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Dickens's last complete novel shines on the small screen

Viewers got their annual dose of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" during the holidays. Now starting the new TV year right is "Our Mutual Friend" (PBS, Jan. 3, 4, 5, 9-11 p.m.; check local listings), a novel in the grand scale made into a meritorious miniseries. The densely packed tale weaves several stories together into as rich a tapestry as one could hope for from the small screen.

One of the great things about Dickens is his sense of simultaneity and coincidence - so many lives bumping up against each other, abrasively or benignly. And always, it's Dickens's marvelous, fully realized 19th-century characters who draw us in and make us care about the often-labyrinthine stories.

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In "Our Mutual Friend," the heroic figure is a young woman whose influence blesses all within her reach. Lizzie is a working-class, illiterate girl whose virtue and kindness inspire others. Unlike some of Dickens's other self-sacrificing heroines, Lizzie is utterly believable. It's the scope of her heart - the utter lack of pettiness - that makes her selflessness real to us. And then there is Bella - greedy, selfish, but not beyond redemption. Her transformation is also realistic and satisfying.

As the story opens, a body is pulled from the Thames River and misidentified as John Harmon, heir to a fortune. The real Harmon (the mutual friend) is given a rare opportunity to observe his fiance, a woman he has never met, but who has been contracted to him since early childhood. He eventually falls for Bella, who despises him at first.

In Part 2, Lizzie escapes the advances of the dissolute (but redeemable) barrister Eugene Wrayburn as well as the advances of the madly jealous schoolmaster, Bradley Headstone.

In Part 3, Headstone loses his cool and attempts murder. By the end of Part 3, all the rogues receive their just deserts and the virtuous their due reward.

There are, as always in Dickens, a plethora of minor characters whose various destinies underscore the many morals of the story.

"The writer [of the television adaptation], Sandy Welch, whom I've worked with for years, presented [the novel] to me," says executive producer Catherine Wearing, reached by phone in London. "She said, 'How would you like to do the greatest novel by the greatest writer?' And I said, 'Oh yeah, what's that then?'

"It is a great novel. I had never read it before. And yes, it is a dark story. But the ending is full of sunshine - which I think comes out of the darkness at the beginning. This is Dickens's last completed novel, and I think it is very much the work of fulfillment, it has such a freedom and abandon to it."

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Last March, when "Our Mutual Friend" aired in Britain, Penguin Books brought out a new edition of the book with pictures from the show. The novel became an "overnight" bestseller again.

"There is nothing I could have hoped for more than a return to Dickens the novelist," executive producer Wearing says.

The novel is strangely appealing to modern sensibilities, she says. "I do think in a concrete sense it has contemporary echoes and at the same time what I call the creative universals of his storytelling, which cross time.... He was a man who was very engaged with reality - he set up a hospital in London for children, and he was a great campaigner for causes. He was also a kind of documentarist - he walked the streets of London witnessing the conditions under which people lived.

"But he was also an artist," Wearing continues. "There is the most wonderful marriage between the reality of people's lives and what I think is at the heart of the novel - a demand that everybody be given the right to live the life of the imagination as well as a materially [adequate] life.

"Lizzie is an illiterate working-class girl dragging bodies out of the Thames, living in abject poverty, but he grants her the most realized moral sense of all. In fact, she is the only person who does not waver morally.

"It is beautifully written. It is so rare to do that, write convincingly [about redemption], and I think it grows out of [Dickens's] understanding of life as it is lived, rather than some idea about how it should be lived."

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