The stills were taken from the David Lean production of Great Expectations on the Intenet Archive, identified as being in the public domain. — JB

decorated initial 'By the time that the first black-and-white film version of Dickens's 1861 novel (scripted by Paul West) was made at Paramount in 1917, over forty other films of Dickens's works had already been made. The cinematic interest in Great Expectations seems to have quickened with the onset of the Great Depression, and in every decade of the twentieth century since the 1934 version a film has been made of Great Expectations, often with an eye to the television audience (for the most part, by the BBC), in 1946, 1959, 1961, 1967, 1974, 1989, and 1998. Increasingly, the issues of class-consciousness and the money morality of a society organized according to the Cash Nexus have been complicated by matters of obsessive romance and arrested emotional development, to say nothing of the Freudian treatments of Miss Havisham, Orlick, and Mrs. Joe. A further wrinkle is the antipodean interest in Magwitch's years as a sheep-rancher in Australia, a textual lacuna that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in particular has sought to address.

The first cinematic interpretation of Great Expectations was a silent film produced in 1917 by Daniel Frohman, who had attained prominence on the New York Stage. It was possibly filmed in 1916, and released the following year. In this short silent film adaptation, Jack Pickford played Pip, and Louise Huff Miss Havisham. A second black-and-white silent film was scripted by Laurids Skands and directed at Nordisk (Denmark) by A. W. Sandberg in 1921. In 1934, Universal Studios in the United States did the first talking picture with screenplay by Gladys Unger and direction by Stuart Walker: Phillips Holmes was Pip; Florence Reed, Miss Havisham; Jane Wyatt, Estella; with Henry Hull and Alan Hale.

During the 1930's only a few (and mostly amateur) stage productions of Great Expectations occurred. . . . . The most important film version — David Lean's of 1946 — was yet to come. The great bulk of radio and television plays were yet to appear. Frances Jolly's Great Expectations received notice in the Dickensian [4]. Alec Guinness [who later reprised his comic interpretation of Herbert Pocket in the 1946 film, which was his cinematic début] could sense stage possibilities in the novel in 1939; but World War II intervened. [Bolton 416-417]

The Celebrated 1946 Black-and-White Adaptation by David Lean

Lean's opening churchyard scene for the 1946 b&w adaptation of Great Expectations, with Antony Wager as Young Pip.

Produced by Cineguild, England, the 1946 version starred a youthful Sir John Mills as Pip (as a boy played by Anthony Wager) and the lovely Valerie Hobson as the difficult grownup Estella, with Ivor Bernard as a flitting Wemmick, Bernard Miles as the affable Joe, a cold and calculating Francis L. Sullivan as Jaggers, Freda Jackson as Mrs. Joe, Martita Hunt as an icey Miss Havisham, and Finlay Currie brilliantly enacting the terrifying convict and, later, doting adoptive father, Magwitch. Bosley Crowther, reviewing the film in the New York Times just after its American release in May 1947 described Lean's adaptation as "screen storytelling at its best." For this quality he singles out for praise the authors of a "script that is swift and sure in movement" (co-writers Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, and Ronald Neame) and the director, Lean, for superlative sensitivity. Neame doubled as producer, providing an interesting team approach that created a tonally unified conception of the novel. The dramatic ending is reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe rather than Dickens, however, as Pip rips down the dusty draperies of Satis House to let in the light of day upon the mould and decay, and to release Estella (caught up in his arms) from the possessive spirit of the vengeful Miss Havisham. Hardly pure Dickens, but sensational cinema.

Left: Lean's Estella (Valerie Hobson) coyly answers the gate at Satis House in the 1946 b&w adaptation of Great Expectations. Right: Miss Havisham, played by Martita Hunt.

In Lean's film we associate Miss Havisham, played with dignity and cunning by Martita Hunt, with candles, an unseen fire, and empty hearth, and her vanity table [the last an image frequently conjured up by nineteenth-century illustrators of the novel]. The frame's image places her near candle flames, with her face lit by a fire before her which we do not see. The effect of this close juxtaposition of images is to make Miss Havisham seem already damned in some genteel hell, full of cobwebs and old ribbons, or already on her funeral bier lit dimly by candles which offer no warmth. In the scene where Miss Havisham is prompting Pip to love Estella, only to be interrupted by the arrival of Jaggers, she is framed against a bare, black, cold hearth, which acts as a kind of visual correlative to her heartless, cold, and bitter words. [Barreca 40]

In an article for the first series of The Dickens Magazine, Harmon Greenblatt relates how David Lean met Martita Hunt (the actress then playing Miss Havisham in Alec Guinness's West End production of Great Expectations) through his wife at the time, Kay Walsh: "Lean had said that if he had not seen the stage version, he would never have done the film" (8). Adrian Turner, in the liner notes for the Criterion DVD of Lean's film, notes that, although reading Dickens may have been considered mandatory for every middle-class British child in the first half of the twentieth century, "Lean was not 'well read' — amongst Dickens' works, he claimed acquaintance only with A Christmas Carol — but like Dickens, he was a born storyteller" (1). When he saw the screenplay produced by the studio's resident Dickens adapter, Clemence Dane, he thought it useless, and determined that he and Neame could do much better themselves. Subsequently, they also did a masterful job of casting, in particular with Guinness in the role of Herbert Pocket: "he is so full of honesty and boyish enthusiasm, the perfect antidote to Pip's snobbery" (9). Lean's manner of engaging the sympathies of the audience in the opening scene is nothing short of brilliant:

The first few minutes of the film, the pan along the shore with what looks like a series of gallows on the waterfront, are nowhere in the book, but the image is so strong that it forces us to enter Dickens's and Lean's world and never leave it until the film is over. The next scene, in which Pip is at his parents' grave and encounters Magwitch, invokes strong reactions from the audience. When Magwitch grabs Pip, the theatre audience literally gasped. The theatregoers feel the same fear as Pip. Here is the spirit, the drama, the emotion of Dickens on the screen. [Greenblatt 9]

Just prior to the Christmas of 1946, David Lean's Great Expectations became the first adaptation to arrive in cinemas after the Second World War. Long-time theatrical reviewer and editor of The Dickensian Leslie C. Staples pronounced the new film "a worthy transcription of a great book" (79). With a lifetime's appreciative reading of Dickens and personal knowledge of many British stage adaptations from Dickens's works, Staples provides a highly readable but, by today's standards, amateurish assessment; he relishes the Dickensian impersonations, and seems resigned to the un-Dickensian ending as "ingenious and effective" (81), given that neither of the original textual endings would do for a film. Regina Barreca remarks of Lean's rejigging of the ending that Estella is still a virgin, having been jilted rather having married Bentley Drummle: "In the film, she comes Pip broken-hearted but with everything else intact" (44), so that we see her as an extension of Miss Havisham, "who she claims is still a forceful presence in the house" (44), so that the conclusion involves Estella choosing Pip and the sunlight over Miss Havisham and the perpetual shadows of the past.

Pip (John Mills) and Estella (Valerie Hobson) have an off-again/on-again romance right up to the climactic conclusion in David Lean's 1946 b&w adaptation of Great Expectations.

Objecting to technical aspects of setting rather than to manipulation of plot, Staples notes how unlike any Kentish church he has ever seen is the one which Lean has employed for the opening graveyard scene; an additional moment of aporia is the seawall by which young Pip makes his way home after the incident with the convict. Despite these and other inconsistencies in setting, Staples is pleasantly surprised by how much of Dickens's story Lean has been able to retain in a two-hour adaptation. Inevitably, he observes, such minor but charming Dickensian originals as Miss Skiffins had to be eliminated, but excising Orlick renders Mrs. Joe's sudden death less probable than her slow decline after her assault by her husband's journeyman in the novel. Staples praises the film for its verisimilitude in its re-creation of a packet-steamer from the period, and the dramatizing of "the attempted escape of Magwitch (photographed on the Medway, to avoid the heavy traffic on the Thames)," which he describes as both "convincing and thrilling" (80). The sets for Barnard's Inn, a London landmark with which Staples was familiar, Bill Barley's Thames-side cottage, and the ruined precincts of Satis House, he highly approved. But his most fulsome praise he bestows upon the stellar cast of British actors, lauding in particular Alec Guinness, reprising his 1940 stage role of Herbert Pocket, as "wholly charming" (81). However, he obviously has some reservations about Hay Petrie's impersonation of Uncle Pumblechook: although Petrie is a "superb character actor," remarks Staples, Lean's Pumblechook "has not the aspect one associates with that redoubtable seedsman" (81). Veteran British comedian O. B. Clarence made a welcome — if far too brief — appearance as Wemmick's Aged Parent, in which role he proved "an unalloyed delight" (81).

Significantly, as mentioned above, David Lean and his screenwriters did away with the role of Orlick, a character often omitted from subsequent "made-for-tv" productions such as NBC's in 1974, written by Sherman Yellen and starring Michael York (Pip), Sara Miles (Estella), James Mason (Magwitch), Anthony Quayle (Jaggers), and Robert Morley (Pumblechook). Both the 118-minute 1946 and the 124-minute 1974 versions (the latter directed by Joseph Hardy) end amidst the Gothic cobwebs of a ramshackle Satis House rather than, as in the book, in the light of day in the ruined garden. Lean's ending strikes one today as excessively melodramatic and somewhat contrived, the lovers still young and not broken by the vagaries of time. Yellen's scripting of the reunion is much more muted, with streaks of grey and a world-weariness characterizing both Pip and Estella; particularly delightful is the wistful note of melancholic comedy sounded in Estella's remarking to the middle-aged lover "You may kiss me now, Boy." Sylvia Miller, reviewing the production, found the Yellen-Hardy tv adaptation "an insipid seasonal confection" (261), but apparently enjoyed Anthony Quayle as Jaggers for his having been able "to preserve something of the grim sidelong humour of the original." The sardonic Miss Havisham (icily played by Margaret Leighton), who sees her own folly even as she enacts it, is immolated with spectacular effect, and her death is one of the finest things in the film as she begs Pip (Michael York) for forgiveness.

Extended Adaptations for the Small Screen (BBC: 1959, 1967, 1987, and 1989)

The BBC produced a thirteen-part serial version in 1959 (5 April through 28 June), rebroadcast from 30 March through 22 June 1960. This was followed by a ten-part version in 1967 written by Hugh Leonard, broadcast on British television between 22 January and 26 March. The year 1961 saw at least six stage, radio, and televised versions of Great Expectations (Bolton 417). Leopold H. Ginner directed a Swiss screen-version in 1971. There has even been an animated cartoon version, according to Bolton (produced in 1978), rebroadcast on 3 March 1985 on American television. The last film version recorded by Bolton is the twelve-part BBC1 television version broadcast in 1980 (rebroadcast in 1981), written by James A. Hall, produced by Barry Letts, and directed by Julian Amyes. This version was later released in 1988 by BBC Video/CBS/Fox in two VHS cassettes totaling 300 minutes. The eccentric, philosophical Miss Havisham was played by Joan Hickson, Pip by Jerry Sundquist, and Estella by Sarah-Jane Varley.

An extended version not catalogued by Bolton (1987) is the leisurely-paced 1989, six-hour British version featuring Anthony Hopkins as Magwitch and as Miss Havisham an elderly Jean Simmons, who in youth had been David Lean's Estella. John Rhys-Davies, still very active in television today, played an affable Joe Gargery; Martin Harvey, young Pip, and Anthony Calf, mature Pip; Kim Thomson, Estella; Adam Blackwood, Herbert; Ray McAnally, Jaggers; Niven Boyd, Orlick; Susan Franklyn, Biddy; Rosemary McHale, Mrs. Joe; Frank Middlemass, Uncle Pumblechook; Charles Lewesen, Wemmick, John Quentin, Wopsle; and Sean Arnold, Compeyson.

Alfonso Cuaron's "Modernized" Adaptation (1998)

A radical departure from the above relatively close adaptations for screen and television was Alfonso Cuaron's modernized and Americanized treatment of Dickens's story filmed in 1998 with some recognizable characters in very different settings. Cuaron's biggest problem was also his biggest strength: his thorough knowledge of David Lean's 1946 adaptation. What attracted Cuaron to Great Expectations was not Dickens's England but his moral universe; he thus was prepared to accept Mitch Glazer's screenplay of the poor boy with a good heart who goes from penury to celebrity and affluence, but suffers unrequited love, even though the treatment has transferred the scene of the romance from nineteenth-century England to the bright, green world of twentieth-century Florida (its tropic warmth a stark contrast to the chilled world of the Marshes) and New York (the American equivalent of London). The most significant modification is not one of scene, however, but of sex, sensuality, and eroticism, all amply provided by a sultry Gwyneth Paltrow: in Cuaron's opinion, remarks Pamela Katz, "Sex without love . . . can be even more painful than no sex at all" (97). The steamy romance, the lush setting, the contemporary casting (with the late Anne Bancroft delivering a splendidly neurotic Miss Havisham), and dazzling cinematography made the film popular with North American adolescents, who, unencumbered by having to read the novel as part of their schooling, discovered the novel for themselves — surprised that it contained virtually no sex and was set in nineteenth-century England. That the book's controlling consciousness, filtering our perceptions of his younger self and of the other characters, would have come as no surprise since Finn's [with a nod to Mark Twain, the film's name for Pip]

voice-over dominates the film and, in like fashion, we see most of the film through his eyes. His vision of Estella is particularly stylized. Her face is usually photographed in an extreme (and extremely flattering) close-up: it always appears suddenly, by Finn's side, and then just as suddenly leaves. This surreal touch makes her seem more like a figment of Finn's imagination than a solid human figure. Her reality rests in his mind alone. [Katz 102]

Later Film and Television Adaptations, including No. 62 in Southpark

Finally (at least at the time of writing) in terms of attempts at faithful adaptations, we come to Tony Marchant's admirable screenplay for the 1999 three-part (180-minute) Masterpiece Theater mini-series starring Ioan Gruffudd of Horatio Hornblower fame as mature Pip and Justine Waddell as Estella, psychologically impaired by the anti-male programming of Miss Havisham (Charlotte Rampling). With plenty of screen time available for the PBS production, director Julian Jarrold enlisted an extensive cast, including Clive Russell as Joe Gargery; Leslie Sharp, Mrs. Joe; Laura Aikman as young Biddy, and Emma Cunniffe as mature Biddy; Nicholas Blane, Wopsle; Selina Cadell, Sarah Pocket; Jo Cameron Brown, Miss Skiffins; Timothy Tranter as young Orlick, and Tony Curran, mature Orlick; Gemma Gregory, young Estella; Bernard Hill, Magwitch; David Horovitch, Matthew Pocket; Laurence Dobiesz, young Herbert, and Daniel Evans, mature Herbert; Hugh Lloyd, the Aged P; Ian McDiarmid, Jaggers; Laila Morse, Molly; Terence Rigby, Pumblechook; and Nicholas Woodeson as Wemmick. Charlotte Rampling is effective as the eccentric, enigmatic crone who has exiled herself from society — and reality — and taken refuge in the Gothic shadows of Satis House. The adult Pip is strikingly handsome and poised, coolly smitten by the troubled Estella. The shoot was set in Edinburgh, which still offers many locales redolent of early nineteenth-century London.

As a footnote, the most bizarre video adaptation of Dickens's classic Bildungsroman is Southpark's Episode No. 62, which aired 29 November 2000. Writer Trey Parker provides a science-fiction treatment of the novel as Malcolm McDowell ('English Person') narrates what begins as a textually accurate synopsis but turns into a fantastic yarn about a Genesis device on the Havesham Estate designed to emasculate young men. The interjection of robotic monkeys to facilitate the villainess's carrying out her evil designs is an indication of a post-modernist intertextual approach which synthesizes the children's classic The Wizard of Oz and Dickens's first-person narrative about nineteenth-century British class-consciousness. Estella is still the main romantic interest, the scornful beauty for whom Pip realizes only a gentleman will do, but her insults have a most un-Dickensian, in-your-face sting. The sitcom departs from the original text significantly, when, after mere months away in London, Pip returns to uncover Miss Havesham's scheme to use his tears and those of other heart-broken young men to enable her Genesis device to ensnare Estella's soul and allow her to live forever while exacting revenge on the entire male gender. Whether Dickens or Feminism or High Culture (as exemplified by PBS's Masterpiece Theatre) is the main butt of the spoof is difficult to say. Ironically, according to Jeffrey Sconce, this episode, perhaps because it departed from the Southpark formula, met with considerable audience resistance:

this episode "failed" only in terms of viewer response and ratings. Informal surveys of Southpark fan websites reveal "Pip" to be the single most unpopular episode of the series ever to air, a fact confirmed by the parent network's decision not to rerun this apparently too digressive episode later in the season. [184-85]

The Novel's Culminating Scene in Two Notable Film Adaptations (1921 and 1946)

Radical departures from the text are rare among Victorian illustrated editions. Accepting the constraints placed upon artistic license by the letter-press, illustrators produced plates that complemented the narrative rather than undermined it. Screenwriters and dramatic adapters, on the other hand, felt free to manipulate it. At the conclusion of Sandberg's 1921 silent-film adaptation of Great Expectations, for example, Pip (Harry Komdrop) and Estella (Olga d'Org), without the benefit of winter coats, embrace in front of the shattered walls and barred windows of Satis House. This is a relatively modest example of how screenwriters have taken liberties with the novel, for although the Nordisk film dresses the set with a gate leading into the garden, as specified in the text, Dickens mentions that the house itself together with its outbuildings has been levelled: "There was no house now, no brewery, no building whatever left . . . ."

"Estella, come with me, out into the sunlight," says Pip in Lean's adaptation. Pip has wrenched away the tattered curtains, releasing clouds of dust, and sunlight now streams through the window behind them.

In contrast, as mentioned earlier, Lean and his co-writers completely revised both the setting and the dialogue of the closing scene to recreate it as a Poe-esque moment in a Gothic setting. Inside the mansion, its windows draped to shut out the life-giving light of day, Lean's Pip rehearses the closing, melodramatic moments of a vampire film, as he realizes that the spirit of arrested time and emotion must be exorcized. Bringing the light of reason to the obssessed heroine, he finally banishes the oppressive shade of Miss Havisham from Estella's psyche, relegating it to the shadows of the past, where that warped spirit belongs. In response, Estella runs out with him, and the two leave Satis House hand in hand. In this and other respects, Lean's adaptation is an acknowledged classic of black-and-white cinematography, a successful mix of Dickensian realism and psychological fantasy with modernist montage and closeups (see Davis 205).


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Hardy, Joseph (director). Great Expectations. Screenplay by Sherman Yellen. Starring Michael York (mature Pip), Sarah Miles (Estella), Joss Ackland (Joe), James Mason (Magwitch), Margaret Leighton (Miss Havisham), and Robert Morley (Pumblechook). London and New York: ITC Live Home Video, 1993. Originally filmed in 1974. Running time 124 mins. VHS 69926.

Jarrold, Julian (director). Great Expectations. Screenplay by Tony Marchant. Starring Ioan Gruffudd (Pip), Justine Waddell (Estella), Charlotte Rampling (Miss Havisham), Daniel Evans (Herbert), Gemma Gregory (young Estella), Bernard Hill (Magwitch), Ian McDiarmid (Jaggers), and Gabriel Thomson (young Pip), and Clive Russell (Joe). First broadcast on Masterpiece Theater, 1999. Running time 180 mins.

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Created 26 June 2005

Last updated 26 October 2021