Thursday, June 7, 2012

Great Expectations: Dickens Distilled

Despite my love for Victorian literature, I have always found Dickens to be somewhat difficult. Which is quite a generalization, considering the only Dickens novel I've read is Oliver Twist. I have attempted to read others but gave up and headed for an Austen novel instead. So when a friend insisted I watch the BBC adaptation of Great Expectations that aired over Christmas, I decided that it was high time I tried to read the novel. It was as I expected - massive amounts of Dickensian coincidences with characters seeming to be related in all sorts of improbable ways and a rather prosy mishmash of plot courtesy of the serial format. There were certainly wryly funny lines that made me laugh on occasion, but otherwise it's a largely bleak and rambling tale of Victorian England.

The great thing about the BBC miniseries is that it distills this 59-chapter behemoth into a serviceable 3-hour miniseries. This would seem like an impossible task but quite a few of those chapters (and characters) are complete tangents with no importance to the central plot, so you can appreciate screenwriter Sarah Phelps' judicious trimming of any Dickensian excesses. The novel is a first-person narrative that lets you hear Pip's side of the story and allows him to acknowledge his poor choices. But in this miniseries you just watch him treat his former friends like dirt and it's hard to feel any sympathy for him when his "great expectations" come crashing down. The first two hours of the miniseries were largely faithful to the novel, but the third part seemed to veer a little off course in an attempt to neatly tie together all those ridiculous coincidences and give Pip some kind of resolution.

The highlight of this adaptation (aside from the wonderful production value you would expect from the BBC) is Gillian Anderson's portrayal of the vengeful and deranged Miss Havisham. Largely acknowledged as one of the great characters of Victorian literature, this portrayal invokes both horror and pity once she realizes that exacting her revenge has only served to bring her further unhappiness. Anderson completely looks the part and it's amazing how creepy a baby voice can be. It was also nice to see David Suchet playing the inscrutable lawyer, Jaggers, since this is the only non-Poirot role I've seen him in.

The love story between Pip and Estella is unduly beefed up in this adaptation, with lots of added scenes and rather un-Victorian behavior. This is only to be expected - ever since Colin Firth jumped into that lake in the 1995 Pride & Prejudice, you can't have a modern Victorian adaptation without some ridiculous scene that would have grievously offended Queen Victoria's sense of propriety. However, the screenwriter probably felt she had to inject something romantic into this otherwise bleak tale.

Overall, this is yet another quality adaptation from the BBC with an unforgettable take on Miss Havisham. If you're not keen on Victorian literature, you could probably just watch this miniseries and save yourself the time required to read the novel. However, it is interesting to note the points at which the novel and miniseries diverge, as it can tell you a lot about how a modern audience wants a story to be told. I'm not sure I agree with all the choices the screenwriter made, but I certainly think the miniseries captures the essence of Great Expectations and is a wonderful way to kick off the 2012 Dickens Bicentennial.

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