an answer to the problems of a society, his answer carries a question in its wake: what is family? Is it merely one man, one woman, one son and one daughter? Or is it perhaps something larger, more forgiving, more generous in its parameters?
"In my film," McGrath added, "the story is shaped to answer those very questions. My film begins with a narrator asking us, 'What happens if too early we lose a parent, that party on whom we rely for only everything?' At the end of the film, the narrator answers his own question. He says we must 'build a new family, person by person.'"
Producers John Hart and Jeffrey Sharp "fell in love with Douglas' adaptation," according to Sharp. "I felt the story was every bit as relevant to our world today as when it was written. Dickens was one of the foremost social commentators of his day. Particularly with Nicholas Nickleby, as its serialization progressed in the newspapers, it uncovered many injustices in the way children were treated at the time. I also love Dickens's theme of creating a family in the absence of one, which is what Nicholas does throughout his journey."
In looking at the hundreds of characters Dickens created in his writings, Nicholas Nickleby is one of his most pure, Sharp noted. "There are no flaws in Nicholas other than his desire to overcome evil and reunite his family.
"For young people today, it's very hard to find a hero to really root for," he continued. "There are superheroes - Spiderman, Batman and the like - but I think Nicholas is a character they can relate to from their own world. In high schools across the globe, students are grappling with issues of violence and evil. It's important they can identify with a character like Nicholas. In a world as violent as ours, it's important for everyone."