I gather that the BBC’s Christmas adaptation of Great Expectations made quite an impression on people. Or at least, its star did. My twitter feed was hot with friends of all genders and inclinations saying a collective ‘phwoar’, and let’s face it even with ridiculous Victorian sideburns Douglas Booth is androgynous enough to appeal to pretty much anyone.
For no better reason than this, his face was splashed across the front of at least one broadsheet last week and a cursory google search shows that The Daily Mail have created an entire frenzy over the fact that some people on thought he was miscast and somebody on Mumsnet didn’t watch it at all (outrage!) because he looked too much like Keira Knightley.
What kind of adaptation would draw so much comment for one man’s pout without a word about – well, the adaptation itself? A pretty bland one, that’s what. An adaptation as dreary as its grey, washed out colour palette.
No wonder Pip was such a pouty git: there was precious little in this world to be happy or excited about – nobody ever smiled!. So much for ‘Such Larks, Pip’ – I’d have left Joe Gargery, not to mention Miss Havisham and her bizarre vocal performance, long before Jaggers came to whisk me away. Where was Dickens’ theatricality, his sense of humour? His beautiful balancing of the funny and the macabre? Or did somebody think they were making a Thomas Hardy adaptation, steeped as it was in forced melancholia, as self-indulgent and uninvolving (and, if you like, as pretty) as its main character?
The bar for adaptations of Great Expectations, one of Dickens’ finest achievements, is generally regarded to be David Lean’s 1946 version, itself arguably Lean’s best film (so that’s quite a high bar, then). One of the reasons why it is so successful is that Lean acknowledges that Dickens is himself a master dramatist, and instead of messing with the already brilliantly evocative material uses his considerable imagination to bring it to the screen in the most visually effective way. I hate to use the word ‘faithful’ in connection with any adaptation, as it implies that books can simply be picked up and filmed; but Lean’s genius is to preserve the substance of the novel in a completely cinematic form (even down to the talking cows, a far scarier image than Ray Winstone plopping out of some mud). To mess with the substance – to try to communicate Dickens’ story with a different language altogether – requires the arrogance and stupidity of somebody who thinks they’re better than Dickens.
Enter Sarah Phelps, whose execrable Oliver Twist I have already had nothing nice to say about. Apart from turning Dickens’ masterful dialogue into monosyllabic clichés, her main talent seems to be in translating richly compelling and complex worlds into broadest brushstrokes and then spelling it out again and again and again.
Perhaps Sarah Phelps thinks she’s the first person to notice the theme of class in Great Expectations: ‘what’s that smell? It’s dirt!’ she had Estella telling the young Pip, and the first meeting of Pip and Herbert Pocket, a joyous and bonkers episode in the book, became another act of snobbery (WE GET IT! HE’S POOR!). After Pip’s fortunes change, Dickens writes a heartbreaking scene in which Joe Gargery visits him and does everything wrong in a clumsy, good-natured way that is excruciating for Pip and the audience; this was obviously felt to be too oblique by Phelps, who instead wrote us a(nother) dreary, serious scene in which Joe told Pip ‘you look different, you talk different… you’re ashamed…’ and so on. Leave it, Joe, he ent worth it.
Was there any ambiguity about Miss Havisham and her motives? Again, no. Dickens has her observing Pip playing cards and leaning forward to tell Estella to ‘beggar him’; Phelps’ rather more literal approach was to give her the line ‘Estella, you must concentrate if you don’t want your opponent to gain the advantage.’ Hardly poetry in motion. And so on, all the way to the ending, an aspect of the novel which has been criticised for being inappropriately happy but which Sarah Phelps rather put into perspective with a final scene so sentimental it would have made Dickens vomit with shame.
The problem, as I pointed out four years ago is that Sarah Phelps is a writer with virtually nothing but Eastenders and Holby Blue to her name, and she treats Dickens in exactly the same way as she would a soap opera, reducing everything to a stock set of emotional responses. Miss Havisham’s shocking death-by-combustion became a lengthy pop video following her from forgiveness through self-realisation and coming-to-terms-with-her-grief until letting her basically commit suicide (though if she hadn’t set fire to herself she would probably have died from slow motion sooner or later). Magwich wasn’t allowed to be a creepy burden forever, because of course he needed to become an Eastenders-style rough Father figure, over the course of many a lengthy Pip-getting-to-see-things-from-his-point-of-view scene. Yaaawwwwwwwn.
It’s patronising, it’s unrealistic and it reduces the works of one of the richest, most psychologically profound novelists to a pretty darn low common denominator when the BBC has proved itself capable of far better (I’d cite the excellent Little Dorrit of 2008 as a recent example). As Ray Winstone (unnecessarily, patronisingly) summed things up: ‘Yer’ve made a mess of it, ent ya?’
If the BBC is going to continue to put such brilliant novels in such workmanlike hands, they had better continue to cast pretty people in the lead roles; I found precious little else to enjoy here.