Great Expectations

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #31: David Lean’s Great Expectations.


Upon see­ing this ver­sion of Great Expectations, I’m fairly sure that I’ve seen it pre­vi­ously. As book-to-movie adap­ta­tions go, it suf­fers from the nor­mal malaise of trun­ca­tion, but not so much as other sto­ries, since the ver­bose Dickens is in­volved. Alec Guinness has a sup­port­ing role, his first screen per­for­mance of any note, and is so bloody young that one’s mind is bog­gled. My gen­er­a­tion was in­tro­duced to Sir Alec via Star Wars, near the end of his act­ing ca­reer, so it is dou­bly sur­pris­ing for me to see him at the be­gin­ning of it. David Lean is a di­rec­tor with which I have some trou­ble dis­cov­er­ing au­teuris­tics, those tricks of the trade that be­come at­tribu­tive of style to each great one. David Lean cer­tainly is a great one, but his film­mak­ing strengths come not from his de­par­tures from con­ven­tional film­mak­ing, but his fi­delity to them. His films are so good be­cause they im­merse you into the story, make you for­get about the fic­tion of the sil­ver screen so wholly that the full force of the nar­ra­tive can be felt.


The nar­ra­tive of Great Expectations rang with much more psy­cho­log­i­cal ter­ror and abuse than when I saw it at a less ex­pe­ri­enced age. The vi­cious­ness of Estella and the un­wit­ting in­fat­u­a­tion of Pip are like vine­gar and bak­ing soda, they can’t help but re­act to­gether. The many strings and sub-plots weave such com­plex­ity that it is al­most sec­ond na­ture to feel that au­di­ences of the day were likely bet­ter able to ap­pre­ci­ate that depth of film­mak­ing, which is a rare com­mod­ity com­ing out of Hollywood these days. It was prob­a­bly rare then as well, but the post-mod­ern am­bigu­ous end­ing that would cul­mi­nate a sim­i­lar film to­day is no where to be found. In Dickens day, peo­ple wanted every­thing ship­shape when they closed their book. Lean is his name­sake and well-done at that, in this in­stance. He has ex­cised enough ma­te­rial to make the film in­tel­li­gi­ble and not bor­ing, while re­tain­ing just enough to guide the viewer to where he should linger.


There are, of course, stum­bles in this ef­fort. Often the tran­si­tions from skin-crawly creepy scene to light-hearted in­do­lence are jar­ring, and the mo­ti­va­tions and his­tory of a few char­ac­ters are woe­fully but nec­es­sar­ily shunted aside. Some of the clichés of adap­ta­tion-cin­ema are present as well, al­though in­con­sis­tently. The open-book at the be­gin­ning, ex­actly quoted pas­sages from the book, and voice-over nar­ra­tion are present, but in­con­sis­tent. The film­mak­ing is ex­cel­lent how­ever, and the ap­prox­i­ma­tion of can­dle-light is a tes­ta­ment to the ex­cel­lence of the light­ing crew Lean put to­gether. It is pos­si­ble to sense some­thing like frus­tra­tion on Lean’s part; it seems as if he knows he could get more pathos out of the same ma­te­rial if he wasn’t bound to the task of adapt­ing a novel, some­thing that is dif­fi­cult at best, and im­pos­si­ble at worst. Like try­ing to film Don Quixote, for in­stance. I have three more adap­ta­tions to watch in the box set that came from the li­brary, so it is time to get started on those, al­ready.


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