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Nipping ‘Nickleby’

Writer shapes hefty Dickens' tome for today's auds

I’ll tell you one question that never popped into my head during the months it took me to adapt Charles Dickens’ 777-page novel “Nicholas Nickleby” into a screenplay: How will I ever find enough material in this thing to fill two hours of screentime?

“Nicholas Nickleby” is an entertainment horn of plenty. Yet for an adapter, its wealth of characters and myriad overlapping storylines do not constitute a pure blessing: A banquet is a thing of joy only until you have to fit it onto your dinner plate. I knew the story would have to be rethought and I knew I could not simply keep the parts of the book I loved since I loved all of the book.

The film would then run 35 hours (34 if I cut the scene in the garden). Don’t ask me why, but so far theater owners resist films that can only be shown twice a week.

Though Dickens was a gripping storyteller, it would be reductive and wrong to say that’s all he was. It turns him into the Victorian Robert Ludlum (“The Nickleby Identity,” “The Pickwick Paradox,” “The Oliver Twist”), and if that were true, we would not know his name today. Much more importantly, he was a reform-minded philosopher who wanted the ideas behind his stories to challenge and change society.

He wrote “Nicholas Nickleby” to expose the appalling “school system” in Yorkshire that was essentially a dumping ground for unwanted children. I cannot pretend that I made my film to correct the inadequacies of the school system in Yorkshire, England. While I wish them all the best, it’s grisly enough trying to get my son into kindergarten in Manhattan.

But surely the wanton abuse of children still plagues us. (One need only think of the appalling tragedies in the Catholic Church reported last year to know how discouragingly modern this issue remains.) In many ways, the story of “Nicholas Nickleby” could come from our headlines: the maltreatment of children, sexual harassment of women, the ongoing feeling from so many well-to-do that the poor are deserving of their status, the sometimes ruinous vagaries of the financial markets. What could more accurately describe the fleecing of small-time investors that has marked the last few years of America’s business climate than Dickens’ own explanation of what happens to Nicholas’ father’s failed speculation: Four stock brokers took villa residences in Italy and 400 nobodies were ruined — Enron, anyone?

Thus, one of my jobs was to frame those ideas in a way that helped today’s audience hear them and feel the connection, utterly fresh and clear, with our world. And to make it feel all of a piece, I had to define for myself not only the ideas behind certain storylines, but the unifying idea behind all the events, seeking what it was that has made the story enchant and thrill audiences for almost 170 years.

So for a very long time, before I ever wrote a word of dialogue, I thought, pondered and dreamed “Nicholas Nickleby,” until I found its heart. (For some viewers I may have missed and only found its bladder.)

The story begins when Nicholas, just 19, becomes head of his family after the death of his father. He is suddenly in charge of his mother and sister, and he must try to find safety and happiness for all of them in a dangerous, often uncaring world. (So far, it could be “Rebel Without a Cause” or “Boyz N the Hood.”)

His family has come apart and his challenge is to put it back together, while fighting every kind of cruelty, without becoming cruel himself.

In one of those backward, thinking-about-the-ending first-routines that writers sometimes do, possibly just to avoid starting at the beginning, I wrote the toast that would be given at Nicholas’ wedding, when everything had finally come out all right, and he is gathered not only with his new wife but with all the friends who made his wedding, indeed, his very survival, possible. The speech, given by one of his new friends begins:

“In every life, no matter how full or empty one’s purse, there is tragedy. It is the one promise life always fulfills. Thus, happiness is a gift and the trick is not to expect it but to delight in it when it comes. And to add to other people’s store of it.”

He then personalizes the issue, saying, “What happens if too early we lose a parent, that party on whom we rely for only everything? What did these people (he refers to Nicholas and his bride and his sister) do when their families shrank?

“They cried their tears but then they did the vital thing. They built a new family, person by person. They came to see that family need not be defined merely as though with whom we share blood, but as those for whom we would give our blood.”

It was with those words that I crystallized what was for me, despite its sometimes dark and melancholy tones, the story’s joyously affirmative meaning. Working backward from that speech, and using an outline I had made from the novel that ran to more than 50 pages, I chose the parts of the story that best supported that idea and rebuilt the story that way.

For anyone adapting a book, there is a simple rule. One must both honor the book, and forget the book. The trick is figuring out when to do which.

(Douglas McGrath wrote and directed 2002’s “Nicholas Nickleby,” a Golden Globe best picture nominee.)