What a challenge! To take Charles Dickens' epic semi-autobiographical novel David Copperfield, weighing in at a hefty 950 pages in my Penguin edition of the text, and develop it into a three-and-a-half-hour television miniseries. One might even question whether it can be done; or at least, whether it can be done and have the result bear any resemblance to the original source. The 1999 BBC presentation of David Copperfield demonstrates what can be accomplished with a clear artistic vision and excellent craftsmanship: it is an example of a literary adaptation done right, resulting in a very entertaining program that also happens to be very faithful to the original novel.
Dickens was a master at sketching memorable characters: he has more fascinating people in one chapter than many authors create in an entire novel. Furthermore, his plots were the epitome of Victorian melodrama: the assorted threads introduced over the course of the book are sure to come together at the end somehow. Of necessity, then, any adaptation of his works must face squarely the question of "what do we cut and what do we include?" One of the things that makes this version of David Copperfield work so well is that rather than trying to fit in absolutely every one of the characters and plots present in the novel, several characters and their corresponding sub-plots are cut entirely. This results in a much more satisfactory narrative flow than if all of the sub-plots had been included in a stripped-down manner.
Even with entire sections of the plot lifted out, all the major players are still present: David himself, his mother, his nurse Peggotty, his aunt Betsy Trotwood, his "sister" Agnes, the lovely Emily and her adoptive father Joe, his school friend Steerforth, the insidious Uriah Heep, and the exuberant (and penniless) Micawber, along with a generous number of important secondary characters. An important issue with a cast of characters of the size that we have in David Copperfield is introducing them and keeping track of them, and in this regard David Copperfield manages superbly. Director Simon Curtis does a good job of introducing each character in a memorable way, and since the story follows David as he grows up, we meet new characters at different times in the film, which makes it much easier to keep track of who's who. The only character whom I felt got short shrift was Uriah Heep; the early scenes with Heep don't provide as much context as the novel does for just how unpleasant he is, though by the end of the novel it's abundantly clear that he's a nasty guy.
Another excellent adaptation decision in the BBC production is to spend proportionately more time with David as a child than as an adult; the film spends nearly half of its running time on material that is presented in approximately one-third of the written text. After all, David Copperfield is a story about growing up; we need to see how the experiences that David has as a child shape who he becomes as an adult. Daniel Radcliffe's role as the young David is essential to setting the tone of the film, because in order to care for David as an adult, we have to care about him as a child. Radcliffe puts in an excellent, nuanced performance here; it's easy to see how he got the nod for his later star turn as Harry Potter.
One of the most striking things about David Copperfield is how well it captures the tone of Dickens' novel; no easy feat, since Dickens was both a comedic and a dramatic writer, and in David Copperfield he mixes melodrama with strongly autobiographical material. The cast of David Copperfield fits the bill very nicely, with talented actors who are able to present the characters as slightly larger than life, yet at the same time as real human beings. Particularly of note are the characters of Betsy Trotwood (Maggie Smith) and Micawber (Bob Hoskins), who have the most comedic roles but who must also be convincing as people near and dear to David.
David Copperfield is presented in a non-anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 transfer. I appreciate that it's presented in widescreen, but I do wish that they'd gone the extra mile to anamorphically enhance the image as well, since the only real fault in the transfer is a certain blurriness in the image that would have been resolved by the added resolution of an anamorphic transfer.
All in all, David Copperfield looks very nice, especially considering its television origin; in fact, it looks as good as a well-done transfer of a feature film. The print is clean, free of both noise and print flaws; I didn't see so much as a speckle throughout the film. Colors are warm, natural, and appealing to the eye.
The Dolby 2.0 track for David Copperfield is also quite good. As with the video, it's a nice, clean track, reproducing voices faithfully at both ends of the register. I did notice that at times the background elements (crowds, street noises, carriages) were just a trifle louder in comparison to the dialogue than they should have been, but the dialogue always remains clear and distinct.
Two minor special features are included on the disc: a cast list and image gallery. Web site access is also presented as an extra, but I am never too thrilled about web-only content; it's only available for so long as the producers want to keep the web site active, which may or may not be as long as you own the DVD.
One rather annoying feature of the DVD version of David Copperfield is the fact that it appears to have been transferred absolutely directly from the master source used for television broadcast. Thus, a preview for the film plays at the beginning of the film itself, a preview for the second half of the film is inserted into the middle of the program, and at the end of the program, before the credits roll, we jump to a very brief commentary segment from Masterpiece Theatre host Russell Baker. All of these elements are rather jarring, and really should have been edited out of the film to be included as separate special features.
Dickens' novels were the blockbuster best-sellers of his day, and it's easy to see why: they're crammed full of incident, with interesting plots, memorable characters, a leavening of humor and a touch of pathos. In short, as Micawber would say, they're highly entertaining. The 1999 BBC presentation of David Copperfield brings one of Dickens' most celebrated novels to the screen in grand style, presenting it with charm, vigor, and a keen sense of the strengths of the original material. It's highly recommended.