The New David Copperfield Movie Might Be Better Than the Book

Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of Dickens’s novel is mad, loving, and brilliant.

illustration of Charles Dickens and Dev Patel
Illustration by Arsh Raziuddin; Fox Searchlight Pictures; Getty

The child and the writer are born at the same moment, to the same mother, each to his separate destiny. The child’s is to see everything, feel everything, be everything, and live in the scraps and sparks of language by which he understands everything; the writer’s is to wait, and hide, and grow, until the day when he steps in—pen in hand—to take possession.

In The Personal History of David Copperfield, Armando Iannucci’s mad, loving, and brilliantly cinematic extrapolation of the novel by Charles Dickens, the grown-up hero—now a successful author—attends his own birth. He also, later on, has a consoling, avuncular chat with his frightened boy-self. David Copperfield (1850) was Dickens’s characteristically rowdy variant on the inward investigation that William Wordsworth had undertaken in his long poem The Prelude. It was the novel, in the words of Dickens’s friend and biographer, John Forster, in which he took “all the world into his confidence.”

David’s labile, one-crush-after-another nature was by all reports close to Dickens’s own. And David’s story—of being stunted and oppressed by terrible adults (largely of the professional classes); cherished and protected by wonderful adults (largely of the laboring classes); caught for a time in the gears of the Industrial Revolution (working in a factory at the age of 12); surviving, stormily, and by a mighty expansion of his sensibility—is Dickens’s life not fictionalized but mythicized.

Today the book reads unevenly and, in a strange way, un-Dickensianly. It billows, it sags, it contracts suddenly to a point of diamond hardness and then billows and sags again. This is Dickens in his middle period, with confused middle-period energies; the fairy-tale intensity of the early work—of, say, Oliver Twist—is behind him, and the sorcerous glooms of Our Mutual Friend are not yet glimpsed. Also: David Copperfield, in manhood, is not an especially interesting person. (“He’s such a drip,” commented a friend of mine.) But if you can rise above your need for coherence and carefully graded shifts in tone, then David Copperfield becomes a kind of fun-house ride, jolting you about with an almost modernist brusqueness. The comedy is wild and timeless; the melodrama is strained and alien.

And because it’s Dickens, one character contains this opposition within his own body: the bipolar optimist Mr. Micawber, always in debt, always speculating. Micawber is a comic creation who sees himself melodramatically; he makes windy threats of self-destruction, and despairingly flourishes a straight razor in the air, but can be distracted—morally revived, even—by the approach of a hot kidney pudding and a plate of shrimp. Dickens has also introduced into his text the pathogen Uriah Heep, David’s great enemy. Heep hates our virtuous hero with a visionary, almost saintly hatred. He hates him like poison, like kryptonite, like the last crawling hypocrisy on Earth.

Dickens was a radical artist. Half a century before James Joyce wrote the first lines of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in shining polymorphous baby talk—“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road”—Dickens was lowering his language probe into the earliest, most germinal moments of subjectivity. “The first objects that assume a distinct presence before me,” narrates David in the book’s second chapter (titled “I Observe”), “as I look far back, into the blank of my infancy, are my mother with her pretty hair and youthful shape, and Peggotty [David’s nanny] with no shape at all, and eyes so dark they seemed to darken their whole neighbourhood in her face.” As with Joyce, we are inside the perceptual theater of actual babyhood. Hair, shape, eyes, shadow—the details loom separately, almost unrelatedly, out of a supercharged vagueness.

Iannucci’s movie flings itself into all of this. The vibration is dreamlike. Sets collapse, or turn into stage curtains that blow open into the next scene. Dev Patel, as David, is gangling, huge-eyed, heavy-breathing: cartoonish, in the best sense. The multicolored casting is both an anti-hegemonic kick in the ass and a Brechtian device: It keeps us aware of the fictive nature of the proceedings. Excess seems to warp or bulge out of every frame, and every story line wants to go writhing off on its own. There are compressions and contractions; one senses steaming coils of surplus footage, whole subplots excised. Warm work in the editing suite, I imagine.

Iannucci, a writer and director on Veep and The Death of Stalin, is the sharpest of comic minds, a master of competing registers, and he knows what he’s doing. Indeed, having the artistic advantage of not being Charles Dickens, of being able to see around the edges of that enormous personality, he knows in a couple of places better than Dickens himself what David Copperfield is about. In one particularly inspired digression, he gives us a long scene in which David ingratiates himself with his fellow schoolboys by means of his gift for impressions: physical caricatures of teachers and other boys, feats of mimicry, their entertainment value in direct proportion to their cruelty, that have his peers in stitches.

This, not to put too fine a point on it, is one way that a writer becomes a writer—by cultivating, as a defense mechanism, a merciless eye for weakness. (Dickens’s own talent for impressions became, rather unsettlingly, part of his literary process; his daughter Mamie recorded watching him work one morning, “when he suddenly jumped from his chair and rushed to a mirror which hung near, and in which I could see the reflection of some extraordinary facial contortions which he was making. He returned rapidly to his desk, wrote furiously for a few moments, and then went again to the mirror.”) Iannucci works magic elsewhere, too. Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep, his wit playing along the knife edge between self-abasement and contempt, is stranger and more dangerous than even Dickens could manage; in his final, explosive unmasking—“You and yours have always hated me and mine!”—he rears up into nihilistic grandeur, achieving a kind of punk-rock nobility.

Dickens was not an egalitarian; he was an everyone’s-invited elitist. Beneath his eye we are all aristocrats of human nature, simply by virtue of possessing it. His characters have a hyperbolic presence, a hyperbolic value, and if they are frequently deluded about one another, those delusions just as frequently turn out to be beautiful. David’s Aunt Betsey regards her broken-minded lodger, Mr. Dick (limpidly and wonderfully portrayed by Hugh Laurie in the movie), as a man of great wisdom; and so, it transpires, he is. Mrs. Micawber has unbudgeable faith in her hopeless husband; her faith is rewarded.

This basic grasp of essential human worth was behind Dickens’s horror (recognized and saluted by his contemporary and fellow Londoner Karl Marx) at the exploitation of children, working people, and the poor: It was a sort of outraged innocence. “From the reformer is required a simplicity of surprise,” wrote G. K. Chesterton in his book on Dickens. “He must have the faculty of a violent and virgin astonishment. It is not enough that he should think injustice distressing; he must think injustice absurd, an anomaly in existence.” And it’s this primal double take—at the shape of this person’s nose, at that person’s verbal or conceptual tics, at the fact that 12-year-olds can be put to work in factories—that is the keynote of Dickens’s work. In his ends were his beginnings; as in Iannucci’s movie, the writer supernaturally assisted at the birth of the child, which was his own birth, too. He was, in this way, the complete—the total—novelist. His humanity was enormous, and fully alive to itself. He knew us all so well, and we never stopped blowing his mind.

This article appears in the September 2020 print edition with the headline “David Copperfield’s Wild Ride.”