So Many Great Expectations – Mike Newell and the ninth version. (film review)

Great expectations has been adapted for screen nine times, and this count does not include the many television miniseries versions there have been, nor countless theater adaptations. Overall, it seems Dickens has been adapted for the screen almost 300 times, with A Christmas Carol being the most replicated of his stories. Dickens has had all of his work adapted, something that makes him rather unique.  Of all the Great Expectations, The 1946 David Lean adaptation is considered by far to be the best.

Which begs the question, why do we need another one?  As it turns out, this is the question everyone asked when they saw the Mike Newell adaptation.  Or that is the impression reading around implies.

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When I saw Great Expectations on stage last year, it was a rambling , tousled affair in which staging took the limelight and opened up many of the parts of the novel I thought I knew, in fresh exciting ways.  For one, there was all that energy, something you don’t get a solid feel for in the Lean film, but there are snippets of it in the new version. On a minimalist stage, the dialogue snapped back and forth, balancing on the tips of tongues like the vicious hook of the whip – another trait in the novel that I hadn’t seen well expressed in any of the films. The stage version wasn’t perfect, but it made for a thrilling night of theater based on interpretation.

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Dickens is no Shakespeare  but there is something to be said for producing adaptations that might bring a piece of literature alive. It is only the most adapted novels and plays and short stories (think Edgar Allen Poe or Arthur Conan Doyle) that can lend themselves to this clever sort of interpretive art. With a novel like Great Expectations, it is because we have seen it so many times and because of our familiarity with the novel (and other film versions) that something new can be said.  We saw this in 2012 with Joe Wrights Anna Karenina and in 2011 with Alexander Sukerov’s Faust, two very interesting interpretations of great classics.

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The 2012 version of Great Expectations does do this. One gets a strong sense of Mike Newell and David Nichol’s desire to highlight alternate perspectives on the much-loved classic. The casting of Helena Bonham Carter is the most instantly obvious one, certainly an actress I would never have chosen for Miss Havisham. Another interesting point of difference is in the plot structure with great emphasis on the detail in the story surrounding Compeyson, both when he is involved with Miss Havisham and when he is leading Magwitch astray. Compeyson is elevated, in this version to a front row character –  we even see him several times.  This addition meant including some of the more complex plot points in the novel that almost never make it to the film adaptations.

Newell and Nichol have been criticised for this, but I think it shines a spotlight on a fascinating aspect of the novel.

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What it brings to the fore is emphasis on time. I’d never thought of Compeyson as being instrumental in the downfall of Pip as well as Estella, but his crimes against those he wronged end up travelling through generations. They are so pervasive and so destructive that when you get down to Pip and Estella at the very end of the film, it is impossible to remember what the difficulties that profoundly shape their lives were. Compeyson may create Miss Havisham and Magwitch, but he creates Estella, and Pip also  There are very few characters in the novel that are not affected by Compeyson, such is the depth of his crimes against those around him.

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The portrayal of Miss Havisham by Helena Bonham Carter emphasizes the focus on time and generations.  Her dress is almost like cobwebs.  She rarely comes out from behind the veil and when she does, she has a face made much older than we expect. By casting an actress so deeply connected with Gothic imagery, the emphasis shifts from Miss Havisham’s crimes against Pip and Estella to mere unforeseen consequences of a woman who really died on her wedding day. This miss Havisham is less calculating, less deliberate than she is usually portrayed, although just as wicked.  We see her here very clearly as a victim, just as we see Magwich by the end of the film.

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The most famously failed attempt at adaptation was also the most courageous – the 1998 version made by Alfonso Cuarón.  He’s moved the story into the present day, and surely one of the most endearing aspects of Great Expectations is its universality and its timelessness. However, something went horribly wrong, and the film ended up being sole-less and pasted over with that gen-x passion-numbing materialism. However, because Cuarón is a great director and the film is brave, it opened aspects of Great Expectations up for me that I hadn’t previously connected to. Anne Bancroft’s Miss Havisham, despite its radical appearance is my favorite – even though Martita Hunt is very good – because she brings a desperate deep darkness to Miss Havisham I’d never seen.

It was after watching this version that I re-read the novel and decided Miss Havisham is one of my favorite literary characters  I prefer Bancroft’s manipulative evil to Bonham Carters gothic caricature and even to Hunt’s word weary subtle horror. But I also love that have the choice.

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This is what adaptation is for. It is to release our vision of something that is already in the cells of everyone.  It’s why people keep singing Beatles songs and it’s why they keep re-inventing versions of roast chicken. It is not necessarily because we love the original, its more because the original is a part of us whether we like it or not.

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