First announced in the same December 1902 catalogue that heralded James Williamson's remarkable A Reservist, Before the War and After the War, The Little Match Seller was his other major fiction film of the period, and shows a similar interest in the plight of the downtrodden.
In most other respects, it's a very different type of film. Whereas both A Reservist and the slightly earlier The Soldier's Return (1902) were inspired by the experience of soldiers returning from the only recently concluded Boer War, The Little Match Seller is a very faithful adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's 1846 fable (which is brief enough to suggest that the original could have been read aloud during screenings), and instead of the other films' scrupulously "realistic" presentation, Williamson here resorts to numerous special effects, mostly in the form of superimpositions.
However, these are entirely true to the spirit of the original story, whose dramatic and emotional centerpiece is the series of "visions" seen by the little match seller when striking matches to keep warm. Andersen describes one of them in these terms:
She rubbed another match on the wall. It burst into a flame, and where its light fell upon the wall it became as transparent as a veil, and she could see into the room.
In other words, some fifty years before the introduction of the cinema, Andersen created a character who projected her fantasies onto a blank wall, exactly as Williamson was to do in this film.
More importantly, Williamson used this conception to create something almost entirely new for the cinema: a serious attempt at depicting a person's inner emotional life on film through purely visual means (there is no onscreen text of any kind), using trick effects not to provoke laughter but for serious dramatic reasons. In this respect, The Little Match Seller is as ambitious and innovative as A Reservist, and Williamson would continue to explore this new ground in later films such as The Old Chorister (1904).
*This film can be downloaded in its entirety from the BFI's Creative Archive. Note that this material is not limited to users in registered UK libraries and educational establishments: it can be accessed by anyone, anywhere.