[Decorated initial "N for rightmare" comes from Cruikshank's alphabet. GPL]

decorated initial N ow, what I want is Facts," remarks the rigid Mr. Gradgrind to the schoolchildren, among whom sits Bitzer, the encyclopaedic automaton who recites knowledge and exemplifies obedience as though they are a recorded script. His counterpart is the dim-sighted yet intuitively wise "Sissy" Jupe, whose upbringing as the daughter of a circus clown enables her to represent the less substantial realm of fancy. This conflict between Fact and Fancy is the main theme of Charles Dickens's novel about the consequences of lacking a balance between the wisdoms of the head, and of the heart. Peter Barnes successfully captures this idea in his 1994 film rendition of Hard Times, with assistance from the collective acting geniuses of Christien Anholt (Tom Gradgrind), Alan Bates (Mr. Josiah Bounderby), Peter Bayliss (Mr. Sleary), Beatie Edney (Louisa Gradgrind), Alex Jennings (Bitzer), Dilys Laye (Mrs. Sparsit), Emma Lewis (Sissy Jupe), Bob Peck (Mr. Thomas Gradgrind), Bill Paterso n (Stephen Blackpool), Harriet Walter (Rachel), and Richard E. Grant (James Harthouse).

In the opening credits, the camera snakes through the characteristic chimneys of Coketown's factories, the "interminable serpents of smoke" (20) clearing for a brief moment before intertwining and swallowing the scene once more. During these sporadic dispersals viewers can see the elephantine machines in their melancholy madness, nodding their heads monotonously to the tribal pounding of drums in the opening music. Although Stephen Deutsch attempts to emphasize the ideas and attitudes that the characters do not reveal through dialogue, this modern realization of a Victorian work requires delicate finesse, such as that of John Williams' score for Forrest Gump (1994). Conversely, the proficiency of the actors' ability to master their roles and convey inner motives that cannot be revealed due to the social conventions within which Dickens places the novel shines through the smoke and breathes vibrant life into the characters from the pages of the book to the pages of the screenplay. Bounderby's duplicity and Bates's talent overlap cohesively to produce a witty character whose secret is so obvious that Dickens hides it in plain sight. As Mrs. Sparsit puts it, Mr. Bounderby is a "Noodle": nothing "a Noodle does can awaken surprise or indignation; the proceedings of a Noodle can only inspire contempt" (Dickens, 220). In contrast to this mendacious factory-owner who preaches the lessons of thrift and diligence is his opposite, the gypsy-like circus owner Mr. Sleary (Peter Bayliss), whose lisping conversations contain multiple grains of wisdom. Although Mr. Gradgrind condemns the circus performers for their vagabond ways, Mr. Sleary does not lash out in anger at the capitalist; instead, he offers advice in light of his knowledge about family regarding the upbringing of Tom and Louisa Gradgrind, two of the main characters who push the plot forward with their implicit motives.

Peter Barnes takes few liberties with Dickens's story, a breath of fresh air in a form of entertainment where trying to distinguish fact from fiction is impossible, if not extremely difficult to accomplish. In the scene where Stephen Blackpool (Bill Paterson) walks with his friend Rachel (Harriet Walter) after finishing another day of drudgery in the factories, the brick wall they walk along "would [be] red if the smoke and ashes [allow] it; but, as matters [stand] it [is] a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage" (Dickens, 20). While the mood, themes, and atmospheres are comparably accurate, some extra scenes woven in strategically will not be obvious to the viewers unless they have the written version of Hard Times fresh in their minds. When James Harthouse (Richard E. Grant) returns to the Bounderby manor, he professes flattering vows of false love to Louisa (Beatie Edney) and sweeps her into a fit of passionate kisses while the witch-like Mrs. Sparsit (Dilys Laye) observes the adulterous affair. Although the kissing portion of this scene is not part of the original text, it is an essential component if the viewer is to achieve a basic comprehension of the emotional context, which is quite disappointing to think about, considering Harthouse's philosophy of "[what] will be, will be" (Dickens, 100). Although this motto contradicts Adam Smith's policy of laissez faire (leave things as they are), a principle Mr. Gradgrind strictly adheres to, both are detrimental to Louisa, whose refusal to bend to either ideology results in her emotional conflict. Barnes utilizes the strategy to magnify the importance of the characters who receive the additional lines, minimizing the damaging effects of altering the novel's context through two hours of film adaptation, while continuing to capture the essence of Dickens's literary creation. Dickens develops certain characters to invoke the reader's sympathy, such as Stephen Blackpool, the factory worker whose life is a continuous "muddle" as he pursues freedom from his drug-addict wife. He only wants a divorce, but is treated by Bounderby as though he desires "to [feed] on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon" (Dickens, 98). When Louisa asks Stephen about the activities of the factory union, he tells her to look "how it is ma'am, and tell me if it's not a fair muddle" (HT, 1994).

Screenwriter Barnes treats all the characters with humanity, exposing both their positive and negative qualities to convey realism as human beings with strengths and weaknesses. Harthouse the lothario is flirtatious in a gentlemanly fashion, but has a disposition towards chronic boredom which he temporarily cures with his seductions of young women, such as Louisa. However, it is the children from earlier in the film who return to haunt Gradgrind as social experiments gone awry. They are much older, but the mill stones in their minds continue to grind away at what small fragment of imagination they still possess, if any at all. Louisa is devoid of all emotion and suffers from an emotional breakdown. Tom is a compulsive gambler who depends on his sister to procure him money for his gambling addiction. Bitzer possesses a heart that is central to the circulatory and cardiovascular systems, but not accessible to compassionate influence. His view of society and fanciful beliefs is disturbing and blood-chilling — not just to Gradgrind, but to the viewer as well: every "inch of the existence of mankind, from birth to death, [is] to be a bargain across a counter. And if [one does not go] to Heaven that way, it [is] not a politico-economical place, and [one has] no business there" (Dickens, 215). From this harrowing encounter at the end of the story, Gradgrind teaches himself and the audience the importance of maintaining a balance between the wisdoms of the Head and of the Heart. One can almost perceive the collaboration of the efforts of Dickens and Barnes as an affair of the two wisdoms: Mr. Dickens' factual research on the working conditions in factories, along with Barnes's artistic interpretation of the novel, create a visual production that is flawlessly serious to the extent of which it exposes some of the characters' faults, allowing for moments of laughter to escape between the smoky tendrils of unhappiness. And that, according to Mr. Sleary, is the reason "why [people] must be amused" (HT, 1994): even today, there is too much smoke and not enough humanity in Coketown.


Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. 2nd edition. Ed. George Ford and Sylvere Monod. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

Hard Times. Directed and adapted by Peter Barnes. Prod. Richard Langridge. Music by Stephen Deutsch. Perf. Alan Bates, Bob Peck, Bill Paterson, Harriet Walter, and Richard E. Grant. BBC, Warner Bros., 1994. 104 minutes. colour. ISBN 1-4198-1450-8.

Last modified 29 March 2006