When Charles Dickens finished Great Expectations, he gave it to his friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton to read. Bulwer-Lytton thought the ending, in which Pip remains single and Estella remarries after her abusive husband dies, was too bleak and encouraged Dickens to change it. Dickens took his advice and crafted a more optimistic ending that vaguely implied Pip and Estella would eventually marry. Dickens scholars and fans debate which ending is best and where you fall on that side of the debate will determine your happiness with the second half of Masterpiece Classic’s Great Expectations.
With a three-hour running time of a 500 page book is going to necessitate some changes. Characters and story lines are scuttled. Relationships are changed. Plot points are achieved in completely new ways. While the choices made by the screenwriter were not jarring, nor did they change the essence of the story or the motivations of the characters, they were perplexing and, in many instances, unnecessary.
The greatest beneficiary of the changes is the character of Estella. The screenwriter and director crafted the character with the optimistic ending in mind, giving Estella a conscience and feelings that Dickens never did. In the novel, Estella warned Pip away from her but I never felt like the waring was given because of any particular regard she had for Pip, but more from a desire to be rid of a nuisance. Implying that Estella harbored genuine feelings for Pip made her character more sympathetic and deserving of Pip. It also gave a character that I felt was too one dimensional in the book some much needed depth.
While I had issues with Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Miss Havisham, and I think the screenwriter tweaked her dialogue in unnecessary ways, the imagine of Anderson as Havisham walking down the stairs of Satis House in her bridal veil came very close to making up for it. Unfortunately, nothing could make up for the fact that Abercrombie and Pip looked like a 21st century metro sexual dressed as a 19th century gentleman.
With adaptations such as these I have two criteria to decide how “good” the movie was. One, would I buy the DVD? With Great Expectations the answer is “No.” Besides the image of Miss Havisham descending to the stairs to her death, there is nothing memorable about this adaptation. Two, would I recommend it to others as a good representation of the book? My answer for that would have be “No” as well. The gold standard I judge these adaptations by is the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series. While it isn’t a fair comparison – that was a 5 hour mini-series – it is possible to faithfully adapt a dense book into a three hour running time. For the best representation of that, see Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South starring Richard Armitage. Great Expectations falls short in faithfulness. While they kept the theme of the story intact, there were too many little, unnecessary changes that makes this adaptation average instead of great.