I’m grateful I’ve only read Great Expectations once and that my memory was not serving me well when it came to the storyline whilst watching this new adaptation. It meant that I could actually enjoy it and not rip it to pieces for ripping Dickens to pieces. Well, not rip it to too many pieces.
So, since I didn’t remember much other than the basic storyline (Pip going to Satis House and falling in love with Estella, going to London to become a gentleman all the while believing Miss Havisham to be his benefactor, then learning it was actually Magwitch, and finally helping Magwitch escape) the drama had me in almost as much suspense as someone not familiar with Great Expectations. From the perspective of entertainment, I really enjoyed this drama – it was emotional, dramatic and atmospheric, the acting was good, and the cinematography was stunning, especially in the opening scenes with Magwitch rising from the marshes. This is what HD TV was made for.
But if I consider this adaptation from a more literary perspective, it’s a little disappointing. Firstly, although the young Pip was spot on with his acting, I didn’t much like the older Pip, played by Douglas Booth. Forget looking like a blacksmith, his pout and modelesque features didn’t even allow him to look like a Victorian. And his voice was weirdly throaty yet nasal at the same time. Perhaps I’m being mean, but I didn’t really feel much for his character of Pip. I did want to slap him a good number of times, but I didn’t find myself warming to him enough, not even by the end. His acting wasn’t too bad, perhaps a little wooden at times but it wasn’t quite the Pip I remember – I expected Pip to be more naive and simple.
Miss Havisham, played by Gillian Anderson, is much younger than the woman Dickens portrays. I imagined Miss Havisham to be quite grotesque and terrifying, but Gillian Anderson plays a young woman frozen in time and has not quite managed to grow up; she has this child-like voice and speaks to Pip in almost a seducing way, which I found quite disturbing. Although it wasn’t a traditional depiction of Miss Havisham, I do think Anderson’s acting was spot on: she created an image of Miss Havisham that a viewer will not likely forget. By the end of the film she really was very grotesque and deranged, and her suicide at the climax of the film was extremely haunting. I don’t remember Miss Havisham committing suicide in Dickens’ version, but the melodramatic impact of it felt right in this adaptation.
Pip’s good looks meant that it was strange that he was so besotted with a plainer-looking Estella than she was meant to be. Her character was very weak in this adaptation: Dickens’ Estella is a seducer and a heart-breaker but this adaptation only showed her as cold and depressed, struggling against her adopted mother’s wishes. I don’t feel she was given enough screen-time and she doesn’t say much during the course of the film. The details of her marriage to Drummel are glossed over and it’s over before it even starts. Since I didn’t remember this part of the story, I was left guessing that he must have been abusive towards her by a random, pale bruise on her back. Estella’s life is as much part of the story as Pip’s, but this adaptation seems to have focused more on Pip and Miss Havisham.
The other characters that I felt did a great job were those of Magwitch, Joe, Henry and Orlick. They really pulled this film together, making up for the short-comings of the characters of Pip and Estella. I do feel, however, that Dickens’ caricatures are lost on this drama. There is no sense of Dickens’ humour, a writer who can be can be hilarious even in the most depressing story. For me Dickens’ writing – his language and characterisation – are what makes him such a brilliant writer and I just didn’t get a feel for that in this adaptation.
Although the BBC haven’t managed to adapt Great Expectations perfectly, overall I did enjoy this drama. It looks beautiful, it’s emotionally moving and has enough good acting to make it worth watching. If you can’t wait to watch the next episode of a drama, you know they’ve done a good job.