In one of my English classes in high school, the teacher was really pissed off at all of us (and was just generally an unpleasant lady to begin with), and so to punish us, she assigned Charles Dicken’s classic novel Great Expectations expecting that we would all hate the book as much as she did. In most hilarious fashion, her plan backfired because, for the most part, we all really enjoyed the book. In what can most basically be described as Dickens deconstructing the kind of stories that he’s most famous for (rags-to-riches, orphans, mysterious benefactors), Dickens managed to deliver what is to me his most memorable story. I just finished watching 1946’s adaptation by auteur David Lean, and while it wasn’t nearly as entertaining as Dicken’s original tale, it was still an entertaining, if flawed, picture.
For those who were never forced to read the novel at some point in their academic careers (I feel like it ranks up there with like The Great Gatsby or Romeo and Juliet in terms of how many high school kids are forced to read it), Great Expectations tells the story of a young orphan boy named Pip, who lives with his abusive sister and her kinder husband. When Pip is younger he begins to enter into the service of an eccentric spinster named Mrs. Havisham who uses Pip to amuse herself and her ward, Estella, generally by treating Pip absolutely terribly. When Pip is 20, he discovers that he has been given an inheritance by a secret benefactor, and the plot thickens when Pip’s past and the identity of his benefactor come back to greet him, in ways that you were not expecting (unless you were me and called the ending).
Part of the reason I love Great Expectations, the novel, so much is Dicken’s rapier and dry wit. For a book that is quite dark and depressing by Dickens standards, it also has some moments in it that had me literally laughing out loud while I read the book. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t seem to grasp how funny the book could be at times and it’s a rather serious affair throughout. The closest it comes to humor are the two scenes where Pip and Herbert box. Another area that the movie unfortunately fails is in the casting of grown-up Pip. Pip is supposed to be 20 when he comes into his inheritance, but the actor they cast to play him looks like he’s 40 years old. This is like Luke Perry on Beverly Hills 90210 times like ten. It’s ok though cause the young actor playing little Pip was quite talented for a child actor.
The art direction in the film was superb and it definitely (saying this having not seen the other films from 1946) deserved the Oscar that it won in that category. Miss Havisham’s mansion is exactly as creepy and dreary as I imagined it, and the scenes in the various graveyards and other major set-pieces are all put together great. It’s shot in a beautiful black and white that is used to its fullest effect. The actress playing Miss Havisham nailed the intense craziness and bitterness of the spurned bride in a way that makes you legitimately concerned for the actress’s well being. Also, you get a great small part by an incredibly young Alec Guiness a.k.a. the original Obi-Wan Kenobi. I wish he had played Pip instead of playing Herbert Pocket.
If you’re a fan of the original novel, I can’t really see you being too disappointed with this adaption. As far as I can remember the details of the novel (since I read it so long ago), it is quite faithful to the actual events of the story even if it can’t completely match the book’s tone. If you’ve been curious about the book but don’t want to actually read it, I can easily recommend the film as an introduction to Dickens’s timeless story. It’s a story that has stood the test of time far better than many others, and it’s a film I can readily recommend to most.
Final Score: B