SUBJECTS — Literature/England; World/England;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Gambling; Addiction; Parenting;


AGE: 11+; MPAA Rating — PG;

Drama; 1994; 280 minutes; Color. Available from

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This riveting tale of adventure, devotion and redemption follows the travails of saintly Little Nell as she tries to save her grandfather, a compulsive gambler. They roam the countryside of 19th century England seeking to evade the villainous creditor, Mr. Quilp. In their travels, Nell and her grandfather meet a host of fascinating 19th-century characters. The movie is based on the book by Charles Dickens.


Selected Awards: 1995 Emmy Award Nominations: Outstanding Individual Achievement in Sound Mixing for a Miniseries.

Featured Actors: Sir Peter Ustinov, Tom Courtenay, James Fox, Sally Walsh, William Mannering, Christopher Ettridge, Julia McKenzie, Anne White, Jean Marlow, Cornelia Hayes O’Herlihy, Michael Mears.

Director: Kevin Connor.


This film shows some of the effects of gambling addiction and the psychological syndromes of codependence called the “Enabler in Chief” (or the “Caretaker”) and the “Family Hero”. Dickens exhibits acute psychological insights, anticipating the discoveries of contemporary psychology.

The movie also depicts the English social landscape of the 19th century, detailing the brutalizing effects of greed and poverty and the pitiful vulnerability of women and children.


MINOR. One man is badly beaten by Quilp’s thugs. This is a very long and heart-wrenching movie. Have a box of tissues at hand.


Immediately after the movie, or at odd times over the next week (for example at the dinner table or in the car on the way to school) discuss addictions, including alcoholism and gambling addiction. The Discussion Questions, starting with the Quick Discussion Question in the sidebar, will be helpful. Don’t worry if you can only get through a few questions. Just taking the film seriously and discussing it is the key. Allow your child to watch the movie several times and continue to bring up discussion questions relating to the film.


Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was born in Portsmouth, England. His father’s consignment to debtor’s prison during Dickens’ early adolescence had far-reaching effects on him. Themes of poverty, child abandonment, and the overwhelming power of money are recurring themes in Dickens’ novels. In addition to his fictional works, Dickens wrote and lectured in favor of social reforms. He had ten children, but separated from his wife after 22 years of marriage. When he died, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Often, when one member of a family suffers from an addiction to alcohol, drugs or gambling, another member of the family tries to help the addict by protecting the addict from the consequences of the addiction. This is called “enabling” the addiction, because without the efforts of the “Enabler in Chief”, the addict could not maintain the addiction. Often, the “Enabler in Chief” also tries to get the addict to stop the addictive behavior, however, so long as the addict still uses or still gambles, these efforts have been ineffectual.

Another classic syndrome of codependence is that of the “Family Hero”. This is a person, usually a child, who tries to make up for the deficiencies of the addicted family member by being perfectly behaved and successful in society. The “Family Hero” believes, quite mistakenly, that if he or she acts perfectly, the addict will stop the addictive behaviors. The child says to him or herself, often subconsciously, “If I am perfect maybe daddy will stop gambling”. Nell combines aspects of both the “Enabler in Chief” and the “Family Hero”. For more on codependent relationships, see TWM’s handout Codependence — What Happens When a Family Member is an Alcoholic or a Drug Addict.



Why did Nell’s brother tell her that she was a “prisoner” and the grandfather was her “jailer”?

Suggested Response:

Nell spent her time and energy trying to help her grandfather, but he would not help himself by stopping his gambling. Nell’s relationship with her grandfather prevented her from developing herself and living the life she was meant to lead. In that sense, it kept her in prison. This is a classic example of a codependent relationship.


See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.



1. Read this passage. Who was right?

GRANDFATHER: I never wagered for personal gain. I never played for pleasure. It was for Nell, to save her from the hell of poverty. I’ll double your money yet. You’ll see. If a man gambles enough, he’s bound to win in the end, isn’t he? It’s mathematical certainty. Here are my calculations. If I throw once more, twice at the outside, I’m bound to win, you see that!

QUILP: You deluded old fool. You thief. You madman.

Suggested Response:

Quilp was right. The grandfather was a gambling addict.

2. Can someone with an addiction be a good parent? Defend your answer.

Suggested Response:

No. Parenting requires consistent and caring behavior. While an addict might love his or her child (or grandchild) and most of the time be a loving parent, there will be times when the need for the drug or to gamble triumphs and this will undercut all of the other efforts to be a good parent.


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)

1. Analyze the actions of any major character in the film applying two tests which any ethical action must pass: (1) The Golden Rule (Would the person taking the action want to be treated the same way? or, to put it another way, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”) and (2) universality (Would there be a positive effect on society if everyone acted the same way in a similar situation?).


All books by Dickens are excellent reading for older children who are good readers. No film can duplicate the wealth of detail and insight that Dickens brought to his novels. One way to interest children in reading a work by Dickens after they have seen the movie is to read a passage from the book out loud.



“I don’t know him from Adam,” “possession is nine-tenths of the law,” skinflint.


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