An early scene in BBC One’s new version of Great Expectations sees Pip reciting Shakespeare at the blacksmith’s forge. “I learn passages by heart and recite them,” he explains to Joe Gargery.
Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight hasn’t felt the need to learn any of Charles Dickens’s original text by heart. We open with a prison riot – if you don’t remember that from the book, it’s because Knight has made it up. “I am a volcano burning with injustice because you are the reason I’m here in f---ing jail,” roars Magwitch to the man in the cell next door. That man escapes, smirking at Magwitch on the way out: “Think I’ll go to London and pay a visit to your wife.” This is Peaky Expectations, and the only surprise is that the cast hasn’t been required to speak with Brummie accents.
Let’s not get our knickers in a twist about the swearing. In his novels, Dickens makes numerous references to oaths being uttered – in Great Expectations, a character can be found “swearing horribly” – so Knight isn’t plucking it from thin air. But why rewrite so many of the original lines? It might make sense if the original was written in a style that would fox modern viewers. But it’s Great Expectations, not The Canterbury Tales. Much of Dickens’s dialogue could slot straight into a modern TV drama with only minor adjustments.
The producers say that the adaptation “starts off faithfully” then offers “Steve’s take on the material” from episode two onwards. I’ll say. Some S&M with a naked Mr Pumblechook (a miscast Matt Berry) being whipped by Mrs Gargery; Miss Havisham as an opium addict. There are rumours that Knight has messed with the ending, for which we’ll have to wait and see. They are also saving any heavy-duty Empire-bashing for later episodes.
How disappointing that Knight has done this, because when episode one sticks to the main events as Dickens wrote them, it has promise. Storywise, it can’t fail because these are some of the author’s most gripping scenes. The escaped convict Magwitch seizing young Pip in the graveyard; Pip’s introduction to Estella and Miss Havisham. Knight’s signature style – swagger and machismo, violence and dirt – is overdone but does make sense for the Magwitch scenes, with Johnny Harris (This is England) suitably frightening in the role.
Young actor Tom Sweet has just the right mix of innocence and inner strength to make a memorable Pip. As for the star name in the cast, we meet Olivia Colman in the closing minutes of episode one. In a filthy wedding dress and with what appears to be a chandelier on her head, the look is “raddled Kate Moss during a particularly heavy Glastonbury festival”. When she utters the (close to the original) lines, “I’m tired, Pip, of men and women. Sometimes I have sick fantasies about what I want,” she has a faintly lascivious edge.
My main problem with this adaptation isn’t the style – if you’re new to the story, it’s brought vividly to life here. 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? Aren’t there lesser-known novels to be adapted, or original stories to be told? You can modernise this version as much as you like, but it’s still a desperately unadventurous choice.
Great Expectations continues on BBC One at 9pm on Sundays