BBC’s new adaptation of Great Expectations has strayed a step too far from the original Charles Dickens storyline
Dark ‘reimagining’ by Stephen Knight is a drag
If it’s been a long time since you read Great Expectations, you might struggle to recall some parts of the story.
Like the bit where Pip loops a rope around his neck and attempts to hang himself from a bridge.
Or the bit where the aged Miss Havisham, still wearing the mouldy old wedding dress she had on the day she was jilted at the altar, gets off her box on drugs.
Or the bit where Pip’s sister Sarah, aka Mrs Joe Gargery, earns some extra money for the household by engaging in a little BDSM with pompous Mr Pumblechook.
Any of that ring a bell? No? Don’t panic; you’re not losing it. The reason you don’t remember any of these things happening in Great Expectations is because they didn’t happen in Great Expectations.
Charles Dickens never wrote any of this stuff. It’s all the work of Stephen Knight, the man responsible for BBC One’s latest six-part take on the novel.
This is the fifth BBC adaptation of Great Expectations. The previous one, a well-received version with Gillian Anderson as a decidedly drug-free Miss Havisham and Ray Winstone as the convict Magwitch, was shown as relatively recently as 2011.
In all, there have been 16 adaptations for film and television, not including a prequel filmed called Magwitch and a South Park spoof.
Even the most ardent fan of the book might reasonably conclude that the last thing we need is another Great Expectations — and especially one by the creator of Peaky Blinders and the bats**t-crazy Taboo, with which this shares a pair of executive producers, Tom Hardy and Ridley Scott, and the same dark, horror-movie aesthetic.
I’m not a purist. No novel is a sacred text. TV and film adaptations of books should be free to reinterpret them, to find new angles, even to change certain things if justified.
If the producers of the James Bond movies had been obliged to stick faithfully to Ian Fleming’s books, the series would have come to an abrupt end with From Russia with Love in 1963.
Dickens is no different. Like Shakespeare, he’s eminently flexible. One of the many film versions of Great Expectations updated the story to New York in the 1990s.
Picking up on the old chestnut that if Dickens — who knew how to craft a good cliffhanger — were alive today he’d be writing for television, Sara Phelps’s 2009 BBC version of Oliver Twist turned it into a half-hour serial shown over five consecutive nights.
Veteran EastEnders writer Tony Jordan’s ambitious 2016 BBC series Dickensian took characters from different Dickens novels and had them interacting in the same area of London.
But there’s a big difference between reinterpreting a novel and vandalising it. Knight has previous form when it comes to dicking around with Dickens. His supposedly dark, edgy, sweary, adults-only version of A Christmas Carol for the BBC in 2019 robbed the story of its redemptive ending.
Great Expectations offers more of the same — sex, F-words, grotesqueness — only this time over six punishing hours instead of A Christmas Carol’s three.
Funnily enough, aside from Pip’s suicide attempt, the first episode sticks pretty closely to the novel.
It’s afterwards that things go haywire as Knight basically tears up huge chunks of Dickens’s story and rewrites it.
As the opium-addicted Miss Havisham, Olivia Colman, with a mouth full of rotting teeth and wearing what appears to be a chandelier on her head, looks like a vampire queen from a 1960s Hammer horror movie. As she leers lasciviously at the young Pip and Estella, there’s a groomer’s predatory glint in her bug eyes.
She’s not the only character to get a makeover. Jaggers the lawyer, who brings the older Pip news of his mysterious benefactor and a largely innocuous character in the novel, is upgraded to a sort of mentor who makes the process through which Pip will have to go in order to become “a gentleman” sound sinister.
At times, it feels as if Knight is not really interested in giving us Great Expectations, but giving us what he thinks the novel should have been like.
For all the tweaking, the series ends up being an even bigger drag than those studio-bound BBC Dickens serials from the 1970s.