One might wonder why on earth a review of the BBC’s 2011 adaptation of Charles Dickens‘ ‘Great Expectations‘ would dare to appear on a pop culture blog such as this. Of course, if one does wonder this chances are you are the sort of person who turns their nose up at Dickens due to a terrible experience in Year 9 english. In many ways Dickens’ stories, with their outlandish plot devices involving murder, spontaneous combustion, crime and the supernatural were the ‘Twilight’ of his generation. Sold as ‘yellow’ fiction in serial format they were sniffed at by literary critics but devoured by the masses. How times have changed! These days Dickens is widely recognized by the average person even if their own familiarity with his works comes from a childhood viewing of ‘A Christmas Carol‘.
In fact my first introduction to Dickens besides ‘A Christmas Carol‘ came in the form of South Park and their famous episode, ‘Pip‘, a pretty loyal adaptation of ‘Great Expectations’. Granted there was no sci-fi device designed to make Miss Havisham eternally youthful using the tears of males in the original novel. However besides that, it was pretty much the same. I was so intrigued by the episode that by the age of thirteen I began to devour his work. Of course at first I found the language a little tricky and almost did my head in, however, I pressed on. I found myself enthralled by the insanity of ‘Bleak House‘ and both ‘Little Dorrit‘ and ‘Hard Times‘ had some hysterical moments. ‘Great Expectations’ however remained a firm favourite which was why I waited with bated breath for the BBC series. Luckily, I was more than impressed.
Before I commence my review, a little plot recap.
For those of you who are not familiar with the story, it concerns the pure-of-heart Disney Prince-prototype, Pip. The nephew of a blacksmith, little Pip is destined to spend his life living in a shit-smelling swamp until one Christmas everything changes in two ways. The first involves Pip’s act of kindness, freeing and feeding a convict. The second involves his sisters desperate desire to escape poverty by forcing him to become the companion of a young rich girl named Estelle. Pip like many Victorian (and recent vampire heroes) is driven entirely by true love; from the moment he meets Estelle all semblance of sweet, innocent, good Pip is tossed aside as he tries to become a gentleman to please her and his crazy aunt. Ah yes, his crazy Aunt, the infamous ‘mad woman in the attic’, Miss Havisham.
The mad woman in the attic was a popular archetype in Regency & Victorian pulp fiction, surfacing in ‘Jane Eyre’ amongst other stories. Charles, however, really brought her to full force. Inspired by the true story of an Australian woman, who, after being jilted on her wedding day became a hermit, he created a truly horrific creature. Miss Havisham describes her house as the ghost of a wedding and herself as the ghost of a bride, “while everything turns to dust”. Since being dumped by a con man on her wedding day her home has become a shrine to her broken heart, the wedding cake untouched and covered in dust, her own body wearing the same lace gown for decades. However, being in a time warp isn’t enough for this lady, no in order to enact her revenge she decided to punish the entire male sex by having her adopted daughter seduce and break the hearts of men. This is where Pip comes in,.Miss Havisham uses our little hero as “practise”, so her daughter Estelle can practise being, well, a crazy bitch.
And so, onto the review.
Casting for this adaptation sets it apart. Traditionally Miss Havisham is played by an elderly crone, which is peculiar because when looking at the books timeline she would have to be fifty at the oldest. When geek queen Gillian Anderson was hired for the role there was an uproar by critics who considered her unsuitable for the role due to her physical beauty. Well, those critics were wrong. Knowing she was going to be criticised anyway Gillian rejected all former portrayals of the madwoman and it is a true breath oif fresh air. Gone was the severely bitchy, elderly Miss Havisham, instead replaced by a delightfully demented ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane‘-style little girl delivery. Anderson portrays her character like a spoilt child disconnected from reality, everything she does seems to follow rules for a game that only she understands, a game that she also cheats at. In the end you find yourself perhaps seeing what Dickens intended, a character who is truly and completely insane but ignored due to the stiff upper lip of British high society.
Being a blockbuster pop culture writer however means that Charlie-boy couldn’t just focus on a love story, or a crazy woman, or spontaneous combustion. No, Dickens had to throw in a bunch of seemingly barely connected plots and characters that all conveniently join together in the end like the soap operas his works would usher in. There’s the convict who ends up rich and turns out to be, through an extremely improbably turn of events, Estelle’s father. There’s the villain who originally caused the convict to go to jail, jilted Miss Havisham after stealing her money, then became a rich member of london society only to be stabbed in the end. There is Pip who loses all his money and learns the ‘value of friendship’ when his uncle helps him. Aww.
The BBC series covers all of this nicely. Spanning over three episodes, it doesn’t feel rushed. Pip’s journey from a Edward Cullen clone who does everything in order to get into a ladies’ bloomers to an actual decent human being feels real. This was highlighted at the end of his journey when he spends every last penny he has so he can bribe a prison guard in order to comfort Magwitch, the dying convict he helped so many years ago. I love how the series showed the circumnavigation of this, Pip’s emotional journey beginning and ending with an act of kindness towards the exact same person.
Finally there’s the question of the ending. In the original version of the text Dickens, after a lifetime of cynicism has Estelle marry a wifebashing rapist. When he dies she finally appreciates Pip and in somewhat of a paraphrased fashion, states “I should be nice to all, so I won’t be raped or beaten”. Needless to say this sort of ending confused and baffled his editors – this was intended to be a popular piece of fiction! Shouldn’t the ending be happier? Should Estelle really learn her lesson after being horribly abused? In the end, the book was revised to show Pip and Estelle becoming “friends” and Estelle apologising for her behaviour without coming to this epiphany via rape.
The BBC version, however, stays true to Charles’ vision and show the original ending, via bruises on Estelle’s neck followed by the tearful girl thanking the horse that accidentally killed her husband. The adaptation adds to this ending by showing Estelle did not learn her lesson via abuse, rather they add another scene right before her wedding where she tries and fails to escape her betrothal. Mixed messages there.
Still, not quite sure how I feel about that ending.
Besides the ending, however, I felt that this was honestly one of the best BBC period series I’ve seen in a few years – believe me I’m a BBC period piece junkie. Anderson was wonderfully insane and intense, the random fellow from Doctor Who’s ‘Human Nature‘ who played Pip’s BFF was also fantastic. Estelle was just well..there, but then again that’s all Estelle really has to be. As for Pip? Yes, he was played by an actor who would normally be mistaken for an underwear model. Yet, he was played by an underwear model who really gave the part his entire heart which is truly the essence of Pip.
Considering the series gained 6.6 million viewers during its first night Uncle Charlie would be proud.