Faith & Thought

Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ Classically Adapted in 1935

by Father Robert Lauder 

I read Charles Dickens’ novel “A Tale of Two Cities” as part of a requirement in an English course I took in high school. I recall liking the novel very much. Though I do not recall many details of the plot, I do recall that reading the book was an assignment I enjoyed. 

It was probably more than 40 years later that I first saw the film version, which was made in 1935, and in which Ronald Colman starred as Sydney Carton, the main character and one of the most interesting main characters in any novel that I have read or in any film that I have seen. Recently I viewed the film again and now it has become one of my favorite films. 

I think it qualifies as a masterpiece. The following are some of the comments about the film in James Monaco’s wonderful book, “Movie Guide” (New York: Perigee Books, The Putnam Publishing Group, 1099 pp.): 

“Easily the best film version of Charles Dickens’ classic novel (out of at least seven) ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ follows the turmoil and aftermath of the French Revolution. Sydney Carton (Colman) is a world-weary London barrister. … 

“His last words as he ascends the scaffold have become so identified with Colman that they are almost impossible to say without slipping into his distinctive accent: ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.’ 

“This superb, lavish production features an MGM stock company playing every small role to perfection, and Colman gives one of the best performances of his life in a role he had long wanted to play. He captures Carton’s intellectualism, cynicism, self-pity, and nobility in equal measure, achieving a richness of characterization that would have pleased Dickens himself. … 

“The film has, in fact, many great moments, among the most beautiful of which is Carton’s walking through the snow as the holiday carolers go by. The finale, as Carton awaits death, is equally powerful and touching. In a small role as a seamstress also being executed, Isabel Jewel gets to pull off yet another marvelous dramatic vignette. 

“One of director Jack Conway’s finest efforts, the film never suffers from a sense that the novel has been compressed or rushed. Moving, fresh, and aware of its effects, this film stands as one of Hollywood’s finest adaptations of a novel” (930-931 pp.). 

In addition to the great moments that Monaco mentions I would add the scene in which Carton attends Mass on Christmas Eve. I see the scene very much as a conversion moment, the first step toward a new life for Carton. 

I cannot think of any group of people to whom I would not recommend this film except those in kindergarten and some in grammar school. Anyone either studying the French Revolution or interested in learning more about the French Revolution should profit from seeing this film. 

“A Tale of Two Cities” as a film has obvious religious themes. I cannot remember if the Dickens novel has those themes and if it does, how Dickens deals with them. I am hoping to reread the novel soon. I think that the film is a deeply religious film. 

In any program or course about film that I am involved with in the future I am going to insist that “A Tale of Two Cities” be part of the program or course. I would plan to emphasize the film’s religious themes and present the theology that underlies those themes. 

The primary reaction I am having toward the film at this moment is gratitude. What a wonderful service artists of every type perform for us! Great artists can reveal the most profound mysteries about human beings and even the most profound mysteries about God. 

My mind is going back to the 1930’s when the project to make a film of Dickens’ wonderful novel was being discussed and people were being chosen to contribute their skills and talents to the creation of the film. I have never been involved in any project resembling the creation of a film. 

Years are probably spent in trying to bring a great work of art into existence. So many must contribute and unfortunately mistakes can be made. Sometimes a film can fail because of one artist’s failure. I imagine that in creating a film, teamwork is very important. 

I suspect that unselfishness is essential. In creating something beautiful, and the film “A Tale of Two Cities” is beautiful, all the artists are called to believe in a creation that might educate and even inspire millions. The next time I am discussing films with friends I will be sure to mention “A Tale of Two Cities.”