Movies

How Armando Iannucci’s David Copperfield Differs From Charles Dickens’ Novel

The new movie adaptation gives some characters happier endings and makes others disappear.

David Copperfield book cover next to a still of Dev Patel as the title character in the new movie adaptation.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via QWERTY Books and Searchlight Pictures.

Charles Dickens’ longest novel has a title to match: The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery. That’s too much to fit on a film poster, though, which is probably why writer-director Armando Iannucci abbreviated it to The Personal History of David Copperfield in his new adaptation of the story, which is about the life, loves, and changing fortunes of a young Victorian boy who grows up to become a writer.

The title isn’t the only thing getting the chop: The director reunited with his The Thick of It and Veep collaborator Simon Blackwell to condense hundreds of pages into a tidy two-hour runtime. Meanwhile, the colorblind production casts several actors of color, including Dev Patel as the hero—something that goes largely unremarked upon beyond the occasional bit of dialogue. (For example, Benedict Wong’s frequently intoxicated Mr. Wickfield remarks that despite the earliness of the hour in England, it’s an acceptable time to drink in Singapore.) We’ve rounded up the other most significant changes from page to screen below.

Narration

David Copperfield is written as a first-person autobiography by the titular character, which the movie acknowledges through voice-over and with a frame story in which an adult David is reading his book to an audience—much like the real Dickens did. “Whether I turn out to be the hero of my own story, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these moments must show,” he begins in the theater, a paraphrase of the novel’s real opening line. Adult David also walks into scenes from his early childhood to observe, even standing watch as his mother is in labor.

Since David’s is the only perspective the book provides, everything is filtered through his viewpoint, something the film conveys visually. When David first approaches the Peggotty family’s residence as a child, the lighting and camera angles make it seem bright and grand, mimicking how David sees it in the book:

There was a delightful door cut in the side, and it was roofed in, and there were little windows in it; but the wonderful charm of it was, that it was a real boat which had no doubt been upon the water hundreds of times, and which had never been intended to be lived in, on dry land. That was the captivation of it to me. If it had ever been meant to be lived in, I might have thought it small, or inconvenient, or lonely; but never having been designed for any such use, it became a perfect abode.

But when David returns years later, now grown-up, self-conscious of his situation in life, and with a posh friend in tow, the boathouse appears washed out and small.

Young David

In the novel, David’s mother marries Mr. Murdstone, who mistreats him and then—when David fights back by biting his hand—sends him south to Salem House school, where he is forced to wear a sign that says “He bites” and to contend with the cruel headmaster, Mr. Creakle. After David’s mother dies (along with David’s half-brother), David returns home for a few months before being sent at age 10 to labor in the warehouse of Mr. Murdstone’s wine and spirits business.

Probably in the interest of time, Iannucci and Blackwell combine these two incidents from David’s early life, and Mr. Murdstone instead sends the boy straight to the factory. There, Mr. Creakle is the foreman, rather than the headmaster, and David still has to wear the sign identifying himself as a biter, only this time its bulk causes him to knock over a bottle. (The industry has been changed to a bootblacking factory, a reference to Dickens’ own life when he worked at such a business as a child when his father was imprisoned.) David’s lack of early education also becomes an issue later, when Mrs. Steerforth grills David about which school he attended, and he weakly answers, “Creakle’s.”

The movie also alters the timing of David’s mother’s death and how David receives the news. He’s already grown up into Dev Patel when he receives word that his mother has died and the funeral is “on Saturday.” When David asks about travel arrangements, he’s corrected: The funeral happened last Saturday, a fact that enrages him and leads him to destroy the factory. This contrasts with book, where David does attend the services, noting that “if the funeral had been yesterday, I could not recollect it better,” and in a memorable scene even listens to the sound of his mother’s coffin being made.

Minor Characters

Many minor characters from Dickens’ book are composited or eliminated altogether—and with good reason, since otherwise the cast list would be at least double the size. Indulgent mother Mrs. Steerforth takes on some of the qualities belonging to her companion in the book, Rosa Dartle, including her scarred lip from when James Steerforth threw a hammer at her when he was young. Other characters have been omitted entirely, including Dr. Strong, Miss Mowcher, and stagecoach driver Barkis, known for his catchphrase “Barkis is willin’.” Also absent are Martha Endell, who in the book falls from grace but redeems herself by helping save her friend Emily from the same fate, as well as David’s loyal school chum Tommy Traddles (though the latter does at least get a shoutout from Mr. Dick).

Agnes

While some characters have been eliminated or appear in reduced roles, others have theirs expanded. One such example is Agnes Wickfield, the woman David eventually ends up with, who is docile and angelic in the book but takes a more active role in the movie, stealing the documents needed to prove that the villainous Uriah Heep has been forging her father’s signature. “I wanted Agnes to be more than a match for David, and be able to kind of match him line for line in terms of wit and ability. So you could see how they are actually made for each other,” Iannucci told Radio Times.

Happy Endings

A number of supporting characters who die tragically in David Copperfield receive happier—if not always happy—fates on the screen. In the book, David marries young, naïve Dora Spenlow despite repeated warnings that they’re not a good match: “Child-wife” Dora can’t manage a household, and David can’t afford the lifestyle she wants. She dies following a miscarriage, and her beloved dog Jip perishes at the same time.

The movie plays around with Dora’s (and consequently Jip’s) role. When David is writing his adventures, Dora peers over his shoulder and notices that David has included her in the scene in which the characters confront Heep—even though she wasn’t there. In the book, Dora takes great pride in holding David’s pens while he works, but in the movie, she realizes that’s a pointless task and asks David to write her out of the story before leaving, breaking their engagement and saving herself.

In the final chapters of David Copperfield, two characters are killed in a single incident: selfish, troubled Steerforth, who is killed at sea, and Ham Peggotty, who dies trying to rescue him. Though Steerforth still meets his end, Ham is at least spared, and the surviving characters all gather for a party instead of leaving England for Australia as many do in the book.

King Charles I and Donkeys

One of the standout performances in the film comes from Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick, who does indeed fly a kite in the book to alleviate the belief that his head is full of King Charles I’s thoughts. The other is from Tilda Swinton, who plays David’s aunt Betsey Trotwood, who is as obsessed with donkeys spoiling her yard on the page as she is on the screen:

In whatever occupation she was engaged, however interesting to her the conversation in which she was taking part, a donkey turned the current of her ideas in a moment, and she was upon him straight. Jugs of water, and watering pots, were kept in secret places ready to be discharged on the offending boys; sticks were laid in ambush behind the door; sallies were made at all hours; and incessant war prevailed.

There are some things you just can’t cut.