Adaptations of the Final Pages of TOTC

A Tale of Two Cities has been adapted many times and in many different formats. Here are a few of the cinematic and televisual representations of Sidney’s last moments.

To start with, some fantastic footage from a silent American adaptation of 1911:

Poor Sidney is chatting away on the scaffold, presumably delivering his famous final words to the sans-culottes. The cut to the happy Manette-Darnay family is interesting – and faithful to the text.

Here’s the Ronald Colman film version of 1935:

Colman is a wonderfully expressive actor and I think this is a really moving adaptation (although the seamstress’s American accent is vaguely disconcerting).

This is the most well-known and probably most widely viewed version, starring Dirk Bogarde (1958). [You can only watch this on YouTube; start watching from around 1 hour 46 minutes 10 seconds (1:46:10).]

Despite the lurid, apocalyptic, Hammer Horror style of the promotional poster, there is actually a moving stillness in this version’s final scenes and it’s the most faithful, with Sidney delivering a lot of his final interior monologue as voice-over. Dirk Bogarde, like Ronald Colman, manages wonderfully to convey Sidney’s sadness with only his facial expressions.

Here’s the 1980 TV drama:

Some of this is a little bit silly — the actor playing Sidney is as wooden as the scaffold and would the aristocrats in the tumbrils still be in possession of their finest clothes and periwigs (not, perhaps, the most practical thing to wear to the guillotine)? — but the anger of the crowds seems more in keeping with the tone of Dickens’s text and I love The Vengeance (‘Kill him!’).

Here’s the final duet between the seamstress and Sidney in a musical version broadcast on PBS in the United States. If you hate musicals, you will really hate this!

Please do let us know in the comments section below of any adaptations you’ve seen/read/heard.

Also, if you haven’t yet then please do take a moment to let us know your thoughts on the blog and the entire serial reading experience.

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About Ben Winyard

Ben Winyard is the Digital Publications Officer at Birkbeck, University of London. He completed his PhD at Birkbeck, where he also worked as an intern on '19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century' (www.19.bbk.ac.uk). More recently, he worked as a postdoctoral researcher and senior editor on the Dickens Journals Online project (www.djo.org.uk).

11 thoughts on “Adaptations of the Final Pages of TOTC

  1. Great post, Ben! I especially appreciate the inclusion of the 1911 scene — I’ve never seen any of that version before.

    The Bogarde version is actually not the best known, I believe; in my experience, most people are familiar either with the Colman version or the James Wilby version (1989). But I WISH Bogarde’s were the best known. It’s my own personal favorite.

    I agree with you that Chris Sarandon was a dreadful Carton. I don’t know why; I’ve seen him play other parts and do very well. But he flubbed this one.

  2. I like the way that executioner just kind of hucks that head at around 3:50 in the silent film. Not the most elegant silent film ever, but their Sydney is a good looking fellow.
    My fave’s the James Wilby one, not because he’s a particularly good actor but because it doesn’t ever stray too far from the source material.

    • I had completely forgotten about the James Wilby version, which I saw and loved as a child, so thanks, both, for reminding me. There don’t seem to be many clips of it on YouTube, unfortunately, but if anybody else finds clips then please do link to them here. James Wilby will forever be Maurice to me, so it’s funny to see Maurice in eighteenth-century gear! I was surprised at how similar Colman and Bogarde look; I wonder if other people confuse them. The silent version was a real find — wonderful stuff!

  3. I do like musicals, and I still hated that.

    Did you note how the moment when Carton dictates a letter to Darnay is lost in the silent version? I know it’s made a lot of cuts, but it’s interesting that in the text, Dickens uses a letter as device to express Carton’s thoughts, while in film this moment is taken out as presumably one that will not translate so directly to the medium. Likewise, the changing of those final words from ‘what Carton might have thought’ to ‘what he says’. It’s very difficult to translate this moment to screen because the temptation is there (and this was particularly noticeable in the musical version) of the actor relishing the moment, which just detracts from its poignancy and threatens to redefine Carton’s death as attention-seeking, when it is not in the text.

      • I’d also like to know if anyone knows of any non English language adaptations besides the one above.

      • Just watched the musical! I particularly like/hate (attraction and repulsion very much blended here) the added dialogue – something like (I’m not watching it again to check):
        Seamstress: Don’t you have anyone?
        Carton: I had them. They gave me a family, now I’m giving it back.
        This seems to tap into our conversations about the limited, posthumous form of the family of choice established through Sydney’s ghostly presence in the Manette family. Dickens gives a more affirming answer to this through the older bachelor of Mr Lorry. The musical has reminded me of a moving dialogue between Mr L and Carton in instalment 24, when Carton is setting things in motion for his own death. Mr L describes himself as ‘a solitary bachelor’, ‘there is nobody to weep for me’, and Carton points out that he is wrong:
        C ‘How can you say that? Would she weep for you? Wouldn’t her child?
        Mr L ‘Yes, yes, thank God. I didn’t quite mean what I said’.

  4. Thanks for reminding us of that gorgeous little snippet of dialogue between the two bachelors, Holly. I also found it very moving. I wonder if Mr Lorry’s modesty and self-doubt represent a less extreme version of Sidney’s more viciously lacerating self-loathing. Is Dickens suggesting a continuum here? Dickens seems sensitive, I feel, to the ‘liminal’ status of bachelors, their adoptive state within families filling them with self-doubt and an acute, painful sense of their vulnerability. Even Mr. Lorry seems uncertain if, or refuses to quite believe that, he is loved by his adoptive family. Is Dickens suggesting a psychology by which individuals so fear the vulnerability that love brings that they choose to remain alone and painfully ‘safe’? I wonder if this vulnerability explains Sidney’s more desperate, perhaps even violent, attempt to forever secure the love and affection of his adoptive family through his self-sacrifice? This thought makes me feel very sad, though!

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