Great Expectations: the best (and worst) adaptations of Charles Dickens' 1861 classic novel

BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel Great Expectations (BBC/FX Networks/Miya Mizuno/PA) (PA Media)
BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel Great Expectations (BBC/FX Networks/Miya Mizuno/PA) (PA Media)

Charles Dickens has long been regarded as one of the world’s most beloved authors, with his books being endlessly revisited in almost every form. Adapted at least 28 times across the stage, film and TV, Great Expectations returned to the screens once again most recently in a BBC six-part series starring Olivia Colman as the deeply troubled Miss Havisham.

Peaky Blinders writer Steven Knight, who created the adaptation, said he chose Dickens’ tale because it’s “a story of class mobility and class intransigence” that remains “very timely”.His attempt received mixed reviews, some harsh. Though Collider said the classic had been “deftly reborn”, The Standard’s Melanie McDonagh said, “I can’t think of an adaptation I’ve hated more”.

And while many welcomed the remake – Great Expectations is, undoubtedly, one of Dickens’ most beloved novels – some sighed at the choice to adapt the book, again.

“With so many to dive into why are they doing Great Expectations again?” said one Twitter user, while another said, “I love Dickens AND Olivia Coleman, but do we really need another adaptation of ‘Great Expectations’?”

The Telegraph said: “My issue is: why make it at all? To coincide with its release, the BBC has just put its 2011 adaptation on iPlayer, starring Ray Winstone as Magwitch and Gillian Anderson as an otherworldly Miss Havisham. That’s before we get into the many, many other film and TV versions out there. Why does anyone need another?”

And some of those adaptations have been brilliant. Some not so much. So let’s walk the Victorian cobbles of memory lane with our pick of standout TV and film adaptations (not always for the right reasons), from worst to best.


If you haven’t seen this 1974 adaptation, that’s probably down to the fact it was heavily panned and quietly disappeared into the annals of Great Expectations adaptation history.

Directed by Tony Award-winning Joseph Hardy, it had a script by American playwright Sherman Yellen, and a score by Grammy-winning composer Maurice Jarre (who composed the score to Lawrence of Arabia and Dead Poets Society among others) – but it failed to land, partly and was criticised as being far too sentimental.

As a review in the BBC magazine The Listener, which ran from 1921 to 1999, put it: “Everything is wrong about it with a sort of dedicated, inspired wrongness that, in itself, is breath-taking.”


Props to Alfonso Cuarón for trying to adapt Great Expectations into a modern day tale set in Florida of all places. Given just how much of the book turns on British 19th century societal structures and sensibilities, it must have been a real task. The film is enticing for a good half an hour but then starts to focus too much on the romance between Estella (who is played by Gwyneth Paltrow) and the Pip character, Finn (who is played by Ethan Hawke). The Florida setting feels a looooong way from Victorian London and Kent.


This 2011 film adaptation starring Jeremy Irvine as Pip, Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch, Robbie Coltrane as Mr Jaggers and Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, was neither here nor there, which was a real let down given the absolutely stellar cast. We know that Helena Bonham Carter plays a great complicated woman and she once again did a compelling job here.

Although Four Weddings and a Funeral director Mike Newell was behind the camera and the script was adapted by David Nicholls who wrote One Day and Us, the film, somehow, was totally forgettable: “This is a decent, slightly unadventurous film that gets the basics right,” said The Guardian.


We thought this 2011 three-part BBC drama was pretty good. Despite viewers and critics initially being up in arms about Gillian Anderson being cast as Miss Havisham (they argued that she was far too young and beautiful) this criticism was later shelved as Anderson played the character brilliantly, conjuring up a visceral hysteria. It should be pointed out that being 43 at the time, Anderson was actually older than the character. While Miss Havisham’s age is not mentioned in the book, Lithub points out that in his annotations, Dickens refers to her as “scarcely 40”.

Anyway, despite a great cast (Douglas Booth played Pip, Ray Winstone played Magwitch and David Suchet played Jaggers) and despite being written by Sarah Phelps (who went on to write A Very British Scandal) the miniseries failed to create that unsettling atmosphere and terrifying strangeness which is such an overwhelming component of the book.


Quite frankly this BBC2 1999 film adaptation is so high up on our list because it stars Charlotte Rampling as the Miss H. Whoever organised this casting deserves an award: captivating, alarming and deranged – she is a treat to watch. Ioan Gruffudd starred as Pip while Justine Waddell starred as Estella in this faithful adaptation.


There’s no doubt that this classic film is the undefeated champion Great Expectations screen adaptations. Directed by filmmaking master David Lean and starring acting legends including John Mills, Valerie Hobson and Jean Simmons, it made sense that the brilliant film was nominated for five Academy Awards (winning two). Though some of the actor’s plummy accents may grate on the ears of today’s viewers, the film is pitch perfect. Its potency has not lessened over the decades, which we put down to its absolutely chilling and unforgettable atmosphere.

Great Expectations (the latest one) is on BBC iPlayer