High Hopes, or This is a pun, promise.
Well it’s that time of year where all civilised folk retreat back homewards towards family and the TV schedules becomes the equivalent of cultural comfort food. You know, reassuring stories that we’ve all seen before, but the kind of thing that everyone really like and makes you feel good about yourself. If this sounds like I’m being unfairly harsh to the Christmas TV line up I should point out that Christmas TV also has another facet to it. As it’s a time where audiences are guaranteed to be at a yearly high it’s become a place where films become classics. Sometimes undeservedly, but most of the time the ‘classic’ films that get shown really deserve the status they garner and it’s one these classic films I’m looking at today.
Yes, I know – but it is Christmas so I fancied doing something that was actually good. Actually, scratch that, when you look at the filmography of this film’s director, this film is better than good. Because this is Sir David Lean’s ‘Great Expectations.’ Now for those of you who don’t know, allow me to provide a brief rundown of some of Lean’s achievements in British cinema:
– Doctor Zhivago
– Oliver Twist
– A Passage To India
– Brief Encounter (Possibly the finest English romance ever made)
And if those film’s weren’t enough he’s also been voted as one of the top 10 film directors of all time AND of the top 11 greatest films ever, four of them were directed by him. He is one of the greats of the movie making world and has been named as an influence by people like Spielberg and Kubrick. He had a talent for bringing epic English literature to the big screen with a sense of poise, emotional restraint and just sheer class that is the hallmark of good movie making. So, which of the great man’s oeuvre will we be looking at? Well, considering the reputation that Lean made it would have to be a film based on one of the very best of English writing. Something good…no no no, something…GREAT.
In 1946 Lean directed his 2nd celebrated Dickens adaptation with Great Expectations and as per usual I’ll give a brief rundown of the plot without major spoilers, though if you’ve managed to come this far without ever hearing ANYTHING about either the film or the book that’s a level of cultural ignorance that is almost impressive. The novel, as with many of Dickens’, was serialized and first appeared as a whole in 1861. Amazingly this is Dickens’s THIRTEENTH novel, yet it only the 2nd one (after David Copperfield) to feature first person narration. To give it its technical description this novel is a Bildungsroman, or a coming of age story told retrospectively by the main character Pip. Pip is raised in the marshes of Kent and later makes his way to London. After a terrifying encounter with the escaped convict Abel Magwitch, Pip leaves his rural life and makes his way to London. Sponsored by a mysterious benefactor the book follows his life as he finds his place in society, and eventually falls in love. As per usual with Dickens the cast of characters is just superb – Estelle, Pip’s love, the mysterious and bitter Miss Havisham, Joe Blacksmith, Mr Jaggers and Uncle Pumblechook have all become well established in the pantheon of his creations. If you’ve never read the novel you may feel I’ve been parsimonious with the detail but the fun of Dickens is all in the characters. He was never a writer as some of the Victorians were, with an obsession for realism but rather he was a man bursting with imagination. The novel is truly ‘Great’, thematically, linguistically and representationally and is probably Dickens at his best. To sum up the novel in the lovely phrase from GK Chesterton, the novel is Dickens in the afternoon of his life and glory and I really recommend you take the time to explore the book.
The film is also considered a classic and it is not hard to see why. If anything Lean as a director has an exquisite eye for detail and everything about this movie feels like an authentic attempt to do justice to the source material. The overly verbose Dickens is slimmed down and the cast of characters is all given room to shine. Of particular note, (though only praising some of the cast seems deeply unfair) is John Mills as the grown up Pip and Valerie Hobson as the frosty Estelle. Alec Guinness is sublime as Pip’s friend Herbert Pocket and it is not hard to see why Lean called him ‘my good luck charm’ as he steals every scene he is in.
The film deservedly won Oscars for it’s wonderful cinematography and set design and even today watching the film you cannot help but be struck by the time and effort that went into creating Pip’s world. What’s so successful about the film is it doesn’t do something the more modern version does, namely focusing on the romance between Pip and Estelle. It’s easy to want to do that as it provides audiences with familiarity and a coherent thread but the book itself is not really a romance novel. That isn’t to say that there isn’t romance in it, but it’s there because Pip’s life had romance in it and the organic nature of Lean’s film reflects this much better than the more modern re-make.
What more can I say? One of the finest English novelists finest books turned into one of the finest films of one of the finest ever directors. What a treat. And what could be more Christmassy than that?
Merry Christmas everybody and thank you so much for making this first year of ThePageBoy one to remember. Here’s hoping you all have a great Christmas time and I’ll see you all on the other side in 2013.
- Some Thoughts on Dickens (goodbookscents.wordpress.com)
- The Great Expectations of a Dickens Descendant (henrykrempels.wordpress.com)