Dickens, as has been proven by countless failures of his work on screen and stage, is tremendously difficult to adapt faithfully. Either critical events get cut from the final version, or the rapid succession of scenes removes any depth from the characters. Dickens’ magic dies in either of these two scenarios.
In 1946, when the movie we are going to discuss today was released, the consensus was that there had been no good Dickens for the screen.
Sir David Lean‘s version of Great Expectations changed all that, which is quite surprising, as the original book is a multi-scened doorstop that explicitly exposes much of the introspection of the main character.
In that sense, perhaps the adaptation was doomed from the start. It most certainly doesn’t manage to transmit the inner thoughts of Pip, and that robs the twist ending of much of its emotional strength.
But that is the film’s only weakness. It manages to capture the characters emotions beautifully. Pip’s openness, Joe’s faithful, unconditional generosity and (perfectly, brilliantly), Estella’s cruel aloofness. It succeeds on both the strength of those portrayals and in the stunning rightness of the sets they used. The forge, the marsh and especially the decaying mansion, all work brilliantly.
I was interested to learn that the book has been filmed again, as recently as 2012. Looking over the rankings of the more modern versions on IMDB, I’m not really surprised that most of the newer versions rate much lower than the Lean. Despite being hampered by postwar shortages and black and white photography (although, to be honest, that seemed just right for this one), the 1946 version is still the definitive Great Expectations.
It’s not surprising, as it’s difficult to improve upon near perfection.
I’d like to take a few more moments to talk about my own experience with the film. You see, this isn’t my favorite Dickens novel. Yes, it was better than the maudlin Oliver Twist, but can’t hold a candle to the masterpiece that is David Copperfield (in fact, it seems at times a little like a light, punched-held version of Copperfield). I wasn’t particularly looking forward to watching a long period piece in black and white adapted from a book which I didn’t enjoy and whose twist I already knew.
It’s kind of like watching a film version of Murder on the Orient Express. Knowing how it ends kills most of the magic.
But in the end, I liked it. It was that good.
Weird stuff, or at least stuff that interested me, abounded in this one.
First off, there’s a scene in which a “Kilroy was Here” appears drawn in the dust. It’s in the final scene of the film, but I haven’t been able to get a good screenshot (if anyone has one and can send me the link in comments, it will immediately be placed here!).
Also, there was an Argentine born actress in this one: Martita Hunt. She is long gone, but we salute her from Way Down South!
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.