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Way to butcher a classic, BBC One.
on 6 January 2012
This adaptation is abysmal. I'm surprised it was well received in any quarters, but I gather those who liked it either don't know, or don't like, the book. That's fine, I'm not a book snob - that's largely what film and TV adaptations of good literature are for: so you can acquaint yourself with books you haven't read, and avoid embarrassment at snobby dinner parties. Adaptations are also meant to refresh old stories, reimagine them and present them to a new audience while retaining the germ of what made them worth publishing in the first place. Unfortunately, this production was true to neither the letter nor the spirit of Dickens' text.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should clarify that I've only watched the first instalment, and have no intention of finishing it. I watched the first half of the first episode shortly after it aired, couldn't bear to finish it, then decided after a couple of weeks to give it another shot. I needn't have, because my initial opinion didn't change. I hated it so much I actually feel diminished by it, as though the viewing experience atrophied some vital element of my personality that will never regenerate.
The production values are cheap, with a dark and overbearing blue filter providing most of the atmosphere. Ray Winstone seems okay as Magwitch, I like Shaun Dooley as the loveable Joe Gargery, and David Suchet is an excellent Jaggers (David Suchet is an excellent anything). Oscar Kennedy made a smashing little Pip; expressive, charming and appropriately pathetic. However the script and direction did him no favours, calling for him to smile broadly when he expected a boon from Miss Havisham and frown miserably when it didn't materialise, to gaze with open admiration at Stella, whimper sympathetically at the sight of a convict and roll his eyes at his horrible sister (who, btw, was not nearly as nasty as she should have been). I found myself confused about the motivations of some of the characters, such as Jack Roth's Orlick, who gazed at Joe as though he was in love with him (was he? Forget it, I don't want to know) and Mrs Joe, who seemed proud of Pip, though she despised him in the book. Is Miss Havisham supposed to be kind of in love with Pip, and is Estella jealous? That was weird.
If the shoddy direction obscures the motives of some characters, it exaggerates those of others. This is the Teenagers Guide to Dickens, and if you don't understand it, the script will explain it for you. Pip totally doesn't want to be a blacksmith, and he's desperately hoping Miss Havisham will save him! Stella is, like, REALLY hot, but really mean! Miss Havisham wants to cheat Pip, corrupt Stella, and use Stella to ruin Pip! And in case either Pip or the audience are missing the point, Miss Havisham uses every opportunity to explain it, oh so painstakingly.
Charlotte Rampling was the definitive Miss Havisham for me. Dark, beautiful, sinister and manipulative. What on earth gave Gillian Anderson the idea that delivering every line in a cutesy baby voice would be clever? The character has apparently been completely rewritten. 20 years younger and an awful lot prettier, this Havisham is a porcelain doll in a manicured white wig with immaculate ringlets, pale cobwebby clothes and a childlike sensibility. She's not ancient or skeletal, she's just Scully in white makeup. She wears bare feet, which is a pointless and unlikely change to the original text.
In case we haven't picked up on her fragility, she gestures to some butterflies in a frame that her brother collected, explaining: "he went to the furthest reaches of the earth in his quest for the purest specimen of beauty and when he found it he stuck a pin through its heart". Get it? Men hunt down beautiful women and then break their hearts. Like Miss Havisham, who is fragile like a butterfly, but had her heart broken. Get it? Need more? Miss Havisham goes on. Apparently Master Havisham died of cholera in the tropics, "struck down in his relentless pursuit of beauty... perhaps it was beauty's revenge? To stop his heart, when he had stopped so many others." Then Miss Havisham asks "do you think beauty is a destroyer of men, Pip?". The answer, in case you're wondering, is yes, beauty is a destroyer of men, and beautiful Estella is about to come down the stairs and destroy Pip, thereby avenging Miss Havisham.
There may as well be subtitles explaining this point, it's made so obvious. If you're still not clear on the situation, however, the producers have kindly taken further liberties with the text to labour the point. They also make it plain (too plain, for an audience they obviously consider too stupid to keep up), that Miss Havisham is deceiving Pip into thinking she will make him a man of means. She urges him to borrow an atlas, and "imagine what a world is out there, for someone different and extraordinary", then signs an apprenticeship binding him to the forge for seven years. Again, this was all more artfully implied in the book. Miss Havisham's manner is so affected and silly that it's almost embarassing to watch. She delivers her lines awkwardly, theatrically, and she seems to want to be thought cute, with wide staring eyes and a look of perpetual astonishment. She's self-consciously, deliberately weird, whereas Charlotte Rampling was lazy, comfortable, casually mad and believably eccentric.
By the end of the first episode, Pip has grown up into a very shiny young man who could be (and probably is) a Calvin Klein model, which isn't a fault per sae, except that I really resent the Twilightification of 19th century adaptations. It's Pip and Stella, not Edward and Bella, and 19th century novels don't all need to be reduced to the same generic, intense love story between two teenagers. Grown-up Estella is pretty, but not beautiful enough to be the ice-cold breaker-of-hearts Miss Havisham has made her, though I blame costume and makeup, and perhaps casting. I haven't seen much of adult Estella, but so far I think Vanessa Kirby looks better as a blonde and seems somehow too modern for this role. A scene in which Estella runs after Pip to breathlessly hold hands with him and imply that she loves him is completely superfluous and unconvincing, but I suppose they had to give us something to go on until the next episodes (the ones I didn't bother watching). I'm also seriously concerned at this point that Pip has grown up, but Biddy hasn't made an appearance. Where's Biddy?!?
The issue with adapting Dickens, or any great fiction, is that it's not just a good story, it's good writing. Great Expectations isn't the classic novel it is just because it's a good story, but because it's good writing. I concede that when novels are adapted for stage, film and TV, the new format requires alteration. Also, when something has been adapted as often as Great Expectations, the creators have to do something new with it, otherwise there's no point. However, much of the original text and dialogue have to be preserved, otherwise it's not Dickens any more, and frankly, it's not interesting any more. Andrew Davies is a master of the art of retaining a maximum of original text in TV adaptations while still stretching the limits of the format, but obviously he wasn't available.
I'm not likely to finish watching this, because I don't want to risk ruining a favourite book. There's nothing worse than having poorly-cast characters glued in your memory for all eternity, who spring to mind every time you read the book despite your best efforts to expel them. Unfortunately, the memory of this dreadful adaptation may be like a dead butterfly pinned to wall of my heart. Or like the "ghost of a bride", destined to suffer in sunless gloom. Or like an atlas that never closes, a globe that never stops spinning, "crows gathered 'round my corpse waiting to feast on me"...
Do you need more metaphors? There's no shortage.