Having recently watched the 2013 adaptation of Great Expectations, I decided that I should watch the celebrated 1946 David Lean version. While the two movies start out pretty much the same — almost shot for shot, panning over the misty marshes, harshly blowing wind — each slowly drifts into its own tone. In the 2013, Dickens-era London feels dirtier, the society there seems crueler, and everything’s a little more gritty and edgy. David Lean’s version is more from Pip’s point of view, changing as he ages.
The movie itself is framed by narration in Pip’s voice. It’s very much inside of a young boy’s imagination. His guilty conscience talks through animals and creaky gates. It’s much more imaginative than the 2013 adaptation, which is darker and more frightful. Instead of being in stark terror like the new Pip, old Pip takes advantage of his adventures. He’s always choosing to listen to his instincts, to keep going back to Miss Havisham’s, and to keep courting the cold and distant Estella. Whereas, new Pip at times seems to have no agency. He’s just dragged around to Miss Havisham’s, to London, to parties. The story doesn’t give him much of a conscience or a choice. Even the squandering of his fortune comes across as a, “Well, what are you going to do?”
Miss Havisham has always been a very important character to me. In my opinion, she’s one of the most iconic characters in literature (even though I’ve only ever read the Great Illustrated Classics edition). I wasn’t happy with Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal. I thought she was too much of a two dimensional mall goth and not enough of a ghoulish eccentric. In the 1946 version Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) is more fleshed out. She’s still a ghastly shut-in, but she’s not totally unapproachable. She’s pitiful and wretched, and not in an overdramatic way. It’s interesting how differently both movies handle her infamous death. Lean takes a different approach showing most of it behind closed doors. The 2013 shows the flames and her body afterwards, which I think is a big part of its modern edginess.
Shot in black and white, the 1946 version of Great Expectations is beautiful. There’s a lot of really well lit dramatic chiaroscuro shots and playing with shadows. It’s sort of expressionistic and sometimes experimental. Some of my favorite frames from the movie are when it’s just silhouettes moving against a light background. Most of the drama in this movie is just in the highly contrasted lighting. The 2013 movie doesn’t cover too much new ground as far as cinematography goes, but it still has some nice scenic shots of the marshes and dark hallways.
Personally, I prefer Lean’s version for its gorgeous cinematography and subdued drama. I think, and popular opinion agrees with me, that it’s a much better film. It’s interesting that even though the two movies have the same plot, there are enough differences for them to be completely different things. I guess the real question is whether or not it’s necessary for there to be not only a very good film adaptation, but also at least 6 other probably mediocre ones, along with numerous miniseries and stage plays. I don’t really have an answer for that.