great expectations

With the bicentennial of Charles Dickens taking place last year, it’s not surprising that we were given some new adaptations of his work. What is surprising is that we got two different adaptations of Great Expectations , one on television and now, just arrived in the United States, one on film.

Directed by Mike Newell, the new feature film, starring Jeremy Irvine, Holliday Grainger, and Helena Bonham Carter, can’t help but raise certain questions. Namely: Why is this the Dickens novel, out of all his major works, that keeps catching the attention of adapters? Do we really need another Great Expectations film?

True, this is one of Dickens’ most accessible and appealing stories (often taught in high schools). Great Expectations follows its protagonist, Pip, from the humble surroundings of his country upbringing, to the decaying mansion of the mysterious Miss Havisham, to a lavish and decadent “gentleman’s” existence in London. The inheritance given him by a secret benefactor allows many of Pip’s fondest dreams to come true, but will leave him disillusioned and heartbroken, in need of help from the people he left behind. From one of them in particular.

From the very beginning of the new film, our attention is drawn to the significance of Joe Gargery (Jason Flemying), the noble blacksmith who married Pip’s sister (Sally Hawkins) and is helping to raise the boy. Joe gets between Pip and his angry sister, trying to take the child’s beating upon himself. Joe’s kindness permeates the early scenes, and we begin to see how that kindness reverberates throughout the lives of the other characters. We see it, for instance, reflected in Pip’s manner toward the escaped convict Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes), whom he secretly tries to help—long before Pip grows into the arrogant young man who cuts ties with both Magwitch and Joe.

Even then, Joe’s love for his prodigal almost-son never falters. Magwitch, too, remembers the generous child in the graveyard with fierce affection—an affection that has far-reaching consequences. In fact, Pip has not shaken off their influence, particularly Joe’s influence, as much as he hoped. We see it reflected in, of all things, his hopeless love for the beautiful and haughty Estella.

Estella and Joe are often considered as belonging to two different, even opposing, threads of the story, but watching Pip’s interactions with Estella here suggests that’s far from the case. Just like Joe, Pip cannot stop loving a person simply because that person turns away from him. And that faithful love, far from a sign of weakness or greed, may just be one of the few redeeming qualities left in him.

It’s hard at first to define what keeps pulling us back to this story, with its unlikely, largely unlikable hero. But by focusing so closely on these moments of love, the film draws our attention to the possibility of grace, telling us not only why we continue to return to Great Expectations , but why we do, in fact, need yet another adaptation.

The film does err on the side of softness at times. It’s true that Pip’s journey to London starts out with gruesome sights (animals being butchered, dirt everywhere) and overwhelming crowds, suggestive of the moral corruption that awaits him there. Still, there’s always something or someone to take the edge off. Along with the friendliness and essential decency of his new acquaintances Herbert Pocket (Olly Alexander) and Mr. Wemmick (Ewen Bremner), we have an unusually sympathetic and open Mr. Jaggers (Robbie Coltrane), not much like the stern and mysterious version of that lawyer in the novel.

Even Estella, who tells Pip that she has no heart, seems strangely softened here, mustering tears during some of their scenes together, rather than brushing Pip off with blank indifference. It is a little disappointing to see her lose some of the icy nature that makes her such a fascinating character in the original story.

And, of course, as with any adaptation of a beloved book, devoted fans of the novel will carry a mental checklist with them, watching for favorite details of plot and character. (Does the murderous Orlick show up? No. Does the Aged Parent? Yes. Does Mr. Wopsle play Hamlet? Alas, no. And so on.) Screenwriter David Nicholls has streamlined and tightened the story—but the Dickensian details he has kept seem designed to point us to one overarching theme: the theme of love for the unlovable.

Thus, despite some missteps, all of Nicholls’ changes work in the service of Dickens’ broader themes of hope and redemption, showing that however far Pip falls, goodness is always present near him in some form or other, drawing him relentlessly back to itself—like G. K. Chesterton’s “twitch upon the thread” that brings an erring soul back to God. The note of redemption is sounded again and again, for Magwitch, for Miss Havisham—even in her much-abbreviated final scene, she’s given time to beg repeatedly for forgiveness—for Estella, and of course for our finally humbled protagonist.

The makers of this Great Expectations recognize that we need this story, and we keep coming back to it, precisely because of this theme. We need to believe, as Dickens believed, that grace exists—that we can find forgiveness for our worst mistakes. As long as people keep failing themselves and each other, as long as we keep finding ourselves in need of that grace—in other words, from now to eternity—we’ll keep needing stories, and movies, like Great Expectations .

Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog .

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Articles by Gina Dalfonzo

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