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Great Expectations has violated Dickens Steven Knight has robbed Pip of his dark alter-ego


March 31, 2023   5 mins

If you were choosing a Dickens novel to adapt for the screen, you’d need a really good reason to opt again for Great Expectations. David Lean’s 1946 film, with its spectacular cinematography, is already exquisite, and in 2011, Gillian Anderson turned in a mesmerising Miss Havisham. Steven Knight’s justification for his new BBC adaptation falls far short of both. Rather than find a fresh way to articulate what is vital in Dickens’s bildungsroman, Knight has taken the bare outline of the novel to tell a different story about the corruption of youthful ambition in an imperial London.

Certainly, there are imperial subtexts to Great Expectations. An English man writing in the middle third of the 19th century, obviously Dickens carried a set of attitudes towards the Empire and its relationship to the Condition of England. As his satire of Scrooge’s obsession with decreasing the “surplus population” by letting people die showed in A Christmas Carol, Dickens hated Malthusianism. But his alternative to addressing the consequences of population growth during industrialisation was imperial emigration.

The actual expression of Dickens’s own worldview clearly does not though interest Knight. In his telling, Pip equates becoming a successful gentleman with getting rich in the colonies, while Dickens packed off characters to the colonies who could not succeed materially or morally in England. They either went voluntarily, like Micawber in David Copperfield, or as prisoners, like Magwitch in Great Expectations and the sadistic Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby. In Great Expectations, Pip’s friend Herbert moves to Cairo to practise merchant shipping because he gets nowhere in business in London, and an indebted Pip joins him when he realises even a life in Kent is no longer possible for him. Indeed, Dickens sent five of his seven sons, whom he deemed likely failures, to imperial life: one to the East India Company, one to the Bengal Mounted Police, two to Australia, and another to the Navy. (Walter Dickens died aged 22 trying to get back home from India and is buried in Calcutta.) Only Dickens’s eldest son, Charles junior, and the one successful son, Henry, were allowed to stay in England.

Great Expectations is also concerned with ignorance about the source of inherited wealth. Magwitch’s return to England, after he made a fortune farming in the penal colony of Australia, is a brutal revelation for Pip, whose whole view of his London life rests on him mistaking the surface of things for reality. As Pip assumes wealth breeds wealth, Magwitch’s lower-class toils initially incite “abhorrence”. His first instinct is to hide the truth and exile Magwitch, so that he can resume his gentlemanly ways. But Pip has to learn to see Magwitch as a flesh and blood human being to whom he owes gratitude. For Dickens, the Magwitch story has a symbolic purpose: the return of unbearable knowledge about the price another has paid abroad. While he does not make clear that farming in Australia means farming appropriated land, the point is there to be made.

By contrast, Knight’s telling traduces the literal Magwitch-Pip story and robs it of its human and thematic heart. Knight’s miss on the Pip-Magwitch relationship is part of his whole approach to Pip. Dickens’s novels are populated by memorable, strange characters and Pip is one of them. Pip’s entire consciousness arises from a moment on a “raw afternoon towards evening” when he fearfully learns “the identity of things”: that he is in a churchyard, that he is an orphan, that the surrounding “wilderness” is the marshes, that the beyond is the river, that the wind comes from the “savage lair” of the sea, and that “the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, [i]s Pip”. Just as he has articulated this litany to himself, Magwitch arrives from behind his parents and siblings’ graves, crying “keep still you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat”. Rather than possessing any childhood faculty of wonder, Pip has a darkened and guilt-ridden Gothic imagination. After an acquaintance of Magwitch turns up one night at the village pub to give Pip money, he conjures images of the man shooting him with an “invisible gun”. Fighting Herbert, he feels like “a species of savage young wolf”. By his adolescence, he reprehends himself for things he has not even done.

In starting Pip’s story with him reciting Malvolio’s lines on greatness from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Knight offers a more familiar, and less striking character: the intelligent boy from the provinces knowingly superior to those around him and desperate to leave what is beneath him behind. This Pip neither needs nor has a dark alter-ego whereas in the novel the journeyman at the forge, Orlick, expresses in action what lurks in Pip’s inner consciousness.

This set-up lessens the shame that comes upon Pip arriving home from Satis House, and it misses entirely what a strange kind of snob Pip becomes. Pip’s whole conception of the superior life he wants to live is shaped not by visions of grandeur, but the decay of a world a touch of natural light away from turning to dust. Pip knows that the attempt to rewrite the laws of Creation at Satis House is disturbing his mind. On his first trip, he momentarily sees Miss Havisham as a terrifying spectre calling to him, yet afterwards “Miss Havisham and Estella and the strange house and the strange life appear to have something to do with everything that was picturesque”. On one beautiful summer day, as afternoon turns to evening — the same hour of the day in winter he meets Magwitch — ­he walks with Biddy, the woman who he knows he should love, along the river. He begins to wonder if he “was not more naturally and wholesomely situated, after all, in these circumstances, than playing beggar my neighbour by candlelight in the room with the stopped clocks, and being despised by Estella”. But, as he says of such moments, the “confounding remembrance of the Havisham days would fall upon [him] like a destructive missile, and scatter [his] wits”.

Dickens’s Pip fails to succeed at making money in the capital city because his mind is so distorted that he can see little clearly beyond the reality of Estella’s character. Even after Magwitch reveals his secret, Pip imagines that the wind and the rain had for weeks been carrying “mysterious warnings” from the “wicked spirit” of Magwitch because this is the kind of Gothic script that runs in his mind.

Although it is too late for him to lead the life he could have led if his imagination had not been warped, Pip’s arc is his return to the world of natural light, where he finds forgiveness. In his final confrontation with his alter-ego in the pitch blackness of a sluice-house on the marshes, Pip feels on the brink of death, until a “gleam of light” comes in through the door. After he begins to recover from his illness, he realises spring has emerged from the death of winter and he can see the physical beauty of the marshes. By contrast, Miss Havisham, while forgiven by Pip, dies in the darkness of fire, reflecting “her profound unfitness for this earth on which she was placed, in the vanity of sorrow which had become a master mania, like 
 other monstrous vanities that have been curses in this world”.

Pip’s journey back to the realm of light cannot be told in Knight’s series because as well as making Pip’s ambition so conventional, he sanitises Satis House and its occupants. Olivia Coleman’s Miss Havisham is not a quasi-mythical character enveloped in decay, in the grip of the notion that her suffering demands the entire passage of time with its rotation of light and darkness stop. Instead, she is a relatively energetic woman in her wedding dress surrounded by obvious wealth in a house where there are more than a few glimpses of daylight. Far from darkening her, her opium-taking brightens her.

Dickens was in good part a Christian storyteller writing stories of redemption. That is a part of why he was so popular and why he endures. It matters that as he moves towards the light Pip learns to love Magwitch, and in freeing himself from his self-corruption can love Joe again. There is nothing at all wrong with any adaptor of Dickens looking at what politically underpins Dickens’s literal story to draw out more of the historical world underneath this tale. Dickens was a realist writer, too, who very much worked out his religious stories in the concrete setting of England. But to rewrite Great Expectations as a vehicle for a historically driven story to which Pip’s pilgrimage is incidental is to violate the whole hope Dickens invested in storytelling.


Helen Thompson is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Cambridge and co-presenter of UnHerd’s These Times.

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Selwyn Jones
Selwyn Jones
1 year ago

Excellent piece. But for the further illumination of this novel we might turn to France, to Balzac, who also created vain heroes dazzled by wealth and metropolitan glamour; whose hearts were similarly misdirected and hardened by the competitive rush for conquest and success. The point of all these works is less the source of such success – it can be perfectly legitimate (in ways which only Marxist hysterics would criticise); the danger arises from reliance upon one’s own mettle in a defensive and calculating spirit which gradually drives out the capacity to love. Some would call this process maturity, but the Romantic nineteenth century did not. The dispute is found between Blake and Bacon, the former calling the latter’s essays of civil and moral counsel “good advice from Satan’s Kingdom”. Jane Austen? More of the Bacon tendency, perhaps. Balzac himself? Well, in figures like de Rumbempre, he is Blakean; in Rastignac, however, he supplies a figure of Baconian success. Like Milton, perhaps he was “of the devil’s party without knowing it”. It is on this axis of a personal, individual response to the circumstance of being alive that the novel’s true concerns are to be found. Sociological issues are simply the surrounding colour of the canvass. And in this latest eructation from the Beeb we have the ultimate philistine rejection of this point.

Selwyn Jones
Selwyn Jones
1 year ago

Excellent piece. But for the further illumination of this novel we might turn to France, to Balzac, who also created vain heroes dazzled by wealth and metropolitan glamour; whose hearts were similarly misdirected and hardened by the competitive rush for conquest and success. The point of all these works is less the source of such success – it can be perfectly legitimate (in ways which only Marxist hysterics would criticise); the danger arises from reliance upon one’s own mettle in a defensive and calculating spirit which gradually drives out the capacity to love. Some would call this process maturity, but the Romantic nineteenth century did not. The dispute is found between Blake and Bacon, the former calling the latter’s essays of civil and moral counsel “good advice from Satan’s Kingdom”. Jane Austen? More of the Bacon tendency, perhaps. Balzac himself? Well, in figures like de Rumbempre, he is Blakean; in Rastignac, however, he supplies a figure of Baconian success. Like Milton, perhaps he was “of the devil’s party without knowing it”. It is on this axis of a personal, individual response to the circumstance of being alive that the novel’s true concerns are to be found. Sociological issues are simply the surrounding colour of the canvass. And in this latest eructation from the Beeb we have the ultimate philistine rejection of this point.

Alex More
Alex More
1 year ago

Don’t get why so many intelligent reviewers across all media over the last ten days are flexing their intellects and wasting key strokes taking to pieces what’s patently a risibly rubbish dramatisation. Do better instead to critique Blue Lights (iPlayer), the chunkiest, chewiest bit of TV storytelling since
well 
Dickens.

Alex More
Alex More
1 year ago

Don’t get why so many intelligent reviewers across all media over the last ten days are flexing their intellects and wasting key strokes taking to pieces what’s patently a risibly rubbish dramatisation. Do better instead to critique Blue Lights (iPlayer), the chunkiest, chewiest bit of TV storytelling since
well 
Dickens.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

Lean’s film is, like Alastair Sim’s portrayal of Scrooge, nonpareil. If one wants to read a tremendous adaptation of Pip’s story from another perspective, I can’t recommend highly enough “Jack Maggs” by Peter Carey.

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
1 year ago

And once you have done that, read everyting else Peter Carey has written, you won’t regret it.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

You better believe it. Brilliant writer, good advice!

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

You better believe it. Brilliant writer, good advice!

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
1 year ago

And once you have done that, read everyting else Peter Carey has written, you won’t regret it.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

Lean’s film is, like Alastair Sim’s portrayal of Scrooge, nonpareil. If one wants to read a tremendous adaptation of Pip’s story from another perspective, I can’t recommend highly enough “Jack Maggs” by Peter Carey.

Paul McArdle
Paul McArdle
1 year ago

Very helpful and insightful piece. I have been nervous since I first heard this series was to be aired. The trailers promised …. “from the writers of Peaky Blinders”…. more sexed up
.. more woke
..more sweary
. the signs weren’t good. Got to say that Episode 1 wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. But I am not hopeful for the remainder!

Mary McCartney
Mary McCartney
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul McArdle

First time commentator! Be gentle…
Your comment Paul reflects pretty much how I felt and in many ways I liked it
I’m reserving judgement though until I actually see the rest..
I did feel a lot of the time I was watching TABOO series 2 .. cant wait for that!

Paul McArdle
Paul McArdle
1 year ago
Reply to  Mary McCartney

OK after seeing Ep 2 I’m done with this series. I really can’t bring myself to watch another episode. Dramatisations usually inform my recollection of a novel, and I have too many precious memories of GE. I don’t want those memories infected by this tripe – particularly not by Matt Berry’s buttocks!

Paul McArdle
Paul McArdle
1 year ago
Reply to  Mary McCartney

OK after seeing Ep 2 I’m done with this series. I really can’t bring myself to watch another episode. Dramatisations usually inform my recollection of a novel, and I have too many precious memories of GE. I don’t want those memories infected by this tripe – particularly not by Matt Berry’s buttocks!

Mary McCartney
Mary McCartney
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul McArdle

First time commentator! Be gentle…
Your comment Paul reflects pretty much how I felt and in many ways I liked it
I’m reserving judgement though until I actually see the rest..
I did feel a lot of the time I was watching TABOO series 2 .. cant wait for that!

Paul McArdle
Paul McArdle
1 year ago

Very helpful and insightful piece. I have been nervous since I first heard this series was to be aired. The trailers promised …. “from the writers of Peaky Blinders”…. more sexed up
.. more woke
..more sweary
. the signs weren’t good. Got to say that Episode 1 wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. But I am not hopeful for the remainder!

Sophy T
Sophy T
1 year ago

Watch Korean drama – it’s superior in every way.

Sophy T
Sophy T
1 year ago

Watch Korean drama – it’s superior in every way.

Martin Terrell
Martin Terrell
1 year ago

Thank you for an excellent review that sheds new light on a great classic, I will have to re-read it! Also saves me wasting time watching the latest adaptation and getting cross about it.

Martin Terrell
Martin Terrell
1 year ago

Thank you for an excellent review that sheds new light on a great classic, I will have to re-read it! Also saves me wasting time watching the latest adaptation and getting cross about it.

Alex More
Alex More
1 year ago

Don’t get why so many intelligent reviewers across the media over last ten days are flexing their intellects and wasting key strokes taking to pieces what is patently a risibly rubbish dramatisation. Talk about pile-on. Or shooting fish in barrel.
Do better instead to critique “Blue Lights” (iPlayer), the chunkiest, chewiest bit of TV storytelling since
well
Dickens.

Last edited 1 year ago by Alex More
Tony Price
Tony Price
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex More

I haven’t watched this GE as I know the story, and much as I love Ms Coleman I just can’t be arsed! However although I watch very little tv I did watch the first episode of Blue Lights and was gripped as it was so very well done – not for everyone though as my missus wasn’t that impressed – Hey Ho.

Tony Price
Tony Price
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex More

I haven’t watched this GE as I know the story, and much as I love Ms Coleman I just can’t be arsed! However although I watch very little tv I did watch the first episode of Blue Lights and was gripped as it was so very well done – not for everyone though as my missus wasn’t that impressed – Hey Ho.

Alex More
Alex More
1 year ago

Don’t get why so many intelligent reviewers across the media over last ten days are flexing their intellects and wasting key strokes taking to pieces what is patently a risibly rubbish dramatisation. Talk about pile-on. Or shooting fish in barrel.
Do better instead to critique “Blue Lights” (iPlayer), the chunkiest, chewiest bit of TV storytelling since
well
Dickens.

Last edited 1 year ago by Alex More