BBC’s Great Expectations

30 December 2011

Watched the final part of the BBC’s ‘Great Expectations’ adaptation then read the relevant sections of the novel. The novel is often strange in mood, unnecessarily complex in its plotting, and overabundant in its language, displaying all Dickens’s genius for excess, and his struggle to control and focus his material to create moods or subtleties of meaning. Some examples:

  • The paragraph describing Magwitch going into the Thames with Compeyson repeats the phrase ‘Still in the same moment’ five times, vividly and daringly creating a linguistic version of a series of snapshots or freezeframes. Magwitch and Compeyson are run down by a Thames steamer, Compeyson disappearing, Magwitch resurfacing severely injured. In the BBC version Magwitch stabs Compeyson who floats on the surface, mouth spilling black blood, as seen in a hundred Hollywood thriller/slasher movies. Magwitch’s injuries are received from the soldiers who brutally club him with their rifle butts, as seen in a hundred Hollywood dramas featuring beastly beastly soldiers and jolly heroic young heroes.

In every way this is coarser, more cliched and stereotyped, than what Dickens wrote. The uncertainty about whether Magwitch hurt or drowned Compeyson is key in keeping the character of Magwitch morally ambiguous, and therefore Pip’s sympathy for him more understandable. Seeing Magwitch stab Compeyson makes him unambiguously a murderer and Pip soft on a murderer. A different thing altogether.

  • Orlick doesn’t attack Pip in his rooms, as in the adaptation, but lures him down to Kent, to a lime quarry outside town, where he ties him up and is about to stave his skull in with a hammer, a really bizarre and terrifying scene, full of the uncanny and unnecessary detail which proliferate in Dickens like weeds and cling to your imagination Dickens.
  • When Gillian Anderson as Miss Haversham catches fire she does so absent-mindedly and murmurs in a soft porn kind of way. In the novel Miss Haversham screams and screams when she catches fire, as you rather suspect a person might.
  • Pip doesn’t return for a symbolic reunion with Joe at the forge; instead Joe appears in London to nurse Pip after he falls ill, nursing him for days, weeks, a slow work of care and love which repairs their relationship, typifies Joe’s kindness, exemplifies Pip’s helplessness, and enacts Pip’s symbolic rebirth into dis-illusioned manhood. All of this is thrown out in favour of a 2 minute ‘reconciliation scene’, familiar from countless soaps and melodramas.

TV and film just can’t show things like this, the slow, cumulative affect of actions over time, of the subtle changes in relationships over a long period. TV and film need concise, sharp, melodramatic scenes in the here-and-now, the more wordless and poignant the better. Film and TV always prefer shallow, one-scene sensation over more lifelike growth and change in feelings and relations. Film and TV adaptations always reduce, narrow, simplify and stereotype, boiling down Dickens’s unstoppable extravagance of plot and character and language into a handful of well-worn, tried-&-tested cliches.

Beautifully shot, but empty. Read the book.

‘Great Expectations’ on Amazon

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