This is a still from the recent BBC adaptation of Great Expectations. Looks wonderful, doesn't it. I'd certainly been looking forward to it very much. And indeed it was beautiful to look at, atmospherically filmed and, on the whole, well cast -- this little boy, Oscar Kennedy, was excellent as young Pip. But despite all that, I was disappointed. I've been grousing about it for days so I thought I'd try to explain what it was I didn't like. I've had to think quite hard about this, and I've been re-reading the novel to help me understand what was, as far as I can tell, very much a minority reaction.
I do realise that one of my problems is my great admiration for the David Lean film version. Made in 1946, and winning two Oscars (art direction and cinematography), it has stood up remarkably well -- I watched it a month or so ago for the umpteenth time with huge pleasure. It's less than two hours long, as compared to the three hours of the BBC version, but somehow manages not only to include more characters (notably Biddy and the Aged Parent) but, crucially, to stay closer to the spirit of the novel. For Dickens pulls off a brilliant feat in GE -- by having the story narrated by the older and wiser Pip, he allows the reader both to see how badly Pip behaves towards his foster father Joe Gargery after coming into his inheritance and to appreciate that he later comes to understand what a ghastly prig and snob he had become. Actually I'm not sure how Lean conveys this in the film, but nothing of this came across in the BBC version and Pip really did seem like a horrid person in his newly aquired wealth -- much nastier to Joe on his visit to London, and much nastier to Magwitch when he reappeared.
I think what I missed most on the TV were the finer gradations of the novel. Pip's relationship with Joe is so wonderfully conveyed by Dickens, and Joe such a truly delightful character -- so good-hearted and so simple-minded, so unswervingly fond of Pip even when Pip behaves appallingly to him -- so funny and so sad, sometimes simultaneously -- whereas the BBC's Joe was so very much less interesting and not remotely funny. As for the elimination of Biddy and the Aged P -- well, both of them seem to me to be crucial to what Dickens wants to convey here. Biddy really represents everything that Pip could have had if he had been able truly to appreciate her and not been carried away by his expectations -- and there is a wonderful chapter just before he leaves the forge for London in which we see him half realising all this but firmly suppressing it. As for the Aged P -- he is there to show the very best of Wemmick when he is at home, free from the pressures of Jaggers and the corruption and seediness of London life in general. For London, in Dickens, really is horribly seedy and corrupt, and the BBC's London was much smarter and more glamorous.
Yes, there were changes to the plot, too, and yes they bothered me but you can put that down to boring pedantry if you like. In fact you can put all this down to boring pedantry. I'm tempted to say that this is what you get if you employ a writer from Eastenders to adapt Dickens, but that would be very elitist and snobby of me, wouldn't it.
Sorry for the rant. It's supposed to be my first contribution to Dickens Month -- let's hope my next one is a bit more positive.