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Great Expectations
(1946 DVD)
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Great Expectations
(1999 DVD)
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Great Expectations
(1998 DVD)
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  1946 Great Expectations
dir. David Lean; writ. Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, three others; featuring John Mills, Alec Guinness, Valerie Hobson, Jean Simmons
  1981 Great Expectations
(mini-series) dir. Julian Amyes; writ. James Andrew Hall; featuring Joan Hickson, Stratford Johns, Graham McGrath
  1989 Great Expectations
(mini-series) dir. Kevin Connor; writ. John Goldsmith; featuring Anthony Calf, Jean Simmons, Anthony Hopkins, John Rhys-Davies
  1998 Great Expectations
dir. Alfonso Cuarón; writ. Mitch Glazer;  featuring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow. Robert De Niro, Anne Bancroft
  1999 Great Expectations
(mini-series) dir. Julian Jarrold; writ. Tony Marchant; featuring Ioan Gruffuld, Charlotte Rampling, Ian McDiarmid

Great Expectations

It says something about the basic story line of Great Expectations, that no matter how many film adaptations are made (over a dozen so far), they are always engrossing. Each time I come across a new one I start off thinking, "Ho-hum, here we go again," and then find myself caught up in it—looking forward to the latest rendition of each of the well-known  scenes: Pip meeting the convict in the graveyard, his first visit to Miss Havisham's, his unrequited courtship of Estella, his discovery of the truth about his benefactor....

They say that mediocre books make the best films. Either Dickens is the most mediocre writer who ever lived or Great Expectations is the exception to this rule.

For years the best adaptation of Great Expectations was considered the David Lean-directed 1940s cinematic version in black and white. But more recently a television mini-series has set a new standard. But let's go through some of the more noteworthy versions in rough chronological order.

Lean expectations
The 1946 film of Great Expectations is beloved for some very good reasons. For one thing it stars the likable duo of John Mills and Alec Guinness as respectively Pip and his roommate Herbert Pocket. For another it tells the essential story in under two hours. And the ending is sunnier (both metaphorically and quite literally) than the one Dickens wrote. In every aspect this is a brilliantly made movie for its time. The camera angles, the dialogue, the acting, the staging—they all work to dramatize the Dickens story.

Most especially it's a triumph of condensing genius. It is truly amazing how much of the Dickens novel is compacted into its short timeframe, and yet the film never seems rushed. The main characters are fleshed out and memorable. The story seems to be told in its own time. It is only if you compare pages of the text—or scenes of some of the later, longer films—to this production that you notice the cuts and the combination of scenes that have been combined.

This compactness works to exaggerate Dickens's already exaggerated sensibility a a little further. The hunt for the convicts on the moors is more thrilling, Miss Havisham's home is spookier and more decrepit—as is Miss Havisham herself (Martita Hunt)—and Magwitch (veteran character actor Finlay Currie, who won the greatest acclaim of his career for this role) is larger than life as both villain and reformed criminal. The climax is a realistic and exciting river chase scene involving a packet-steamer, more or less as Dickens descibed in the novel.

One complaint however is that the character of Orlick—Pip's persecutor and his sister's murderer—is eliminated, which makes Mrs. Joe's sister's sudden demise seem arbitrary. It's announced in a voice-over that she got sick and died. Also the role of Pip's confidante Biddy is greatly reduced.

I have a further gripe about the character of Estella. Her younger version is played by British actress Jean Simmons, who would soon become a major Hollywood star and who is perfect as the beautiful, cruel, and cruelly used girl. But when Estella reaches adulthod, Simmons is replaced by Valerie Hobson (wife of the film's producer). Hobson is elegant and stately but she's no Estella and our fascination in the character is dissipated. I can't help but think Simmons, who at sixteen was playing younger than her age for the early Estella, could have made the transition herself into a great later Estella, the icy belle of London.

Lean's Great Expectations is often named among the best black-and-white films of the twentieth century and one of Britain's top ten films ever. The great respect won by this this adaptation is shown  by the fact that subsequent versions often copied its staging for crucial scenes and used many of the same special effects. Some of the dialogue created for the 1946 film also shows up verbatim in later adaptations.

But, be all that as it may, for Dickens readers this cannot be considered the best adaptation of the novel, if only for the fact that it's way too short to accommodate that entire sprawling story.

Low-key expectations
For the whole story—and I do meant the whole story—skip ahead to the 1981 BBC mini-series, which clocks in at nearly six hours in all. (I believe the VHS version is slightly shorter.) This Great Expectations reeks of the British-classics-on-TV stereotype. It's very stagy, especially in the overlit indoor scenes—one can sense the studio lights just out of camera range. And how about all that perfect 1970s-style hair and those beautiful, clean costumes that everyone wears, no matter how lowly the characters.

This is a good film to start with to get all the ideas of the novel without actually having to read the book. (Lazy English-lit students, take note.) Nothing is left out in this slow, slow film. Even the dialogue is slow as characters at all levels of society talk in the fussy, overly polite manner typical of novels of the time—"I would be much obliged if you were to do me the honour of...." and so on.

Phillip Joseph as Joe Gargery appears not only too neat but too young for the blacksmith. The juvenile Estella, a Nordic blonde played by Patsy Kensit, seems unrelated to the mature Estella, a pinched brunette portrayed by Sarah-June Varley. Pip however seems right, apart from his Partridge Family haircuts. The young Graham McGrath looks and acts exactly like the tyke who would grow into Gerry Sundquist as the older Pip.

But the juiciest roles in Great Expectations are always Magwitch and Miss Havisham. And they are admirably filled here. Stratford Johns is great both in the early menacing stages and later sentimental bits as the convict. But Joan Hickson (best known for her long-running Miss Marple) is magnificently decadent and self-pitying.

This is also a very low-key film, especially during the climactic river chase scenes which are over quickly without any of the action or drama of the novel (couldn't afford to rent an antique steamer, I suppose). Anti-climactic really.

Still, if you want to painstakingly review the whole novel, get this tape or DVD from the library.

Missing expectations
Slightly shorter at about five hours is the 1989 Great Expectations series that some (although not I) think the best ever made for television. It is also faithful to the novel, without being not slavishly so.

The most noteworthy aspects of this version is the casting. Academy award-winner Anthony Hopkins portrays Magwitch, for which he was nominated for an Emmy. And fellow Oscar winner Jean Simmons, who had played young Estella in 1946, is now a wasting-away Miss Havisham. That's two great actors effectively chewing up the scenery. Add to them the estimable John Rhys-Davies (Gimli in The Lord of the Rings movies) as Joe Gargery, gruff but wonderfully warm-hearted, bringing to life a one-dimensional Dickens character.

Unfortunately, at the time of writing the film's producer, Disney, has not seen fit to release it on DVD, so you'll likely find it only on VHS.

Excited expectations
Now for my own favourite. The 1999 Great Expectations, written by playwright Tony Marchant, is another British mini-series. This one was made for Masterpiece Theatre but, forget the MT stereotype—it rocks.

At under three hours it's somewhat shorter than the 1989 mini-series  but it's visually and viscerally a treat. Dickens has been rewritten, both to excise some subplots and to add more power in character relations. For the first time I actually cared about Estella. Even though I knew the story inside out by this time, I got caught up in the heightened drama. It's not a museum-style preservation of a classic but, as the good doctor in another movie would say, "It's aliiive!"

To illustrate this, consider that many of the actors at first consideration would seem to be miscast. For example, Ioan Guffudd, just coming off the Horatio Hornblower series in which he was also titular lead, is surely too upright and too heroic for the role of Dickens' hapless Pip. But after awhile I forgot the novel and I was involved with the character as written for the screen. Same with Justine Waddell  who gives us much more access to Estella's seemingly cold heart than Dickens did.

Clive Russell seems initially too big and too old (for a change) to be Joe Gargery, but again he comes to define the role anew. Respected stage actor and director Ian McDiarmid (popularly known as the emperor in the Star Wars saga) would seem too slight and refined for the novel's brusque lawyer Jaggers but, given only a handful of scenes, he brings out new dimensions in the character.

Bernard Hill (the captain in Titanic and more recently King Theoden in The Lord of the Rings) is another terrific Magwitch, in the sense of terrifying in the early going and in the sense of very good in the characters' softer final days

Then, of course, there's the vital role of Miss Havisham. Charlotte Rampling would at first seem all wrong for Miss Havisham—too strong and lusty for the bitter old spinster. But she's effective in a different way from the great Joan Dickson. Not so much a decaying holdover from another time but a train wreck in progress. Like all the other characters in this series, she is a nineteenth-century figure that we can understand as easily as a contemporary.

We also get in this film what may be most exciting river chase scene and fatal climax.

With all the other improvements made, a new ending for the story is demanded. Not so different as to betray the source material, but one that makes sense in a way that the Dickens original never really did. Bittersweet may be the best word to describe it. You won't leave this film happy, but you will leave it with understanding.

Unrealistic expectations
Now here's an idea for making Great Expectations relevant to today's audience: modernize the story. Too bad the 1998 film directed by Alfonso Cuarón fails so badly to accomplish this.

A lot of promising elements are in place here: a good director (he did arguably the best Harry Potter film); attractive leads in Ethan Hawke as the Pip-like character and Gwyneth Paltrow as Estella; a stellar supporting cast that includes Robert De Niro as the convict, Chris Cooper as Joe and a loopy Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Dinsmoor, a southern U.S. take on Miss Havisham; and stylish cinematography.

So why doesn't it work? Possibly because the Dickens story cannot be partially updated. In this version, the young boy is raised by his sister and fisherman Joe in Florida, where he meets the convict who, in this telling, is an organized crime figure. Somehow it's hard to believe the street-toughened gangster played by De Niro would devote his life to paying back the boy for a small act of kindness given him before he was re-arrested.

And much as I thoroughly enjoyed Bancroft's old lady, dancing around her decaying mansion declaring "Chick-a-boom", I couldn't really believe in her either. I couldn't believe that a love affair going badly some years ago had turned her into this and had set her about moulding a girl to take revenge on the male sex. Nor that a lovely little girl like Estella could be raised among those crumbling ruins by such a nutcase.

Then there's the credibility-stretching career of Finn (the Americanized name for the Pip character), who with backing from his secret benefactor goes to New York and conquers the art world, having previously produced little more than some amateurish-looking drawings.

In short you can't update the story of Great Expectations by finding some modern parallels for the characters, professions and social milieu while keeping the plot that worked so well with nineteenth-century people and morality. Not that classic works cannot be updated, but in the process of modernizing you have to rethink and rework the whole thing.

— Eric

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© Copyright 2006 Eric McMillan. All rights reserved.

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