What the Dickens? A decent film adaptation of a great novel?
The latest film adaptation of ‘Great Expectations’ might finally give the novel the treatment it deserves
I have great expectations of Great Expectations, the forthcoming film version of Charles Dickens’s novel, directed by Mike Newell and written by the novelist David Nicholls.
This is unusual, because I tend to get very proprietorial when it comes to my favourite books. Having been disappointed many times in the past, my initial reaction to the news that a beloved novel is coming to the screen is now a kind of wary suspicion tempered with the faint hope that maybe, this time, they’ll get it right and do the book I love justice.
There are few books I love more than Great Expectations, which has seemed to me, ever since I first read it as a teenager, to be an almost perfect novel. With its wildly inventive plotting, its extraordinary characters, its warmth and darkness and fizzing humour, it’s everything that makes Dickens great bundled into one conveniently short book.
I first read it thanks to the Department of Education. I studied it for my Inter Cert, and while few books appear at their best in a classroom, I was bewitched. The plot was gripping, right from the famous opening scene in which Pip, a young orphan living with his dreadful sister and her kindly blacksmith husband Joe, encounters an escaped convict in a graveyard.
But what really won me over was how surprisingly funny the writing was. Dickens has a reputation for being over the top and grotesque, and, having never read any of his books before, I had vaguely imagined that his comedy was of the heavy-handed, slapstick kind. I wasn’t prepared for the gloriously surreal wit that pervaded the entire book.
In a recent Guardian article, David Nicholls discussed the difficulty of transferring Dickens’s humour to the screen, because it “lies in the narrative voice; Dickens is keeping the best jokes for himself. Mr Pickwick ‘fell into the barrow, and fast asleep, simultaneously’ has a linguistic playfulness that is lost when you just show a man falling into a wheelbarrow. It may well be funny, but in a different way.”
If you like a narrative voice, you’ll go wherever it takes you, and the Dickens of Great Expectations takes the reader into some intriguing places. An air of magic hangs over the entire story, from the convict Magwitch’s monstrous arrival to Wemmick, a strait-laced legal clerk who lives in a miniature castle, complete with drawbridge, in deepest suburbia. There’s a hint of Cinderella in Pip’s transformation from blacksmith to gentleman thanks to a mysterious benefactor.