My Harper Perennial Classic copy of Great Expectations

Great Expectations

  • Author:  Charles Dickens  (1812  –  1870)
  • Rank:  #35
  • Published:  1861
  • Publisher:  Chapman & Hall
  • Pages:  495
  • First Line:  “My father’s family name being Pirrip and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.”
  • Last Line:  “I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw the shadow of no parting from her.”
  • ML Edition:  Modern Library Classics (2001) – surprisingly, never in hardcover
  • Film: many – most notably 1946 (**** – David Lean), 1998 (*** – Alfonso Cuarón)
  • First Read:  Spring, 1989

The Novel:  I am not alone in my appreciation of Great Expectations and my opinion that it is the best of Dickens’ novels.  Surveys of opinions of his novels, as noted in the Norton Critical Edition, listed it as the second best book in the views of both U.K. and U.S. readers.  But, because David Copperfield was #1 in the U.K, (but seventh in the U.S.) while A Tale of Two Cities was first in the U.S. (but seventh in the U.K.), Great Expectations, using the same kind of rules that the Academy uses to choose Best Picture, comes out on top.

So, why?  What is it that causes it to come out top – that unites both British and American readers?  Well, there is the story, of course, the novel that best makes use of Dickensian coincidence and which makes the links seem clearly organic rather than the artificial mechanics of the plot (it and Barnaby Rudge are the only ones that really do this well).  Or, as Christopher Ricks says in Dickens and the Twentieth Century (which can be found the Norton):  “Yet at the heart of Great Expectations are all those obvious sorts of greatness which embarrass the modern critic — convincing and often profound characterization, a moving and exciting story, and a world observed with both literal and moral fidelity.”

Of course, those characters, which add so much to the story, are some of his best.  It is no mystery why Jasper Fforde made such extensive use of Miss Havisham in the Thursday Next series.  And she is not alone in the list of wonderful characters from the novel – Magwitch, Jaggers, Wemmick, Aged P, Mrs. Joe – they all come wonderfully to life.  And that is due to Dickens wonderful writing here, some of his best, often overlooked in favor of the iconic opening and closing lines of A Tale of Two Cities.

Just look at Pip’s initial description of the room which Lean would make so inventively come to life: “But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow.  I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes.”

It is Pip’s narration, which never seems to slide into the careless sentimentality of David Copperfield’s, that really brings the book to life.  It is Pip’s youth that can give us a line like “Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have found you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.” and his upbringing that could bring us “Looking towards the open window, I saw light wreaths from Joe’s pipe floating there, and I fancied it was like a blessing from Joe – not obtruded on me or paraded before me, but pervading the air we shared together.”  But even the adult Pip can find lines that are a wonder to behold:”It was the first time that a grave had opened in my road of life, and the gap it made in the smooth ground was wonderful.”

I could quote the ending, and by this I mean the “happy” ending that was added later.  It truly is the ending that belongs for this tale, because with so much pain and suffering having also passed through, there is no need for a separate parting and that is why no shadow shall be seen again.  But I will leave you with one of Dickens’ best lines; certainly it is not an oft-quoted line like those from Tale and it has not of that David Copperfield kind of crap that Holden Caulfield warned us all against.  It is just as the critic said – a world observed with both literal and moral fidelity.

“And could I look upon her without compassion, seeing her punishment in the ruin she was, in her profound unfitness for this earth on which she was placed, in the vanity of sorrow which had become a monster mania, like the vanity of penitence, the vanity of remorse, the vanity of unworthiness, and other monstrous vanities that have been curses in the world?”

The Films:

The poster for David Lean's 1946 film of Great Expectations

1946 version  (dir. David Lean)

Some films made in black-and-white should have been made in color – most notably Yankee Doodle Dandy (though no black-and-white film should ever be colorized).  On the other hand, there are a number of films – The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Strangers on a Train – that, even if made today, should still be in black-and-white.  David Lean’s Great Expectations is among the latter.  With its shadows, it various shades in which it hies Dickens’ usual blatant black-and-white characters, and the darkness that envelops several of the characters, color simply wouldn’t have been adequate.

Lean’s film is also a reminder that the works of Dickens are invariably British.  There had been two Best Picture nominated Dickens adaptations – the very Hollywood version of David Copperfield, and the better, but still rather American, A Tale of Two Cities (which is Dickens’ least British novel anyway).  But with this film (and again with his version of Oliver Twist) we get much of the very best of British film-making.  Not only do we have David Lean, the best that British cinema has to offer (Hitchcock did much of his best work in Hollywood), we also have Ronald Neame, who was a good director but a great cinematographer, the debut of Alec Guinness, a performance by John Mills so perfect for Pip that it overcomes the fact that he is blatantly too old to play the part, and the fantastic character performances from Martita Hunt, Finlay Currie , and of course, the always under-appreciated Frances L. Sullivan as Jaggers.

Great Expectations is one of those rare films that emerged as nearly an instant classic (the New York Times review, available in their Top 1000 films book, is almost in awe of the film), and continues to be regarded as a classic.  In fact, even those critics who denigrate Lean, such as Andrew Sarris and David Thomson, look at this as a powerfully made masterpiece.  That it did not win Best Picture at the Oscars is more a question of timing and the social awareness at the heart of Gentleman’s Agreement, and it could very well have won in either of the following two years.  A good deal of the love for the film is due to the way it so perfectly keeps the major points of the plot intact and gives us a masterfully made (it won Oscars for both Cinematography and Art Direction and it absolutely deserved both – it looks incredible in every shot and the sets for Miss Havisham’s house are among the best ever put on film) work of art of the best novel of one of the most widely read authors in history.

the, surprisingly good 1998 Alfonso Cuaron version of Great Expectations

1998 version  (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

I expected to hate this film.  When it first came out, in the spring of 1998, I remembered reading the book in high school and I had breezed through the last 100 pages and had loved the Lean film.  I don’t mind updates and sometimes they can be quite inventive (think of the ways in which Kurosawa updated Hamlet with The Bad Sleep Well) but this seemed like a bastardized version of a great novel, starring, of all people, Ethan Hawke, the whiny little snot who had made Reality Bites one of the most annoying films I had ever had the displeasure to sit through in the theater.

So I put it off.  I could afford to so because, thanks to its failure to earn any nominations from any of the awards group that I so devotedly follow, I didn’t need to check it off a list.  But then came my directors project, and by that time Alfonso Cuarón had made Y Tu Mama Tambien and Prisoner of Azkaban and it was quickly becoming obvious that I was going to have to suck it up and watch it.  Well, I thought, at least it looks like I might get to see some naked Gwyneth.

Then I watched the film (and she’s not really naked), and, lo and behold, Cuarón trumps Hawke.  Is the film great?  No, in spite of some very strong early moments.  But it is the piece of shit that is Hawke’s performance as Hamlet?  Absolutely not.

The film comes to life for a variety of reasons.  One, of course, is Cuarón, who manages to take the whiny personality at the heart of every Hawke performance and make it work perfectly as Pip (who is Finn in this version).  Second, there is a wonderful soundtrack, whose atmospheric ambient songs bring an ethereal sense that meshes well with the third strength – wonderful sets and art direction that find a way to match Southern Florida in the 90’s to decrepit countryside manors in Victorian Britain.

So we end up with an inventive and fascinating film that does nothing to make us forget Lean’s masterpiece, but does manage to make itself memorable in its own right.