Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Great Adaptations in Context: The Lasting Appeal of "Great Expectations"

[images displayed in this post are from the 2011 BBC adaptation of Great Expectations]

2012 will offer viewers two new adaptations of Great Expectations:  the 2011 BBC miniseries starring Ray Winstone and Gillian Anderson (to premiere on Masterpiece Theatre in April) and the big-screen adaptation by Director Mike Newell.

The long-standing appeal of this particular Dickens novel allows it to sit well in a year where the Dickens Bi-Centenary will seep into the literary stratosphere.  Great Expectations , and the many characters which dwell between its covers, remains a household experience for students and lovers of English Literature.  It's interesting to note how this has become one of Dickens' best-loved novels: considering his prolific offering and the numerous books which could easily have taken up the Recommended Reading Lists of high schools and universities across the Globe.  Yet, there is something about Great Expectations that loans itself to timelessness.

Dickens' usual themes of orphan children caught in a climate of social injustice ( you need turn no further than Uncle Pumblechook and Mrs. Joe's Christmas dinner sermonizing to realize how little children were thought of ) is resonant here. The kuntsleroman bridge that sees the flourishing of David Copperfield and, to some extent, Oliver Twist, features the (mis)adventures of Pip: a Cinderella-boy who climbs the social ladder under the most unlikely of circumstances.

From the Toronto Public Library ( where all good things are housed), I signed out a documentary: part of the Discovery Channel's Great Books series and narrated by Donald Sutherland. This was a great piece to help me reflect on my recent re-visitation of one of my favourite tales.

John Irving, Alfonso Cuaron (director of the modernized 1998 film adaptation), Ethan Hawke and a myriad of Dickensian scholars are on hand to talk to the lasting work.  Cuaron references Great Expectations as "essential to the human spirit."  Obviously meant to appeal to the high school literature student, the documentary relies heavily on interspersing its narration with clips from adaptations of the tale on screen: from a silent film version, through the 1946 David Lean version, pulling on a couple of BBC television serials and even showing parts of the modernized take.

John Irving speaks to how it inspired him to become a writer and the narrator speaks to the intensely theatrical presence of Dickens as a melange of popstar, politician and icon.  The most important English writer since Shakespeare, that which is Dickensian is a universe unto itself: from the festive spirit of his trademark Christmas Carol to the downtrodden orphans which pulled on his acute sense of social justice.

Dickens believed ( and knew from firsthand experience), that children have a special capacity for perceiving the world; thus every orphan, such as Pip, is an emblem of himself. Pip moreso because he shared a similar physical upbringing to Dickens: that of the Kent marshes.   For a child who was crassly pulled from a comfortable upbringing to work in a blacking shop to support his father's time in Marshalsea debtor's prison ( think Little Dorrit and also think of the harrowing prospect awaiting Pip before the intervention of Joe Gargery in GE), Dickens very much understood the power of social prospect.  The fortune that befalls Pip looms like the Cinderella story we all yearn for: reward for seeming nothing.

Dickens was able to speak to this and to recall his own vapid childhood years while in the height of his creative powers.  The public was putty in his hands and the medium through which he spun his yarns (that of serialization) allowed him to improvise: should the public outcry of critique resound upon the end of a weekly serial, then he could do what was needed to later change the outcome for more promising applause.  Great Expectations, ambiguous ending and all, was a similar product to this method: published in 36 instalments in Dickens' magazine All the Year Round.

As New Yorkers eagerly awaited the ship bearing a manuscript which would seal Little Nell's fate ( in the infamously sentimentalized Old Curiousity Shop), so were readers left deliberately hanging for the next view of Magwitch, the secret wrapped up in the relationship between Compeyson and Havisham, the twist (a majorly lovely plot twist at that) surrounding Estella's estranged parentage.  When Pip discovers he's a pawn used by Miss Havisham, Jaggers and, to some extent, Magwitch, the audience feels greatly with him.  They are caught in his soap opera.  His story becomes, like Dickens' own experience, very much their own.

Especially for Londoners.  Dickens was known to refer to London as his "magic lantern"  and a thriving, bristling, bubbling character it becomes in all of his great sequences of action.  In Great Expectations, Dickens allows the reader to glimpse a bit of his personal childhood experience; but leads him still greater into the abyss of Newgate, high fortune, punting on the thames, excess and delusion.

Pip's illusion becomes our own as the orb of Great Expectations speaks to George Orwell's belief that Dickens' works were "not a series of books; but a world).

A lot of what was explored in his short documentary is familiar to those who have a past with Dickens (I studied him extensively as part of my Victorian specialist degree: even took a seminar devoted to him); but what it speaks to is the lasting presence of Dickens on society.... and to the lasting impression Great Expectations makes on social construction as a whole.  The most gentlemanly acts, according to the documentary, and viscerally viewed in the novel, are those which act out of grace and redemption. What is a gentleman?, is a question that can well be asked of Pip as he mires through the mazes of self-discovery. What the documentary speaks to and what you will soon learn as you visit this tale, is that the most gentlemanly moments Pip has have little to do with his mysterious patronage or sudden fortune.  Rather, the gentle way he speaks to a prisoner on the marshes; the way Joe gently guides Pip through childhood, Pip's loyalty and devotion to Magwitch as he nears the end of his life in blackened disgrace.

The measure of Dickens' humanity, in circumspect, is threaded in the tales that best reflect a mirror to our own shortcomings : a reflection like Great Expectations.

John Irving, interviewed, mentioned that he was saving one unread Dickens ( in his case Our Mutual Friend), for a rainy day.  I think it's lovely that he has one unturned to look forward to, especially having heard him speak to the great influence that Great Expectations particularly had on his creative disposition.  Irving mentions that he was disappointed in advance at the looming end of the novel; that it was one of the glorious books that made you want to slow down as you paced forward, for fear that you would run out of sentences too soon.

I sometimes wish I could rewind my reading history and meet the multitude of eccentrics I first encountered in the pages of a Dickens' novel in my latter childhood and teen years; but, alas, I am bereft of a rainy-day Dickens and must console myself with the prospect of revisitation: sometimes in the fortunate medium of film and television adaptations.

1 comment:

Charity said...

I really enjoyed reading this; it's informative and interesting, and very concise! I have not yet read "Great Expectations" but did watch the BBC adaptation and thought in spite of some changes to the source material (I've seen other adaptations!) that it was quite brilliant; I found myself pondering the nature of good and evil, of redemption and the perils of riches to an untainted soul, for days afterward.

I suspect it may become my 'rainy day' book.