(Very) Great Expectations

December 27, 2011 at 4:02 pm (Christmas, cinema, Jim D, literature, TV)

Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without Dickens, and BBC 1’s new version of Great Expectations starts at 9.00pm tonight, continuing at the same time tomorrow and Thursday. With an all-star cast including Ray Winstone as Magwitch and Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham, it’s been receiving rave reviews from the journos who’ve already seen it, and would seem to be one more powerful argument for the licence fee.

Dickens, perhaps because of his sometimes excessive sentimentality and overt moralism, has this image of being  comforting and comfortable (“heart-warming” is the term usually deployed).  But Great Expectations is a mysterious and frightening tale involving  the criminal underworld, all manner of psychological manipulation, violence,  madness, unrequited love, and despair.

Claire Tomalin’s excellent Charles Dickens – A Life describes how the book came into being, and also explains something that has often bothered me – the banal, incongruous and anti-climatic happy ending:

When Dickens told Forster (John Forster, his closest friend – JD) he was going to write another story in the first person, he added an assurance that it would be nothing like David Copperfield, and of course it is not. David’s story is of a middle-class boy who overcomes cruel neglect by his own effort, becomes a successful writer, is allowed by fate to marry the girl he loves and then to lose her when she turns out to have been a mistake, and ends with a perfect wife and family. Not only is Pip quite a different sort of boy with a family background from the lowest, labouring level of society, his story is one of failure, failure to understand what is happening to him, failure to win the girl he loves, failure to save his benefactor, failure to make anything of himself. He just redeems himself morally, and that is enough, after all he has seen. It is enough for the reader too. His statement of what he feels for the indifferent Estella is the most powerful expression of obessive love for a woman in Dickens: ‘when I loved Estella with the love of a man, I loved her simply because I found her irresistible. Once for all; I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.’ Nothing needs to be added to this, but Bulwer ( Edward Bulwer Lytton, another friend and a writer considered at the time to be in the same league – JD), in a foolish moment, wanted Pip to be given a happy ending with Estella and suggested to Dickens that he should set aside his bleak final vision and write a cheerful one. Amazingly, Dickens accepted Bulwer’s advice and rewrote, adding a chapter with a conventional variant and publishing it. Forster was told too late to object, but he was not pleased and thought it marred the book. He wisely kept a copy of the original ending to be compared with the substitute, and published it in the third volume of his Life of Dickens. Few critics since have disagreed with Forster, although the happy ending appears in every standard edition of Great Expectations.

David Lean’s 1946 film version, starring John Mills as the older Pip (and narrator), Anthony Wagner as young Pip, Martitia Hunt as Miss Havisham and Jean Simmons as Estella, is a tough act to follow:


  1. Pinkie said,

    I have always loved Great Expectations, ever since first hearing a radio adaptation as a child, and reading it later.

    I am never sure of its ending. It seems to fizzle out at the end, as if almost anything will do.

    • Monsuer Jelly est Formidable said,

      it is past your bedtime pinKIE. and you are to clean your room up after scool homewerk is completed.

  2. Mick O said,

    Watched 1st episode tonight. Found it compelling viewing. Been so many years since I’ve read the book or seen any previous versions I’ve forgotten the plot so looking forward to next 2 episodes.

  3. Matt said,

    I enjoyed the first episode. The atmosphere of the marshes is well captured and Ray Winstone is superb as Magwitch. My only quibble is with Joe and Mrs Gargery. I remember laughing through the opening chapters of Great Expectations when I first read it as a teenager at the humour between the simple, slightly awkward Joe and his bossy wife. Neither of the people playing them really brought that out.

  4. Vivianne from Belgium said,

    I missed the first episode, does anyone know if it will be replayed?

    • Monsuer Jelly est Formidable said,

      get yourself a proxy server Vivianne from Belgique. BBC IplAyer could then be your friend. Look up ‘foxy proxy’ on that there Google machine.

  5. Martin Ohr said,

    Ray Winstone must have filled up on ham for the part; he could seriously rival judi dench in an overacting competition

    • Matt said,

      I’m with you one hundred per cent with the dreadful Judi Dench, but Ray no way.

  6. Monsuer Jelly est Formidable said,

    never rated winstone. always overacts. Sexy Beast as vital evidence for the prosecution.

  7. Jim Denham said,

    The man at the Graun thought Winstone was a “brilliant” Magwitch, but can’t get those bet365.com ads out of his head:

    A small boy runs, frightened, from a lonely churchyard, across a flat, marshy landscape. He starts to cross a little wooden bridge over a muddy creek … Suddenly a big hand appears from underneath the bridge, grabs the boy’s legs, brings him down. The boy shouts out.

    “Come ‘ere, shut up,” growls the escaped convict, to whom the big hand belongs. “You scream again and I’ll cut your throat, d’you understand?” Then he turns to the camera and taps his forehead. “Hold on, the latest live odds are coming up on your screen now.” And, sure enough, on to the screen the following words are typed: “Pip to get together with Estella in the end: 2/1.”

    Sam Woolaston’s review here:

    The comments that follow are also quite interesting, eg:
    Is Miss Havisham too young/attaractive?
    Is Estella beautiful enough?
    Is Pip (especially in his older manifestation) too good looking/well-spoken?
    Were you a fool if you watched Fast Freddie on ITV instead?

    All in all, much more intelligent/ sane comments than you usually get on CIF

    • Martin Ohr said,

      well on those subjects, Gillian Anderson is more or less my age in real life and she’s always looked pretty young on screen anyway; she looked too young but then that was part of the ethereal charm of her portrayal

      Estella was very beautiful in my opinion

      Dunno about pip being too well spoken, but the accents were all over the place anyway. I’m no expert in southern accents but I’m pretty sure Joe and Sister were closer to Ambridge than Kent, but then all the posh accents sound 20th century rp. I’m consistently baffled by the fact that working class characters have to have a regional accent while poshos have none in historical drama.

      Current worst offender in that regard is Downton Abbey- Daisy (the kitchen maid) has a perfect 1930s bradford mill workers accent- but incidences of those entering service were rare, except in TV dramas, upstairs downstairs has an identical character. Emma has the correct accent for someone living in harrogate/ripon/york now, but not a hundred years ago…don’t even get me started on Hugh Bonneville

  8. Mick O said,

    Now I’m going to have to read the sodding book again just to fill in the gaps.

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