Great Expectations on film and television

Great Expectations has always been one of Dickens' popular and most widely-read novels, so it is not surprising that it attracted the attention of the emerging film industry in the early twentieth century. Its range of characters, its combination of the comic and the serious, its central love story and its potential for a striking visual presentation have made it very attractive with adapters for both feature films and television programmes.

The obvious question to ask about any adaptation is:

  • How faithful is this to the original?

Although it is interesting and sometimes amusing to identify what is omitted or changed, there are other, more challenging, questions to be asked.

Some, for instance, concern the history and structure of the film and television industries:

  • Why was this version of the novel made at this time? In what ways might it be speaking to contemporary concerns?
  • Who were its likely viewers?
  • What were the motives of the studio or television company and the director?
  • What significance is there in the casting of the various roles?

Perhaps the most important questions relate to the way in which the story is interpreted, and here the answers to that original question about fidelity to the original can be reformulated as new questions.

  • Why might the director have omitted some parts of the plot (including some characters)?
  • Are there any ‘new' characters or incidents? Why are they in this version?
  • How is the story interpreted? Where does the emphasis lie?
  • How are the characters presented? Are they shown as more, or less, sympathetic than in the novel? Why?
  • What might the director's interpretation tell us about contemporary attitudes towards the issues raised by the novel?

Film adaptations of Great Expectations were released in 1917, 1922 and 1934, but those that have attracted most attention are:

Great Expectations. Dir. David Lean. 1946.

  • one of the finest films made by one of the greatest of British directors, with especially powerful early scenes on the marshes.

Great Expectations. Dir. James Hardy. 1975.

  • although the cast is packed with some of the best-known English actors of the period, this is a fairly feeble version of the novel.

Great Expectations. BBC1 Television. 1981.

  • a solid but not especially imaginative version.

Great Expectations. Dir. Alfonso Cuarón. 1998.

  • modernised and set in America and starring Robert de Niro, Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, this version offers some surprising insights into the novel.
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