An orphan is accosted by an escaped convict in a graveyard one Victorian Christmas. Terrified, the young Pip steals food and a file for the man, and sets off the events of one of Charles Dickens’s best-known stories, Great Expectations, full of suffering, social mobility and some of the great author’s most famous characters. David Lean, the renowned film maker whose films included Brief Encounter, Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge Over the River Kwai, made possibly the greatest ever film adaptation of a Dickens novel back in 1946.
The scenes everyone tends to remember from this haunting Oscar-nominated black and white film, and indeed from the book, tend to be of young Pip in the graveyard, menaced by Finlay Currie as Abel Magwitch, but of course this is just the beginning of a story which sees Pip transformed into a gentleman, manipulated by the loopy Miss Havisham, and spurned by the cold Estella.
Lean’s adaptation is remarkably faithful to the original novel. There is a happy ending, which is at odds with the book’s more ambiguous conclusion, and many minor characters are omitted, along with some of the plot’s more tortuous coincidences (specifically the identity of the man who abandoned Miss Havisham at the alter). While the loss of Mrs Joe’s dramatic assault and the character of Orlick is a shame, as Orlick is in many ways a double of and mirror to Pip, the rest of the omissions scarcely bother the viewer – this author has played both Startop and Mr Wopsle on stage, and didn’t even miss them.
David Lean’s Great Expectations is livened up by performances by some of the greatest actors ever to work in film, including Sir Alec Guinness as exuberant Herbert Pocket, and Sir John Mills as Pip. Jean Simmons also made an early appearance as the younger Estella. In addition to being the greatest film adaptation of Dickens, it is also widely regarded as one of the greatest British films ever made, and it is easy to see why with this impressive pedigree.
Although over 65 years old now and in black and white, Great Expectations has still not really dated, and remains a compelling film. It’s easy to see why the camera work, which still feels fresh, won the cinematography Oscar, and it’s a shame that it didn’t win in some of the other categories for which it was nominated, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing.
Great Expectations is a classic which has been adapted many times on film, stage and TV, but Lean’s interpretation comes the closest to capturing the atmosphere of this novel.