A surprisingly emotionally engaging film, Mike Newell’s Great Expectations is easily the best Dickens adaptation I’ve ever seen. (Yes, I’ve seen the David Lean version…more than once.)
The central challenge facing any writer or director adapting Dickens is what to leave out, Newell told the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival. There may, perhaps, be scholars who quibble at minor abridgments, but the resulting film is true to the spirit and tone of the book.
The biggest error a filmmaker can make in adapting Dickens, I think, is to make it about plot. Doing so turns the resulting product into a soap opera, built around reveals and Victorian twists. Great Expectations is about relationships, and not just the Pip/Estella love story. There are layers of difference between a man who says to a woman that he wishes she would love him and a man who stands before a benefactor and says “I wish I could be more deserving of your love.”
It is the moral awakening and development of Pip that this film captures which I often find lacking in Dickens adaptations. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with Dickens’s biography knows that his early experience with financial hardship left him bent though, perhaps, not, as Estella poignantly says of herself in the film “and broken, but I hope into a better shape.” Newell said that for him, this was a story about abused children and that Pip is (or could often be) “a little shit” because he is “a victim who doesn’t know he is victim.”
It would probably be more accurate to say that Pip, just as he doesn’t know who his true benefactor is, doesn’t know who or what is victimizing him. Newell suggested that most of the Victorian novelists were waiting for Freud, but in a post-Freud world it’s hard not to see the adults who torment Pip (and Estella and Magwitch) as themselves beaten down by a system they hardly understand. Dickens often straddled the line between social criticism and preaching, often addressing himself to the pious and (in his mind) hypocritical. For that reason, I’ve always tended to look at him as more of a moralist than a preacher, but Estella’s quote about being “bent” strongly resonated here and conveyed, however obliquely, a very real spiritual insight into how the fallenness of the world means something more than just that there are individual, sinful people in it.
Of course the impulse to see sin and evil as only structural or institutional can itself be taken to an equally false extreme, excusing individuals for choices that they make within a broken world or from even having to acknowledge their own role in contributing their weight to the forces that bend and misshape even the strongest of human bonds. Nowhere is that clearer here than in the fate of Miss Havisham, whose end is portrayed not with Romantic flair but with grisly, ghastly, and painful horror. Pay attention to her last words, Pip’s response to them and the subsequent scene where he tries to wash blood off his hands. He didn’t kill her, but he had hatred in his heart, and this film understands how truly mortifying that can be.
It is probably the case that in a world where economic and class tensions have been exacerbated recently, the Victorian age in general and Dickens in particular should see a bit of a comeback. The class resentment is here, but so, too, is the warning of how easily we can become that which we profess to hate unless we have something other than our blind rage fueling us to make a better world for ourselves.
P.S. How Newell handles the novel’s alternate endings is perfect, too, in my opinion.