I have had the privilege of seeing some really great films at TIFF this year, a number of which are adaptations of some of the greatest writers to have ever put words to page. Namely William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” adapted by Joss Whedon, and Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations” as adapted by Mike Newell. Incredible feats for most filmmakers to take on, not only because of the authors’ powerful works themselves but also because they have been done repeatedly over the years, some to great success and others to great failure. As a result the immensity of such an undertaking is not lost on many who might see the film versions.
One might even say it is almost impossible not to have great expectations about this kind of attempt. Yes, I know that’s an incredible obvious thing to say and kind of dumb but as the programmer who introduced the film said it’s hard not to go there with such an obvious set up.
This is not my first viewing of a Dickens adaptation and I doubt it will be my last. However this is as far as I can remember my first viewing of a version which is in many ways faithful to the original version. This seems to be a trend of sorts in the filmmaking community as of late. “Much Ado About Nothing” was using the original text and it seems that “Great Expectations” also did so. Where they differ is in the setting itself. Much Ado was set in modern times where the characters had cell phones and computers and such, whereas “Great Expectations” took great pains to be period specific in nearly every aspect. Yet both have managed to do interesting things with the material.
I should say that my only other experience with the story of Great Expectations was in a South Park episode where one of the characters they supposedly based on Pip, the main character of the Dickens story, had his back story told in the form of “Great Expectations”. The basics of the story were there and many elements stayed the same but they went completely off script with the ending for comedic effect, but it did get me curious the other works of Dickens as I was most familiar with “A Christmas Carol” up until then which I watch every Christmas as well as several modern day adaptations.
Director Mike Newell took no such liberties with the story, although there were a few characters which were removed in order to keep the story moving according to the director’s Q&A afterwards. Despite that, I think that the film is a beautiful adaptation of the widely heralded story. One of the audience members who managed to ask a question of the director was the head of a local chapter of the Charles Dickens’ society, remarking that he believed that Charles Dickens would be very happy with this interpretation and while my opinion probably holds less weight, I would have to agree. He managed to make characters that were almost all miserable, angry and at times unlikeable people into sympathetic characters who you can at least understand the motivations of.
Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Jeremy Irvine and Holliday Grainger embodied Dickens’ classic characters in their adult roles. While Helena Barlow, Toby Irvine and Charlie Callaghan as young versions of the main characters managed to set up everything that their older versions needed really well for their ages.
How Great should your Expectations be? To quote Estella…
“I am bent and broken, though hopefully into a better shape.”This film has been made into great shape.