Great Expectations: from page to screen

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From its very first appearance in his weekly journal ‘All The Year Round’ in December 1860, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations has proved an enduring work. After boosting sales of the author’s failing magazine to the 100,000 mark, Great Expectations was published in novel form in 1861, going into its fourth edition within weeks of its first printing. Even though the critics were far from united in their praise at the time, the novel — with its misguided hero, Pip, and a host of memorable supporting players, including the beautiful but loveless Estella, the enigmatic convict Magwitch, the unforgettable Miss Havisham and the sturdy Joe Gargery — has gone on to become the most widely read and universally lauded of all the writer’s works.

It is therefore no surprise that Great Expectations has enjoyed a vibrant life on the screen.  Filmmakers Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley believe that it is time for the story to be told on the big screen once more.  “There have been lots of fine television adaptations,” Karlsen begins, “but a faithful screen adaption has not been done in over 60 years.”

“Dickens is such a fine writer,” she continues. “His books are an absolute pleasure to read and Great Expectations obviously is the classic and the greatest of them all. That novel still resonates clearly today with all its themes, children damaged by adults, people trying to pick up pieces of their lives after they’ve been damaged, people seeking revenge, being jilted, thinking you are someone and finding out you are someone else, people being discarded by society, notions of poverty, women being sold off as if in a cattle market or displayed in society like jewels. Class is still with us, even if it’s in more insidious forms than in the 19th century.”

To adapt the book for the screen the producers turned to author and screenwriter David Nicholls, with whom they had worked on When Did You Last See Your Father. “There’s so much to the story, so to get a writer of David Nicholls’ undoubted talent was absolutely vital,” says Karlsen. The writer made his name with the screenplay for the TV series ‘Cold Feet’ and the novel and film Starter for Ten, before going on to adapt Tess of the D’Urbervilles for the BBC and to write the bestselling novel, and the screenplay, One Day. He says that Great Expectations is his favourite novel.

“When Elizabeth and Stephen asked me about adapting Great Expectations I had just adapted Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” says Nicholls, “which was my first attempt at writing a script of a 19th century novel, and also another book that I love, so I was a little unsure to begin with. But then I took a deep breath and it has been wonderful, a great experience. I have really enjoyed it.
“It has always been my favourite book,” he continues, “the one I have been back to time and time again. I have read it a million times and I have always loved it ever since I was about 13 years old. It is not a thing I’d have expected to adapt, though.”

Returning to the book for the first time in a decade, Nicholls was struck by the intricacy of the plotting and Dickens’ skill as a mystery writer. “I hadn’t read the book for about ten years when I was offered the job,” he recalls, “and I took time to reread it and one thing that struck me was how brilliant the plot is. Pip in the last part of the novel becomes almost like a detective. I love the idea of Pip unravelling the truth.”

Nicholls says for all the novel’s thematic complexity, “such a large part of the story is just about the struggles of a 19-year-old boy, trying to work out who he is and what he wants to be, and I think in condensing the action a little in the screenplay, we have added to that sense of it being a thriller and a mystery.”

The writer’s love of film noir was in the forefront of his mind when writing the script, “the idea of Miss Havisham holding the key, the idea of a femme fatale, the dark house that holds secrets. A lot of those ideas seem to me draw upon film noir, mystery and the gothic so I think there is a great deal of that in there but also I hope that we have clung onto the brilliant, sharp social satire.”
After all Great Expectations is the supreme novel about class, aspiration and misguided ambition. “Pip’s terrible desire to be a gentleman, without really knowing what that involves, what that means, I think is just brilliant writing,” says Nicholls. “It is a brilliant book in its analysis of snobbery and aspiration. I hope that is in the script as well.”

When rereading the novel, however, Nicholls was most taken with the power of the love story. “Writing romance is not Dickens’ greatest strength,” he notes, “but Estella is an extraordinary character and the relationship between Pip and Estella is incredibly touching and romantic and painful.

“I think the novel contains a really extraordinary piece of lyrical writing. I have never read the novel and not been moved by it so this was something that I wanted to draw upon in this version. I hope this version will be affecting and that it will have high emotion and drama and melancholy as well, at times.”

It was the quality of Nicholls’ writing that immediately engaged the film’s director Mike Newell, who counts on his impressive CV films as diverse as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Love in the Time of Cholera and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

“What I loved most was that David Nicholls did one very ballsy thing, which was to tell the story from different points of view,” says Newell. “He told the story from several different points of view, not just Pip’s. The way the story keeps refracting is something that David had made a big feature of his adaptation.

“I loved constantly returning to the story and finding what you thought was true wasn’t true at all,” the director adds. “The main trick of the book is that the person who gives Pip his great expectations, who gives him the money and makes him a gentleman, is not the person that he thinks it is and the person he thinks that it should be.

“In fact, it is somebody who is not acceptable to him. It is a convict. That is a tremendous irony in the novel and the way that David has told this story from all these differing points of view allows you to build up an overall picture in the end. It is a wonderful bit of writing.”

At the time of its publication, Great Expectations was seen as one of the writer’s more joyful later novels though the modern-day reader may find it more melancholy. Certainly most critics believe it is a very personal novel. “For me it was one of the most personal of all his books,” says Newell, “and I think it is a book that in lots of ways is impregnated with all sorts of guilt. And I think that one of the questions that you can absolutely legitimately ask about the book is why is the leading character such a shit. And he is.

“Pip is treacherous, he will cast aside friends who have his best interests at heart. He will not see that his character is better suited to one of kind of life rather than to the life he aspires to and he rigorously refuses to listen to the people who would try to teach him otherwise. And he is absolutely horrible to the truest friend in his life, Joe Gargery, the blacksmith.”

Newell said that he found Pip’s nature fascinating and was interested “in the sort of psychological insights that would have to go with that. Plus,” he adds, “Dickens was writing this rip-roaring dramatic story, which is absolutely wonderful, but which at the same time is a portrait of two abused children, Pip and Estella.”

And it is the adults who ought to have their best interests at heart that abuse them. “Estella is brought up by Miss Havisham to be cold and haughty and a heartbreaker and dreadful, while Pip is tempted by money to become what he is absolutely unfitted for, a gentleman,” Newell continues.

“He is no good at being a gentleman whatsoever. In fact he screws up himself and everybody around him by not listening to the people who try to tell him that, so both of those young people are horribly distorted by these adults’ selfish ambitions.”

Newell also wanted the story to be full of passion. Like Nicholls, he is excited by the love fostered between Pip and Estella, even though it burns but slowly in the latter. “I also think that there are lots of versions of this story, all of which I have seen and I can’t say that any of them are very sexy,” the director says.

“Here we get a chance to ask: What does a young man feel about a young woman who he is absolutely head over heels in not only love but lust as well? And that side of the story is very rarely told.”

 

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