Great Expectations (1946) vs Great Expectations (2013)

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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.

-Alli Hobbs

Great Expectations (2013)

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three star

I have a real soft spot in my heart for modern movie adaptations of classic British literature. In fact, I think I’m one of those terrible people who likes watching these movies more than reading the books. Every time I see one on Netflix, I have to either put it on my list or if I have time, consume it right then and there.

Great Expectations is a book that I haven’t read in its full version. As a child, I had the abridged illustrated version (Great Illustrated Classics). I loved it. I think I must have read it four times. It’s interesting to have an illustrated edition of any book and then watch the movie. You have a very clear idea of the characters and the movie version either smashes that idea or surprises you with something better. I think in this case my childhood ideas were a little smashed but maybe I shouldn’t come into BBC productions with great expectations (whomp whomp).

Great Expectations is about Pip, an orphan boy raised by his cruel sister and her docile blacksmith husband, Joe. Pip meets a wild bunch of characters: Magwitch, an escaped convict; Miss Havisham, a crazed depressed shut-in who sits around in an old wedding dress; and Estella, Miss Havisham’s spoilt brat of an adopted daughter. He goes from being a poor boy apprenticed to a blacksmith, to a real gentleman living in London built on the funds from a kind, anonymous benefactor.

It’s with this cast of characters that I have a problem with. Ralph Fiennes feels awkward in his role of Magwitch. It may be because recently the only roles I’ve seen him in have been effeminate dandies, but I think his performance feels very forced. Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham is very hit or miss. She plays it up with her typical kookiness, but instead of being the haunting, old skeleton bride necessary for the role, she feels like something out of a My Chemical Romance music video. And Jeremy Irvine (of Stonewall infamy) I feel was too much of a pouty-lipped pretty boy for an adult Pip. Although I was glad to see Bebe Cave in it as young Biddy. I liked her so much in Tale of Tales it’s good to see other things she’s done.

Not everything’s wrong with this movie. Obviously if you’re watching movies like this for the right reasons, you’re in it for the sets and the costumes. I loved the way they played up the Gothic themes of the novel, Helena Bonham Carter aside. The inside of the Satis House, Miss Havisham’s spooky abode, is delightfully dilapidated. There are ghastly relatives sitting in chairs in the hallways, dust motes flying around, and a banquet table left to rot. The costumes are equally sombre, full of dark, subdued colors. Maybe a little too subtle for my tastes, but still good.

I may have gone into this movie with my preconceived notions of what the story should look like based off a children’s version of the novel I read 20 years ago, but I still think it was an average, yet faithful adaptation. It definitely satisfied the part of me that loves this sort of thing. Sometimes you just need to mindlessly watch the movie adaptations of great British classics you’ll never get around to reading.

-Alli Hobbs