The great 1838 Dickens novel is such a thick Christmas pudding of a tale that the Royal Shakespeare Company lavished more than eight hours on its famous 1980s stage adaptation. That's one way to go. Nicholas Nickleby, the positively brisk, sparkling new adaptation by Douglas McGrath, takes quite another route: At a little over two hours, this is a pared-down but no less essential Dickensian feast.
McGrath, who previously adapted Jane Austen's ''Emma,'' manages the feat by keeping the flavors of the book piquant while prudently eliminating some of the plot's original ingredients. Trust and deceit, generosity and meanness are fleshed out by a deft cast including Charlie Hunnam as Nicholas, Jim Broadbent as abusive boarding school owner Wackford Squeers, ''Billy Elliott'''s Jamie Bell as the wretched boarder Smike, and Christopher Plummer in a terrifyingly good performance as Nicholas' heartless rich uncle, Ralph.