Film financiers justify putting money into adaptations of Charles Dickens because he is both ‘classic’ and ‘literary’ yet also (kill me now) ‘relevant’. It makes one long for more adaptations of ‘irrelevant’ books. Even Ralph Fiennes, who turns in a superb Oscar-bait performance as Magwitch in Mike Newell’s just-released film of Great Expectations, had recourse to the dreaded word ‘relevant’ when asked on the red carpet at Toronto Film Festival why anyone should want to make a film of such A Very Old Book.
Great Expectations, 1860-61, is A Very Old Book indeed, a book by a man who lived Over A Hundred Years Ago, as people insist on reminding us during his bicentenary, but it’s also the ultimate coming-of-age novel. In his fantasy of advancement from blacksmith’s apprentice to gentleman, Pip Pirrip may remind us of the young Dickens himself — yanked out of school and sent to work in a blacking factory as a result of his father’s debts.
From the classic film by David Lean to Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply strange New York update — it’s an irony that a novel so powerfully concerned with the development of a reliable sense of self should inspire so many to retell its story. The bicentenary has seen a near festival of Expectations. Mike Newell’s new big-screen version follows hot on the heels of the BBC1 serialisation.
Writers as well as film-makers see Great Expectations as a book that can be used as a jumping-off point. There is Peter Carey’s tricksy post-colonial re-calibration, Jack Maggs, which sees Magwitch, the convict exiled to Australia, as the novel’s centre. Lloyd Jones’s 2007 novel Mister Pip has now been made into a film by Andrew Adamson, to be released next year. It finds an English teacher, Mr Watts (played by Hugh Laurie), on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, trying to teach Great Expectations. It’s an almost absurd yet deeply affecting story of how Dickens’s classic is taken to heart by the community in the midst of the brutal civil war (which Jones covered as a correspondent in the 1990s). The book is carried like a talisman into a world as violent as that depicted in its pages. The story works not just as an attempt to retell Great Expectations, but as a touching reminder of why the original continues to exert such power.
To these spin-offs, we can now add Havisham, by Ronald Frame, a Scottish novelist and screenwriter who won the Betty Trask prize for his first novel Winter Journey. With more than a small debt to Carey, he tells the story of the young Catherine Havisham, who falls for a conman only to be abandoned at twenty to nine on the morning of her wedding. In Great Expectations, of course, the clocks have all been stopped and Satis House has become a rotting shrine to Miss Havisham’s wedding breakfast, with mice clambering over the cake.
On reading the original book, it’s impossible to forget the candlelit gothic oddity of Miss Havisham’s scenario. One of the delights of Helena Bonham Carter in Newell’s film is her wittiness — commanding Pip and Estella to play, she herself is at her own twisted kind of play. The casting is perfect — British cinema’s classic costume-drama virgin, who in her most famous roles has found herself transformed by love and sex, is here configured into literature’s ultimate frustrated virgin who endures life in a terrible stasis.
Ronald Frame tries to present Miss Havisham’s destructive behaviour as something epic, even feminist: an attempt to turn herself into a mythical heroine. He gives her a good education and an interest in the great scorned women of history, such as Dido, abandoned by Aeneas. ‘At interludes I had dwelt among legends, in the knowledge of mythical beings… I matched my fate to theirs.’ Less successful is the elaboration on her physical fixation with her cad. To hit home the point that Victorians had libido, it strays dangerously close to Fifty Shades territory. ‘Spasms of excitement connected to feelings I couldn’t fully articulate… He had me on a chain. No: on a silken halter.’ It should have been a shoo-in for a bad sex in fiction nomination.
To get beyond the mythologising is a worthy enterprise and one that unifies the best of the novel’s contemporary re-imaginings. The strongest versions are those that are deeply eccentric. Mister Pip, for example, has fun with the imagination of the brightest student, Matilda, who becomes so obsessed with the book that she imagines her own way into the story, conversing with a Pip who exists in her head. Jack Maggs, too, is utterly audacious and tricksy, building into the story an encounter with Dickens himself.
Great Expectations is such a humane novel because it’s a labyrinth of visceral feelings. As Pip tells us of his love for Estella, ‘I loved her simply because I found her irresistible… I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.’
Whether on the page or on the screen, the best of the tributes to Great Expectations get you reaching for your own dog-eared copy of the original. The author of One Day, David Nicholls, wrote the screenplay for Mike Newell’s film, and he has done an admirable job. Happily, Pip’s most lyrical lines to Estella make it onto the screen virtually unchanged: ‘You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read… You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since — on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets…’. You can fall in love with a book as well as with a person. The fact that Great Expectations is still being retold is testament to its incomparable power to get under the reader’s skin. Next time anyone asks you why you think Dickens matters, just quote a chunk of this. It’s pure poetry… and it sure beats ‘relevant’.