Put family under a microscope, and one finds a complex organism. Writer-director Doug McGrath’s current film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby does just that. Through McGrath’s lens, audiences see all sorts of familial building blocks: sons, uncles, friends.

Writer-director Doug McGrath’s current film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby does just that. Through McGrath’s lens, audiences see all sorts of familial building blocks: sons, uncles, friends.

The film’s narrator begins by asking a fundamental question for the story to follow: “What happens if too early we lose a parent, that party on whom we rely for only everything?”

Nicholas Nickleby answers that question in the way he lives: by building a new family. McGrath, appearing with his principal cast members at a recent press junket in New York, pointed out that the family Nicholas builds is unorthodox.

“When his family falls apart … he makes a decision: I’m going to build a new family. And it’s not just, ‘I’m going to get a wife.’ It’s not just that,” McGrath said. “He builds a much bigger family.”

“I think Dickens was writing ahead of his time,” said Jamie Bell, who plays crippled orphan Smike. “The way he looked at families was a very 20th-century, 21st-century view on family life. The idea that one can choose who we want in our families is a very 21st-century thing.”

“Me, I experienced it myself,” Bell said. “My mom and dad got divorced before I was born, so I was raised in a single-parent household. And then Stephen Daldry came along. He made ‘Billy Elliot’ with me, and we became very close friends. So he’s kind of taken on a father figure, and that’s really important to me. And we chose that relationship. And I think that’s what’s illustrated in the movie as well.”

“What’s so democratic about Dickens’ approach is that the family Nicholas puts together for himself and gathers together with and in a very kind way looks after, they’re all-not all, but almost all-from the bottom of society,” McGrath said.

“Smike is crippled … That’s his best friend. The woman he falls in love with is destitute. Her father’s going to prison. His other best friend, Nogs, who’s kind of like a father figure to him, is an alcoholic. The Crummles, need we say more-actors!” McGrath said. In Dickens’ time, actors were just a wrung above prostitutes in terms of respect.

“And the other friends are the Cheerybles, the twins,” McGrath added. “And they are businessmen, and they are successful, and their kindness to him helps him very much. And I like that too, because Dickens isn’t just saying, ‘Rich people, bad; poor people, good good good.’ It’s much more complex and sophisticated than that.”

Ralph (Christopher Plummer), Nicholas’ rich uncle who mistreats the Nickleby family after Nicholas’ father dies, is awful, however.
“Ralph wasn’t born evil,” McGrath said. “He got there through a series of choices he made.”

“Nicholas looks at Ralph and he thinks, ‘That’s what I could become, shut off from every tender feeling, every charitable feeling, every kind feeling, and very much alone, in a house full of strangely stuffed objects,'” McGrath said.

In fact, McGrath said this central question was one of the reasons he was so drawn to the story: “How do I battle wickedness or immorality, or however you want to characterize it-villainy, evil-and not become evil? How do I not become the person I’m trying to defeat?”

“If it weren’t such a bad title, I would’ve changed to name to ‘Nicholas and Ralph Nickleby’ because it’s their story,” McGrath said.

McGrath said the lessons Nicholas learned also drew him to the material. Nicholas “learns, through his actual journey and his emotional journey that, to find any happiness on this earth, you must belong to someone,” McGrath said. “You cannot be alone. You have to belong to someone and feel someone belongs to you. This is what I take from it all.”

Though Nicholas surrounds himself with many loved ones, he does fall in love with Madeline Bray, a destitute young woman.

Anne Hathaway, who plays Madeline, spoke of her research for the role, and how she dealt with the idea of personal happiness versus personal sacrifice.

“I did a lot of research about the typical behavior of children of alcoholics, because that’s a large part of the way Madeline defines herself, is by her father,” Hathaway said.

“I think, in order to be a complete, self-actualized human being, you need to learn to take care of other people, but know yourself well enough to know your needs as well.” Madeline’s own struggle illustrates part of the complexity of family life, as Dickens and McGrath understand it.

“Being an artist, Dickens does not mean it [family] in the simplistic and manipulative way that our politicians do,” McGrath wrote in his introduction to a new edition of Dickens’ novel. “He means something more complex. Indeed, in Nicholas Nickleby, one of the villains is a part of the hero’s family.”

“You think of what our politicians say, from any party, it doesn’t matter. They all say ‘family this, soccer mom that, family family.’ And then you often find out that their idea of a family-it is a generous idea of a family, in some ways-includes their secretary, their nurse, and that things are going on that aren’t always about family values,” McGrath said at the junket. “And I believe there are certainly some politicians who are genuinely fighting for the family, but I think most of them think, ‘If I come out for family, it’s a non-divisive issue, because everyone’s for the family.'”

Since one of the villains in the story is Nicholas’ uncle Ralph, Dickens is “not saying family is perfect,” McGrath said. “But I think he’s saying it’s the most perfect thing we have. He’s saying you can’t be excused just because you’re in the family if you’re a villain.”

“Nicholas Nickleby,” according to McGrath, is “an astounding affirmation of family, yet it’s not a simple view of it.”

Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director for EthicsDaily.com.

“Nicholas Nickleby” opens nationwide Friday, Dec. 27.

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