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On the small screen: Great Expectations

Any adaptation of a great loved book, for television or otherwise, will stir some to identify any and all discrepancies between the text and the adaptation itself. In truth, this is exactly what I was doing throughout my experience of watching the BBC’s three-part version of Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’, realising as I did so that this sort of analysis doesn’t have to negate from your enjoyment of it. The characters of Pip, Estella, Joe, Havisham and Magwitch have all been reworked and rethought of many times since the original book was published in 1861, and the different degrees to which these were successful is what is exciting about pulling a story from a page and making it visual.

The first of the three episodes began by perfectly capturing the sinister, atmospheric settings of the churchyard and the marshes that so famously mark the beginning of the novel. The blue-tinted fog that immersed both the landscape and the characters would become somewhat of a motif throughout the story, as it surrounds Satis House and, later, the boat upon which Magwitch attempts to makes his escape. The story begins when young Pip, played by Oscar Kennedy, runs through the mist on his way home and is caught, terrified and forced into colluding with the convict Magwitch (Ray Winstone). Winstone is excellent in this role: overbearing and aggressive, but with desperation, a subtle gentleness that provokes pity.

Along the way, the cast stepped into their roles with a varying degree of authenticity. Estella, for example, was neither cruel nor beautiful enough to truly evoke the mixture of repulsion and admiration that the literary character does, and left those who had not read the original baffled as to why Pip held so much affection for her. For me, the most impressive performance was Gillian Anderson as the jilted and bitter Miss Havisham. Any suspicions that she was too young or too beautiful to play the role were shaken off before the end of the first episode, as it was clear she had internalised the many bizarre, almost psychotic idiosyncrasies of Dickens’ original, and the addition of her own provided an exciting development.

In truth, the adaptation did culminate in disappointment: with a contrived ending portraying the explicit reconciliation of Pip and Estella. This did no justice to a female character that, in the novel, was determined to keep her autonomy. This last scene in the glittering and ethereal courtyard of Satis House must have been in some ways an appeal to audiences who expected a ‘happy ending’, but did not work with the rest of the narrative (despite an added scene in the second episode depicting Pip and Estella sharing an embarrassed kiss in a river).

All in all, the glorious, magical settings and visual effects, and the startling performance of Gillian Anderson saved the story. What it really failed to portray however, were the fundamental tragedies of the novel: Havisham’s terrifying manipulation of Estella, and her consequential inability to love; Pip’s rejection of Joe and the forge when he realises his ‘expectations’, and Magwitch’s failure to know his own daughter in life. Perhaps, when considering TV adaptations, we should accept they have a difference purpose and enjoy them for what they are.

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