Greatly Expected… Greatly Disappointed

Great Expectations – Part 1 – BBC1, 27 December 2012

Any adaptation of Great Expectations is a tall order: it’s such a well loved novel and it’s hard to better David Lean’s superb black and white version – somehow the black and white captures perfectly the atmosphere of an almost gothic novel. 

Yet the  image during the opening credits of the butterfly emerging from a chrysalis was an interesting take on Dickens’ coming of age novel, and in a way summarised beautifully some of the ideas underpinning it – and perhaps that’s the way it’s best to look upon this television version of Great Expectations: a take on, an adaptation, a version.

Of course, there was no need for the addition of such an image, nor the mentions of Miss Havisham’s brother’s collection of tropical butterflies. Dickens does it perfectly well in the novel simply through calling the boy at the centre of this story Pip.

Nonetheless, one or two of the alterations brought out some ideas from the text beautifully and powerfully. Early on, rather than the soldiers appearing at Pip’s house during Christmas dinner, Joe was found searching for Pip on the marshes, then embracing him lovingly – a nice touch of the prodigal son parable which underpins the novel, and a tender suggestion of the outcome to the novel.

Yet I’m beginning to wonder if there was any need for any of the additions or alterations. Frankly, a simple telling of the story might have worked better. Many of the cuts have been for the worse. So far, we have no sense of the comedy of the novel. Mrs Joe is thoroughly nasty -as indeed the novel ascertains – but without any sense of the amusement of ‘tickler’ when it makes its child beating appearance. Nor do we have much sense of the gentleness or frankly stupidity of Joe. Yes, he is described as being very strong – a ‘hercules’, if I remember correctly – but here we got little sense of his pathetic behaviour in front of Mrs Joe.

Nor do we have much sense of Pip’s guilt. He’s brought the piece of pie kindly to Magwitch, but so far there is no sense of the guilt which tears apart the narrative and indeed is the reason for his confessional tone throughout the novel. Similarly, the central image which Dickens does use – that of the boots and hands – was almost totally omitted. Yet, as I realised afresh when studying the novel with my Year 10 class this year, the text is obsessed with boots and hands, and what they reveal about class within the novel.

Cutting Wopsle was perhaps a good move. The subplot involving Wopsle’s transformation from parish clerk to budding London actor is important to the notion of self-improvement in the novel, but becomes unnecessarily complicated for many readers. But  the omission of Biddy  thus far risks missing the dilemma facing Pip in his relationship with Estella; it is clear in the text that Pip realises that Biddy is the sort of girl he would in the normal course of events end up marrying.

As for Gillian Anderson’s Miss Havisham, she’s been something between a mermaid and a ghost. She’s frankly weird, not scary, and so far we’ve not seen her from Pip’s perspective (which David Lean does brilliantly) – we simply have no idea of how absolutely frightening she is, though she has had one psycho moment. As for Herbert, he was almost missed altogether – but did not come across as comic as he does in the novel, when his public school fighting is wittily satirised by Dickens.

Some of the acting was done well. The young boy Pip had a suitable degree of earnestness, and escaped the RP which blights the young Pip of Lean’s version. And it looked beautiful – despite being in colour, the colour was toned down and we got a sense of the darkness of Dickens’ text.

So tomorrow night…. I’ll probably be watching, but give me Downton Abbey any day.