Can any modern take on Great Expectations stand up to David Lean’s 1946 masterpiece?

Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham (BBC)
Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham (BBC)

The poster for Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 modern-day, US-set adaptation of Charles DickensGreat Expectations is very revealing. There are no bonnets or brooches. The artwork is instead dominated by a recumbent, naked Gwyneth Paltrow – playing Estella – looking towards the camera with an enigmatic expression on her face. Beneath her, you can see the film’s Miss Havisham character, renamed here as Nora Dinsmoor and played by Anne Bancroft. She is not in a dusty wedding dress but looking very much like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, complete with cigarette holder. In the corner, there is a murky image of the convict Magwitch (Robert De Niro), scowling like a heavy from Goodfellas.

For Cuarón, Dickens’ story was at least partly about erotic obsession. Pip (Ethan Hawke), the young lad from a humble background trying to make his way in society, felt much the same way about Estella as Michael Douglas had about Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct a few years before. “You can’t make a love story set in present times without the dynamic of sex,” Cuarón once said. “I wanted to tell the story from an erotic and sensuous viewpoint.”

Cuarón’s Great Expectations wasn’t very well received. Sex and Dickens aren’t a comfortable fit. Of course, the sex is already there in the Victorian novelist’s work but it is very deeply sublimated. Cuarón was considered to have defied good taste and tradition by featuring it so explicitly. The New York Times called his approach “bold and vulgar” and suggested his version of the story was “one Charles Dickens would barely recognise”. Cuarón himself later disowned the movie. “That is a film that I should have not done,” he said. “I passed many times, and then I ended up saying yes for the wrong reasons.”

There have been many other screen versions of Great Expectations. The latest, a new six-part series for the BBC, is airing this Sunday. It has been written by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, who also recently adapted Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for the screen. He’s explained that he chose to adapt Great Expectations “not just because of the timeless characters, but also because of the very timely story,” adding: “A story of class mobility and class intransigence, told through an intensely emotional and personal first-person narrative. As the son of a blacksmith myself, Pip’s journey from the forge into society is a very special one to me.”

You can see what might have drawn Knight to Dickens’ exploration of class and social mobility in Victorian England. It may not reach Peaky Blinders levels but there is at least some violence in Great Expectations. Early in the novel, two escaped convicts fight in the marshes. The older one, Magwitch, is determined to do his younger adversary as much damage as he can. When he is arrested by the authorities, Magwitch has blood on his face and torn hair wrapped around his fingers.

The book has its Gothic elements, too. Miss Havisham’s home is evoked by Dickens in terms more commonly used in stories about haunted houses than in accounts of the living. Pip describes the cobwebs in fetishistic detail, as well as the “speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies” that emerge out of crannies; the mice “rattling behind the panels” and the black beetles which also crawl around the place.

Steven Knight’s new version boasts some very big names behind and in front of the camera. Oscar-winner Olivia Colman is playing Miss Havisham. Ridley Scott and Tom Hardy are among the producers. The drama’s title notwithstanding, it is difficult to imagine the new adaptation turning out especially well. The challenge for Knight isn’t just working out how to make a novel from the early 1860s relevant to contemporary viewers. It’s how best to escape the looming shadow that continues to be cast by David Lean’s exemplary 1946 film, starring John Mills as Pip and Jean Simmons as the young Estella.

“This film has no faults!” enthused one contemporary reviewer when the Lean movie first appeared. Cuarón even described it as “the perfect version” of the novel. This was Lean at full throttle – a fast-moving, brilliantly edited, intensely cinematic costume drama made for what, at the time, was a very generous budget. Lean dispensed with large parts of the novel, cutting out some characters altogether, but was faithful to the spirit of Dickens.

There was an irony here. Dickens’ writing was so vivid that illustrators struggled to keep up with its colour and detail. (One, Robert Seymour, was driven to suicide after trying to collaborate with the young writer on The Pickwick Papers). Lean, though, felt that he could improve on, or at least condense, the original Dickens text. “Film is very good at conveying considerable information and detail in a short space,” he is quoted as saying in Gene D Phillips’ biography of the director. Through production design and clever cutting, Lean conveyed more ideas and plot elements in a few frames of film than took the writer paragraphs and even pages to describe. He successfully distilled Dickens’ book into a film under two hours’ long.

Martita Hunt, Anthony Wager and Jean Simmons in David Lean’s ‘Great Expectations' (ITV/Shutterstock)
Martita Hunt, Anthony Wager and Jean Simmons in David Lean’s ‘Great Expectations' (ITV/Shutterstock)

Lean’s Great Expectations also had brilliant character actors: Martita Hunt as the desiccated Miss Havisham; Bernard Miles as the kind-hearted but obtuse blacksmith, Joe Gargery; Alec Guinness as the relentlessly optimistic Herbert Pocket; Finlay Currie as the terrifying, close-cropped Magwitch. Jean Simmons, meanwhile, was perfectly cast as the coquettish little heartbreaker Estella, who takes a sadistic pleasure in manipulating Pip and making him cry. This was a literary adaptation that managed the rare feat of pleasing the critics and making plenty of money at the box office.

Sadly, few of the subsequent versions of Great Expectations have come anywhere near matching Lean’s masterpiece. It hasn’t been for want of trying. The novel has been adapted many times both for the big screen and for television. “This is Dickens’s Jekyll and Hyde,” Mike Newell told Sight & Sound of his 2012 adaptation of the novel. “[Pip] isn’t a proper, emotional Victorian hero who does right by everybody. He’s treacherous. That’s a psychological question. I think this novel – in a funny sort of way – is Dickens tiptoeing into this great unknown.” Newell’s version was released to tie in with the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth, but it didn’t add much which hadn’t been explored in previous films.

Helena Bonham Carter in Mike Newell’s 2012 version of ‘Great Expectations' (BBC Films/Kobal/Shutterstock)
Helena Bonham Carter in Mike Newell’s 2012 version of ‘Great Expectations' (BBC Films/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Charlotte Rampling, Gillian Anderson and Helena Bonham Carter have all queued up to play Miss Havisham. Even Jean Simmons had a stab at the role in a 1989 TV version, having played Estella all those years before. They’re far more glamorous than Martita Hunt in the Lean movie, but tend to give very similar performances. They put on their old veils and wedding dresses, cover themselves with dust and ghostly white make-up and behave as if they’re on leave from a production of Rocky Horror.

The same applies to those playing Magwitch, the convict who becomes Pip’s benefactor. Big-name actors like James Mason, Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone and Ralph Fiennes have all shaved (or in Mason’s case trimmed) their heads, donned convict garb and crawled through the Kent marshes. None came close to matching the menace and the pathos that Finlay Currie achieved in the role, holding Pip upside down in the country graveyard.

An awkward self-consciousness overcomes filmmakers when they tackle Great Expectations. They’re aware of the status of the book, “an almost perfect novel, in part like a ballad, drawn out of early memories and dreams, full of monsters, terrors and puzzles to be solved,” as Dickens’ biographer Claire Tomalin called it. They also know all too well about Lean’s film, with its equally vaunted reputation. They often seem utterly paralysed before they even start. Cuarón may now be embarrassed by his version of Dickens’ novel, but it’s still the most inventive attempt at bringing Great Expectations to the screen since Lean. (That’s not counting the tongue-in-cheek South Park animated version.) Whatever else, it has an erotic charge all the other films lack.

Perhaps Knight can bring the same cut-throat intensity to Pip’s story that is found in almost every episode of Peaky Blinders. That, though, is a daunting challenge. Given the dispiriting results of so many of the previous adaptations, it is little wonder that expectations for the new adaptation are slight. Dickens’ novel has already been squeezed and squeezed again until the pips squeak. Whether there is any more juice to be extracted remains to be seen.

David Lean’s ‘Great Expectations’ is available on Amazon. Knight’s new adaptation airs on BBC One from Sunday 26 March