Dickens’ Influence on Twin Peaks
Charles Dickens is widely acknowledged as the greatest novelist of his time. His works, wildly popular in the Victorian period, are still admired today for their unmistakable style. Dickens was a master narrator and with his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, captured readers’ attention with his episodic stories and incredible cast of characters. His early picaresque novels, characterized by humor and satire, and later melodramatic works have had far-reaching contemporary influence. Naturally, Dickens heavily influenced literature through the popularization of the serial and bildungsroman as well as his masterful use of prose and ability to create captivating stories. His presence is also felt in modern film and television. Over the years there have been a plethora of films based on Dickens novels, most notable being A Christmas Carol, which has over forty film and television adaptations from as early as 1908. Dickens’ influence on film, however, is not constrained to adaptations of his own novels. Christopher Nolan, director of the Batman trilogy, admitted that “A Tale of Two Cities” was a major influence on the trilogy’s conclusion, The Dark Knight Rises. Much less well known, and certainly less discussed, is Dickens’ apparent influence on David Lynch’s film series, Twin Peaks.
Twin Peaks is a serial drama about an investigation into the murder of Laura Palmer, headed by Special Agent Dale Cooper. The series is placed in several genres including mystery and psychological thriller although it also contains a high level of humor and satire, similar to some of Dickens’ earlier works. On the surface, the plot of Twin Peaks hardly seems Dickensian at all, but Dickens’ influence is evident in the characters, dialogue, and themes of the series. Twin Peaks seems to draw inspiration and borrow elements from both Dickens’ Pickwickian period and his later melodramatic works.
Akin to The Pickwick Papers’ picaresque characteristics, Twin Peaks utilizes superficial character types for many of its minor characters. In The Pickwick Papers, Dickens created characters that could be identified by one or a few defining traits, quite often in the form of verbal ticks or phrases. Twin Peaks follows in similar fashion, with characters such as The Log Lady, Deputy Hawk, and Lucy Moran. In picaresque manner, these characters are all easily identifiable by visual and verbal cues. The Log Lady wears the same clothes nearly every time she is featured on the show—a Native American-inspired cardigan and a plaid shirt with a bolo tie—and often says something to the effect of, “my log will have something to say about this” (Twin Peaks). Deputy Hawk is a Native American police officer and an expert tracker. When he is featured, he is usually doing something related to nature or hunting, like throwing a knife into the back of a criminal, or contributing some sort of stereotypical Native American saying to the conversation (perhaps more of a melodramatic character than a picaresque character). Lucy Moran is the receptionist at the sheriff’s office. She is a typical, scatterbrained blonde who is immediately recognizable by the sound of her uniquely bubbly voice.
Present in The Pickwick Papers as well as David Copperfield are characters such as the “fallen woman” and the “angel of the house”. These archetypes are created through characters like Agnes and Dora in David Copperfield, and Rachel, Tupman’s love interest in The Pickwick Papers. Twin Peaks also features some character types common to Dickens’ novels. Shelly Johnson can be viewed as both an angel of the house and a fallen woman. Shelly is a waitress at the local diner and spends the rest of her time keeping house for her abusive husband, Leo Johnson. She is, however, also a fallen woman exemplified through her adulterous relationship with Bobby Briggs. Black O’Reilly, the madame of a brothel called One Eyed Jack’s, is also a fallen woman, known to employ young women for prostitution. While Twin Peaks does include some Victorian era character types, it also borrows archetypes from film noir. Special Agent Dale Cooper is the archetypal detective and protagonist, Audrey Horne functions as the femme fatale or damsel in distress, and Ben Horne, Leland Palmer, and Killer Bob all operate as villains or antagonists. Though these particular archetypes are not necessarily Dickensian, the use of character types as a mold to create characters is.
The plot of Twin Peaks ultimately follows Agent Cooper’s journey. His growth throughout the series can be viewed as a bildungsroman—a story of development, maturation, education, and socialization. Agent Cooper’s character reflects features of some of Dickens’ later works like David Copperfield. In David Copperfield, readers follow David’s growth throughout his life; as David’s psychology develops he becomes more mature, educated, and socialized by means of his education and experience. Agent Cooper follows a similar path. Although Agent Cooper has already matured when he is introduced, he develops a great deal throughout the series. Agent Cooper’s socialization is demonstrated by his appreciation for the Twin Peaks community and willingness to adopt their culture. Agent Cooper also acknowledges and embraces ideologies such as Tibetan philosophy and Freudian dream analysis. His education is illustrated during the series by way of his ongoing investigation into the death of Laura Palmer. As he gets closer to solving the murder, Agent Cooper learns not only about Twin Peaks and its residents but also about himself, which he documents on a tape recorder that he uses several times every episode. The last episode of the first season ends with Agent Cooper getting shot by a masked man; the first episode of the second seasons (“May the Giant Be With You”) picks up with Agent Cooper lying on the floor and talking to his tape recorder. This particular scene may contain some of his most insightful dialogue, and it represents great personal growth through his experiences in Twin Peaks. “All things considered, being shot is not as bad as I always thought it might be—as long as you can keep the fear from your mind. But, I guess you could say that about almost anything in life. It’s not so bad as long as you can keep the fear from your mind . . . At a time like this, curiously, you begin to think of the things you regret, or the things your might miss.” Cooper continues to make a list of what he wishes he had done and what he had yet to do. He ends his monologue by describing his realization as “a very interesting experience.” This scene seems to be the pinnacle of Cooper’s development and is, perhaps, the point at which he has completed his bildung.
Dickens’ style is evident in the character development in Twin Peaks, but Dickens also appears to have influenced the dialogue. Twin Peaks contains elements of Pickwickian bombast and Twistian melodrama. Pickwickian bombast, mainly the use of formal language to talk about trivial things, is often present when Agent Cooper has dialogue, and especially when he talks to his tape recorder. In The Pickwick Papers, a great deal of the dialogue contains highfalutin language. Twin Peaks contains similarly superfluous language, exceptionally when Agent Cooper is involved. In the second episode of the first season, “Traces to Nowhere,” a scene unfolds with Agent Cooper ordering breakfast in the dining room of the Great Northern Hotel:
Wait a minute. Wait a minute. This is—excuse me—a damn fine cup of coffee. I’ve had I-cant-tell-you-how-many cups of coffee in my life, and this—this is one of the best. Now, I’d like two eggs over hard. I know. Don’t tell me. It’s hard on the arteries. But old habits die hard—just about as hard as I want those eggs. Bacon—super crispy. Almost burned. Cremated. That’s great. And I’ll have the grapefruit juice, just as long as those grapefruits are freshly squeezed.
The caliber of language used lies somewhere between Pickwickian bombast—specific and descriptive yet superfluous—and melodrama, in Agent Cooper’s enthusiasm about his breakfast order. Even more Pickwickian is when, after completing his order, Agent Cooper introduces himself to Audrey Horne as “Federal Bureau of Investigation, Special Agent Dale Cooper” (Twin Peaks) The title he uses for himself is greatly reminiscent of first chapter of The Pickwick Papers where the characters are first introduced as “Samuel Pickwick, Esquire, General Chairman – Member Pickwick Club, Tracy Tumpan, Esquire, Member Pickwick Club, Augustus Snodgrass, Esquire, Member Pickwick Club, and Nathaniel Winkle, Esquire, Member Pickwick Club” (The Pickwick Papers, 16).
Twin Peaks’ dialogue contains many Dickensian aspects borrowed from both early and late Dickens. The television series also uses several themes present in Dickens’ novels. Like The Pickwick Papers, and David Copperfield, Twin Peaks presents a critique of the upper class. Benjamin Horne, one of the central antagonists in the series, is the richest man in town. In Dickensian fashion, he is greedy, sordid, and immoral. As the owner of One Eyed Jack’s, Horne, with the help of Black O’Reilly, prostitutes young girls across the Canadian border using employees at the perfume counter in his department store. Eventually, it is revealed that Laura Palmer worked as a call girl at One Eyed Jack’s and had relations with Horne, thus making him a suspect in the investigation. Horne and his cohorts are all portrayed as corrupt individuals, obsessed with their own wealth and showing lack of concern for the well being of Twin Peaks’ residents. Twin Peaks’ criticism of the upper class is similar to Dickens’ portrayal of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Although Scrooge is involved in much less questionable dealings, his greed and selfishness are blatantly obvious throughout the text. In “Stave One,” Scrooge is visited by two gentlemen who request of him a donation to the poor. He inquires about the operation of the prisons, Union workhouses, Treadmill, and Poor Law. Upon receiving confirmation, Scrooge says that if the poor would rather die than visit the aforementioned establishments “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population” (A Christmas Carol, 39). Not surprisingly, Dickens portrays such actions negatively; three ghosts are sent to torment Scrooge and correct his unpleasant behavior.
Faith versus doubt is a prevalent theme in David Copperfield that also appears in Twin Peaks. Of course, in its Victorian context, this theme referred to religious and legal institutions. In Twin Peaks, however, the issue of faith versus doubt pertains to Agent Cooper’s reliance on Tibetan philosophy. In “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer,” Agent Cooper recites a summarized history of Tibet and states that after awaking from a dream he had three years ago realized that he “had subconsciously gained the knowledge of a deductive technique involving mind-body coordination, operating hand-in-hand, with the deepest level of intuition.” He proceeds to demonstrate; Sheriff Truman reads a list of names and, with each name, Agent Cooper throws a stone at a glass bottle. When he finally strikes the bottle, he takes it to mean that he has identified the killer. While it was not, in fact, the killer, this did provide Agent Cooper with a strong lead. The aforementioned scenario could be related to Victorian doubt about religious and legal institutions. Agent Cooper reliance on mystical findings seems to discredit his status as a federal agent. The employees of the sheriff’s department and the residents of Twin Peaks are left to either have faith in Agent Cooper or doubt him. Dickens’ approach to this subject was, of course, significantly less avant-garde. In David Copperfield, the plot leads to a system of rewards and punishments, similar to religion. Heep is defeated; David’s child-wife, Dora, dies; Emily is found and moves to Australia to start a new life with Mr. Pegotty; and Aunt Betsey is freed from her husband. The system of rewards and punishments that Dickens used establishes a sense of moral authority in the story; during this particular period of time, the sentiment was largely one of doubt.
Perhaps the most Dickensian element of Twin Peaks is its use of melodrama. Dickens’ later works, specifically David Copperfield, are filled with melodrama where the plot and characters are greatly exaggerated in order to appeal to the emotions. This is exemplified in the chapter “I Assist at an Explosion,” in which Mr. Micawber is often described as a volcano during his violent outburst towards Uriah Heep. Nearly every episode of Twin Peaks contains a similar capacity for melodrama. The events in Twin Peaks are, at times, so exaggerated that they border on surrealism. In the pilot episode of the series, Leland and Sarah Palmer, Laura’s parents, have hysterical outbursts at every mention of Laura’s death. At the end of the episode, several of the characters are placed in holding cells across from each other. What could have easily been a normal scene is elevated to absurdity as Bobby Briggs and his friend Mike Nelson begin barking and then screaming at James Hurley through their jail cell.
While there is no admitted connection between Dickens’ novels and Twin Peaks, there are many strong similarities that suggest that the series was indirectly influenced by Charles Dickens. Twin Peaks appears to borrow from both early Dickens, such as The Pickwick Papers, as well as later Dickens, with David Copperfield. The Pickwick Papers and Twin Peaks are similar in their use of the picaresque; both use character archetypes and strong traits for minor characters, and contain bombast language. Twin Peaks also shares characteristics with David Copperfield. This is evident in the development of major characters, the dialogue, and many of the themes. With so many similarities, it is highly probable that Charles Dickens had an influence on Twin Peaks.