Film Diary: Great Expectations (David Lean, 1946)

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Great Expectations

I used to think of Great Expectations as the Dickens novel for people (like me) who hated Dickens. That was before I discovered Bleak House of course (but then, for some reason, Dickens’s masterpiece was never on the menu when I was a child: if it had been I might have viewed the man more benevolently). Although it contains a fair slice of grotesque caricature, Great Expectations seemed more than any other Dickens to be about moral ambiguity, and thus surprisingly modern.

David Lean managed to tap into this well. Dickens was always going to be a gift to the cinema when it finally arrived, and perhaps because of that pervading sense of moral ambiguity Great Expectations was the novel best suited to the screen. From the shocking moment early on when young Pip in the graveyard runs into the terrifying convict Magwitch, attention is demanded. After that, the story of the rise of young Pip under the influence of the bizarre Miss Havisham and a mystery benefactor unfolds relentlessly towards the inevitable bursting of his bubble. Some parts of the story are missed out, as is the wry Dickens commentary, but they aren’t missed. The only thing that grates is the false happy ending. The story of ambiguity ought to end as Dickens, that consummate wordsmith, ended it. Ambiguously.

Can great novels be made into great films? This is undoubtedly a great film. Maybe it depends on whether you think it’s a great novel or not. I’m inclined to think it is.

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