Contrast the following plot synopses of Dickens's last novel:

Left half finished at Dickens's death, Edwin Drood centers on the disappearance of an imperialist-in-the-making and addresses the theme of empire and crime in several ways: through the ambitions of Edwin Drood, whose plans to "go engineering into the East" and "to wake up Egypt a little" are forestalled by his presumed death; through the experiences of Helena and Neville Landless, twins from Ceylon, the latter of whom is widely suspected of Drood's murder, despite the allegiance of Reverend Crisparkle, the minor canon of Cloisterham cathedral, and Mr. Tartar, a former naval officer; through the characterization of John Jasper, Drood's uncle, an opium-addicted choirmaster whom Dickens apparently planned to unmask as Drood's murderer; and through the plight of Rosa Bud, who (with Drood's consent) dissolves their long-standing engagement to be married and is secretly yet relentlessly pursued by Jasper. [Nayder 183]


Dickens' Immortal Tale of Intrigue and Suspense.

On a stormy Christmas Eve, young, handsome Edwin Drood vanishes from his quiet country village [sic] without a trace. His disappearance sets off a terrifying murder mystery that unfolds amidst dank tombs, underground crypts, and the squalid slums of Victorian England. Soon a village choirmaster, a chaste orphan betrothed to Drood, and a young stranger in love with the beautiful orphan are ensnared in a web of passion, lust and intrigue. In this haunting atmosphere of dark foreboding, a victim is stalked, and a meticulous and murderous plan builds into a stark battle between good and evil. Solving the riddle of Drood's vanishing will expose not only a killer's identity, but the inequities of the repressed society that spawned such moral corruption. [A & E Home Video 10070]

The difference between the two descriptions amounts to more than the distinctions between two post-modernist schools of criticism, the Post-Colonial and the Psychological, for the former is a dispassionate analysis by a scholar while the latter is the racey blurb by a film promoter: 'Dickens in the Academy' versus 'Dickens Gone Hollywood', if you will. Scholarship looks for underlying patterns and socially relevant themes; the film industry wants to purvey violence, sexual rivalry, moral corruption, and domestic intrigue in a stylish, Victorian package. Such a distinction may be made between such notable twentieth-century cinematic adaptations of Dickens's last novel designed to appeal to popular taste and the more cerebral interpretations of critics such as George Gissing, who sees throughout the story the "true touch of the master satirist" (Vol. 3, 202). Sadly this is the dimension that is most lacking in the 1935 and 1993 film versions of Dickens's only murder-mystery novel.

Although two silent-film versions of The Mystery of Edwin Drood exist, these 1909 and 1914 black-and-white cinematic adaptations are now rarities not available to the general public. The most significant and available film versions are those directed by Stuart Walker and adapted for the screen by Leopold Atlas and J. L. Balderston in 1935, starring Claude Rains as John Jasper (87 minutes, B & W), and by Timothy Forder (who provided the screenplay) in 1993, starring Robert Powell (98 minutes, Colour). Walker (1887-1941), an American film pioneer, produced and directed a total of twenty-five films between 1931 and 1940, although he has but one screenplay to his credit. His most noteworthy project from a Dickensian perspective was the 1934 adaptation of Great Expectations (now eclipsed in memory by David Lean's much more satisfying 1946 version), written by Gladys Unger and starring Jane Wyatt as Estella and Francis L. Sullivan as Jaggers, with a cast that included young Alan Hale (Joe) and Walter Brennan (an unnamed convict aboard a hulk). Both the 1935 and the 1993 Drood films are classified as "mysteries," not merely because of the original book's title but because of their emphasis on crime and detection; the earlier film is also classified as "horror," partly because of the casting of veteran horror-film villain Claude Rains as John Jasper and partly because of the script's presenting Jasper as yet another example of a Victorian gentleman with a hidden life amounting to an alter-ego, the locus classicus being R. L. Stevenson's 1886 novella Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Prior to the 1993 adaptation, according to Philip Bolton, there had been only two film adaptations, the 1935 "talkie" and the silent film (England: Solax-Ideal Motion Pictures) realeased on 14 October 1914 and directed by naturalized American/British-born Herbert Blache, starring Tom Terriss (who also co-wrote the screenplay and co-directed) as Jasper, a production disparagingly reviewed in 1916 in Dickensian XII (pp. 61-3). (Despite his having failed to note Arthur Gilbert's 1909 British silent film which starred Cooper Willis as Edwin, Nancy Bevington as Rosa, and James Annand as Neville, Bolton reliably indicates that the novel was popular as the subject of radio plays, listing eight adaptations for that medium by BBC and Radio New Zealand between 1914 and 1981.) Blache (1882-1953), another American film pioneer, directed 52 films between 1912 and 1926, produced eleven films between 1912 and 1916, and wrote screenplays for five between 1913 and 1917. Terriss directed 42 films between 1914 and 1928, served as a screenwriter for fourteen, and acted in at least eight between 1914 and 1919, including The Chimes (1914), in which he took the role of Trotty Veck (actor Alfred Hemming also appeared in both 1914 Dickensian cinematic adaptations).

II. The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Universal, 1935)

The Mystery of Edwin Drood directed by Stuart Walker, produced by Edmund Grainger, and written by Leopold Atlas and John L. Balderston. Black and white. 87-minutes. Universal Studios, 1935. VHS ISBN 0-7832-1744-7.

A veteran team of Universal Studios' screenwriters, working in the 1930s Hollywood film milieu, transformed Dickens's 1870 psychological study of a respectable bourgeois with a hidden life into something of a horror-thriller, with screen notable Claude Rains taking the leading as the drug-crazed, obsessed John Jasper. Working in the genre so well established by director Rouben Mamoulian and screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein with 1931's Oscar-winning Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Frederic March as the Victorian physician with a dark side, director Stuart Walker, then 48, cast Claude Rains in the lead. Remembered today chiefly for his role as Captain Renault in Casablanca (1942), Rains, then 47, was already the veteran of five films, including the horror films The Invisible Man (1933) and The Clairvoyant (1934), in which he took the eponymous roles, and The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1934). Although he had previously been a director of nine straight romances and dramas, after his sortie into the horror genre Walker directed Werewolf of London (1935) and produced six instalments in the highly successful Bulldog Drummond detective-action series (1937-1939) before his death in 1941. Sure to strike a responsive chord with movie-goers in the mid-thirties, the Svengali-like characters that Rains had recently played made him the logical Universal star for the lead in the horror movie (re)interpretation of Dickens's novel; he had, as it were, the Hollywood credentials to tackle the role of the respectable choirmaster turned opium addict and murderer in this, his fourth film.

Part of the "Hammer Horror" series now available on VHS, the 1935 adaptation of Dickens's novel featured as its principals Claude Rains (John Jasper) and Douglass Montgomery (Neville Landless), and the script by John L. Balderston and Gladys Unger (who had adapted Great Expectations for the silver screen just the year before) certainly provides a narrative dominated by the fixated choirmaster with the hidden life and the Ceylon-born immigrant who proves a master of disguise. The VHS cover succinctly describes Claude Rains's character as "an opium-addicted choirmaster of an English cathedral, who is accused of killing his nephew, Edwin Drood (David Manners). All clues point to Jasper because of his passionate infatuation with Drood's fiancée, Rosa Bud (Heather Angel), but there are others with motives. . . ." In fact, as this description suggests, director Stuart Walker made this a relatively straightforward adaptation of the novel, including even the character of Dick Datchery, although he excised the genial sailor, Lieutenant Tartar, and the xenophobic philanthropist, Luke Honeythunder, possibly for clarity and more likely for the sake of wrapping up the "classic Dickensian whodunit" expeditiously. That the original story ends with Drood missing and presumed murdered was not acceptable for the Hollywood screenwriters: in the 1935 film, John Jasper strangles Drood to eliminate his rival for the affections of Rosa, dumping the body into a pit of quicklime and attempting to frame Neville the murder. The newcomer has inconveniently positioned himself as the most likely suspect because, by his own admission "having taken a knife" to his stepfather in Ceylon, he has given vent to his violent temper in a recent altercation with Drood, whom he had threatened with an exotic, Eastern dagger hanging on the wall in Jasper's bachelor rooms.

As the film opens, images of Cloisterham, focusing on the young ladies of The Nuns' House and Rosa Bud in particular, flood in delirious succession through the consciousness of opium-smoker John Jasper, who goes by the pseudonym "Mr. Orridge" when a client of the Opium Woman (who strangely enough is never once called "Princess Puffer" in this adaptation). Assuring himself that he has revealed nothing about himself or his plans while under the influence of the narcotic, having already smoked five pipes, John Jasper staggers out of the opium den, sure enough of himself (based on the incoherence of other narcotized customers) to short change his dealer as he leaves.

The musician's shiny boots, so out of place in so vile a resort, facilitate the transition to a sphere more appropriate to a "gentleman," the Cloisterham cathedral. He no sooner begins a tenor solo after the commencement of the service than he is "taken poorly" with an opium-induced coughing fit. He has apparently, as the clerical figures conversing about the choirmaster's condition remark, been going up to London twice a week for "treatments," but the dialogue never in fact reveals John Jasper's malady. Perhaps this mysterious ailment is nothing than a sort of bovarysma: "The cramped monotony of my existence grinds my life away," he remarks to his nephew afterwards, as if his talents are ill-matched to his role of music master and music teacher in a small, out-of-the-way cathedral town. However, aside from his aborted solo and furious direction of Rosa in an after-dinner recital, the film provides us with scant evidence of such thwarted musical genius.

We next meet the twenty-one-year-old nephew Edwin in the bachelor rooms of his thirty-four-year-old uncle, who has given pride of place above the mantle to a watercolour painting (described in the dialogue as a "drawing") of his fiancée, Rosa, whose eighteenth birthday we learn is tomorrow. Thus, the film has quickly established, even before the arrival by coach of Neville Landless (David Manners) and his sister Helena (Valerie Hobson), the possibility of a romantic triangle involving the uncle, the nephew, and the fiancée.

John Jasper seems alarmed when Edwin announces his intention to marry the beautiful Rosa, although she is just an adolescent, and "carry her off to Egypt." The gift of gloves, which Edwin had also presented Rosa on her previous birthday, implies his taking her for granted. On the subsequent walk to "discuss something important," she wearily acknowledges the necessity for going through with the marriage despite her distaste for Egypt. Rosa's consuming all of the Turkish delight without thinking to offer Edwin any implies that she, too, takes her fiancée for granted. The girl's enjoyment of an exotic Eastern sweetmeat but her lack of relish for the trip to the East point to the conflicting values that the colonial world represents in Dickens's novel, which juxtaposes such negatives as the importation of opium with such positives as Neville Landless's manly character.

After the arrival of Neville and Helena Landless (who do not look particularly Eurasian, let alone like twins), the romantic triangle solidifies. While Miss Twinkleton (Ethel Griffies) leads her charges about Cloisterham, the Ceylonese twins are arriving by coach. When his distinctive hat is blown off, it is recovered and returned by Rosa, underscoring the film's use of personal possessions to connect characters--the hat figures prominently once again when, Neville having left his hat in Jasper's rooms, Jasper takes the opportunity of returning it to Crisparkle to magnify the intensity of the altercation between the young men. Immediately, the pair seem much taken with each, a somewhat inept use of the convention of love at first sight to motivate Neville's championing her and her breaking off the engagement with Edwin. The mutual attraction develops at the dinner party at the Crisparkles'. The dialogue underscores Neville's being foreign from the point at which, as he alighted from the coach, one of the other passengers pronounced him a "heathen." Even the knowledgeable Miss Twinkleton, however, fails to locate the island of Ceylon precisely, implying English ignorance about the Empire even in those who ought to know.

The mercurial Neville seems very unlike the dark, brooding youth of the novel, even though he confesses to attempted murder and admits that he was prepared to hate Crisparkle (possibly because he was to perform a quasi-paternal role). As in the novel, however, after Rosa's solo, the young men nearly come to blows over Edwin's apparent neglect of Rosa and Neville's racial background. When Neville intimates that men in his country show proper respect for their women, Edwin pointedly rejoins: "We English don't encourage fellows with dark skins to admire our girls." Jasper, although perhaps not directly responsible for the quarrel as in the novel (since there is no implication that he has laced the young men's drinks), takes advantage of the altercation to initiate a malicious rumour about Neville; in a series of quick vignettes, the narrative of the knife assault becomes more and more lurid--and improbable--with each re-telling.

The film from this point more or less follows the storyline of the novel, minimizing the roles of the street-urchin Deputy (the distinctly American Georgie Ernest), the sagacious Grewgious (Walter Kingsford), and especially the magisterial Sapsea (E. E. Clive), but making good use of Durdles (Forrester Harvey) and the opium-woman (Zeffie Tillbury). After the disappearance of Edwin Drood, the script increasingly focuses on Jasper's obsession with Rosa. As in the book, he leans calmly on the sun-dial in the garden of The Nuns' House as he professes his love for her: although he has devoted himself to finding the murderer of his dear boy, he promises to renounce his quest if she agrees to return his affection, even at the expense of lost vengeance. Sensing that Neville is threatened, however, Rosa immediately afterward informs--not her guardian, lawyer Grewgious, but Neville. And, as in the book, he is apprehended outside of time and interrogated about the events of the previous night.

The plot of the film now takes a somewhat surprising series of turns, as Neville is revealed to be in league with Grewgious; the pair apparently have conspired to reveal Jasper's guilt by setting Neville disguised as Dick Datchery to rent a room at Mrs. Tope's (Vera Buckland) and spy on the choirmaster. Conveniently, in Jasper's rooms Datchery finds a wax impression of a large key, which leads Grewgious to conclude that the choirmaster has used such a key to gain unauthorized entrance to a tomb or monument. Under the influence of the narcotic in the opium den Jasper reveals how a thousand times he has enacted the strangling of somebody, then cries out for Ned ("Why didn't you tell me?" he cries, alluding to the broken engagement) and Rosa ("Nobody shall have her but me!"), before he attempts to strangle the opium-woman. When her body is subsequently discovered in Datchery's rooms, Jasper pretends not to recognize her, but the fact that the fringe she still clutches match those on Jasper's scarf.

When Datchery, participating in the opening of the tomb in the crypt, reveals himself as Neville, Jasper vainly attempts to strange him, then makes away just as the Mayor, Crisparkle, and others arrive, summoned by Datchery's note (dispatched through Durdles) that he has found Edwin Drood. In the ensuing pursuit, we see torches ascending the bell-tower. Trapped at the top, Jasper leaps to his death in the square below, crying "Rosa!" with his final breath.

The 1935 film is true to Dickens's intention in the book, according to George Gissing, that John Jasper would discover the folly of eliminating Drood since the nephew and Rosa intended to break their engagement, and that the crime was to be resolved by the discovery of a gold ring that had resisted the quicklime. "Rosa was to marry Tartar, and Crisparkle the sister of Landless, who was himself to have perished in helping Tartar to arrest the murderer" (201). In the 1935 film, although the distinctive ring provided by Rosa's mother for her daughter's eventual engagement turns out to be the key to identifying the lime-decomposed body in the floor of the cathedral crypt, in a swift denouement Rosa marries Neville Landless in The Nuns' House as the bells in Cloisterham Cathedral chime, proclaiming the erstwhile mystery a romance of sorts after all.

III. The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1993)

The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Directed and scripted by Timothy Forder, produced by Mary Swindale and Keith Hayley. 1993. VHS. AAE-10070.

These surely must be some of the fastest-moving 98 minutes in the history of the adaptation of Dickens's works for stage and screen. Despite the fine atmosphere engendered by filming on location in Rochester, much of the action seems excessively compressed and transition between scenes is, at best, abrupt, and at worst disconcerting, suggesting that Timothy Forder in writing the screenplay anticipated that his television audience would largely be composed on people who had already read the novel.

Bazzard, Grewgious's (Glyn Houston) confidant and assistant, Miss Twinkleton (Gemma Craven), and Luke Honeythunder (Marc Sinden) are all much reduced in importance. Notably absent from the action are Tartar and his man, Lobley, and the mysterious Dick Datchery that the 1935 production had utilized so effectively to wrap up the mystery. Thus, a Crisparkle (Peter Pacey) who very much resembles the muscular and affable clergyman of the novel must be the one who brings the villainous John Jasper to justice, but not until after the duplicitous drug-addict has strangled his pusher. As in the Charles Dickens, Jr., dramatic adaptation of 1880, jealous Jasper (Robert Powell), regarding handsome Neville Landless (Rupert Rainsford) as yet another inconvenient barrier to Rosa's (Finty Williams) affections, strangles him, leaving him for dead, having attempted to make the deed look like a suicide. There is, in essence, little "mystery" about the fate of Edwin Drood (Jonathan Phillips) in this film, since he dies at the hands of his uncle, whom we last glimpse in the condemned cell, strangely bemused by his capture, smiling to himself in a deranged manner, just as Charles Dickens probably intended. Period costume and authentic setting compensate somewhat for the disjointed narrative and the slowly built up suspense, but, despite a solid performance from Michelle Evans as Helena Landless, she hardly seems the striking Eurasian beauty of Dickens's novel. Equally problematic is the casting of Nanette Newman as Mrs. Crisparkle, since she looks more like Septimus's wife or sister than his mother, and is not given sufficient opportunity to play the crotchety character of the novel. On the other hand, Glyn Houston is a convincing and sympathetic Grewgious (much resembling the character as depicted in Fildes' original 1870 illustrations); Freddie Jones realizes precisely the blustering, self-centred, complacent, xenophobic bourgeois man of business, Mayor Sapsea; and Leonard Kirby is a nice blend of the humorous and obnoxious in his impersonation of Durdles' assistant, the street urchin Deputy.

Adding to what are admittedly quibbles about casting is the script's emphasis on the relationship between Rosa (first seen singing in the cathedral congregation at the opening) and John Jasper at the expense of the characterization of Edwin Drood, who remains a cipher rather than develops into a character with whom we can sympathize even as we object to some of his sentiments and manners. Jasper confides in Edwin early on that he has been taking opium "for the pain," but the script fails to clarify the source of the pain, other than a certain ennui at his limited position in life and his chafing against his vocation. The young ladies at Miss Twinkleton's are suitably giddy, the most jejeune of all initially being Rosa Bud. There are so innovative touches that make watching the film worthwhile, including the film's bringing to life, as it were, many of the original plates from the novel: for example, the scene between Edwin and Rosa which illustrator Luke Fildes entitled "Under the Trees" is punctuated by Jasper's singing, which unaccountably upsets Rosa. He further disconcerts her during the music recital depicted in Fildes' "At the Piano" with his Svengali-like, obsessive gaze as she tries to get through her rendition of what becomes her signature acapella song from Sir Walter Scott's (1802) Ministrelsey of the Scottish Border (not mentioned in the novel), the plaintiff ballad "Annan Water."


Bolton, H. Philip. Dickens Dramatized. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall, 1987.

Forder, Timothy (director and screenwriter). The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Starring Robert Powell (john Jasper), Finty Williams (Rosa Bud), and Jonathan Phillips (Edwin Drood). Produced by Mary Swindale and Keith Hayley. Running time: 98 mins. UK: First Standard Media, 1993. New York: A & E Television, 1995. Colour: VHS AAE-10070.

Gissing, George. "Last Readings and Last Book" (1902). Rpt. Collected Works of George Gissing on Charles Dickens, Vol. 3: Forster's Life of Dickens Abridged and Revised by George Gissing, ed. Christine De Vine. Chippenham, Wiltshire: Anthony Rowe, and Grayswood, Surrey: Grayswood Press, 2005. Pp. 197-208.

"Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935)." Internet Movies Database (IMDb). Accessed 08/06/2005.

"Mystery of Edwin Drood (1993)." Internet Movies Database (IMDb). Accessed 08/06/2005.

Nayder, Lillian. Unequal Partners: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, & Victorian Authorship. Ithaca, NY: Cornell U. P., 2002.

Walker, Stuart (director). The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935). Stuart Walker, Produced by Edmund Grainger, written by Leopold Atlas and John L. Balderston, and starring Claude Rains. Hammer Horror Series. Universal. B & W. Running time: 87 mins. VHS ISBN 0-7832-1744-7.

Last modified 9 September 2005