by Erik Martz
I’m currently reading Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities—you know, the one that begins, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Though I’m only halfway through it, the book has already revealed all of the hallmarks that cause people to either love or hate Dickens. Sentences run on forever, sometimes for entire paragraphs, somehow fused together by a Victorian mess of colons, semicolons, and commas. The book is endlessly thoughtful and tangential, even for Dickens, who was never known to shy away from being verbose.
A Tale of Two Cities, like all Dickens books, was written serially for magazines and later compiled into one volume. This meant that Dickens had to write episodically, which naturally begs the question of whether he would have been a good TV writer. Anyone familiar with the television show Lost knows that the show profusely cited the author as an influence, even titling an episode “A Tale of Two Cities.” The producers of the show often talked about the kinship they felt with Dickens, unfolding a tome of a TV series episodically, being accused of making it up as they went along.
Well, they were making most of it up as they went along, but so did Dickens. It’s clear when you read his work that the man was driven by sudden thoughts and impulses, barely stringing them together in a cohesive narrative. A personal reflection from the chapter “The Night Shadows” in A Tale of Two Cities is a good example:
A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!
That second sentence is enough to make any captioner hide behind their keyboard. It’s one of Dickens’ many moments of profound lucidity, but it’s also the reason he could never have written for television. Dickens thought too much. A Dickens sentence was a journey; every clause was an excursion; every semicolon was a detour. Television is a friend to character study, but it’s an enemy to long-windedness. Dickens rarely wrote the former without the latter.
But Dickens is still beloved today for his redemptive story arcs and the boldly drawn characters that inhabit them, and his work will likely always be considered influential. You can of course find reruns of his work in syndication at your nearest library or bookstore. Don’t expect any new episodes, though. Not even Charles Dickens is that good.