Meeting Great Expectations

(Oct. 16 class presentation for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute)

Great Expectations enters my book Around the World in 80 Movies, which combines two activities I love—traveling and watching movies. Whenever I plan a trip, I take a look at the way its location shows up on screen. This proves difficult in some places—but not London. Yet with thousands of titles to consider for blending my travel report with a project that reflects London, I felt no hesitation at choosing Great Expectations. Granted, my trip to London involved no anticipation of receiving vast amounts of money, as happens with Pip in the Charles Dickens classic. But travel fills me great expectations and I enjoy finding the differences and similarities of images from books, movies, history, and the news to what I see in person. For me, Great Expectations works as a universal title for any trip I plan.

Reading inspired many of my Great Expectations in London, a Mecca for literature fans. Shakespeare; Jane Austen; Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and of course, Charles Dickens all used the city in their works, most of which turned into movies. Following the footsteps of Dickens and the unforgettable people he creates involves more than twenty titles plus numerous characters. You probably know some of their names, like Pip or Magwich in Great Expectations. Uriah Heep and David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Fagin, or Scrooge—all evoking the personalities themselves. You have to wrinkle your nose when you say Scrooge.

You feel hints of these people throughout old London, and it helps to find a guide to lead you there. I used the London Walks organization for Dickens and many other tours—Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, and more. The process works easily; show up on time at a designated Tube station and check for your guide—not hard to find in the case of Dickens where ours looked like she came out of one of his books.

We met at the Holburn station, located near Lincoln Inn where much of Bleak House takes place. The Dickens Museum lies just around the corner, based in the only remaining home the author lived in. Displays include memorabilia used by Dickens, as well as items about his various stories, many familiar from their screen translations. A Christmas Carol gets the most interpretations, rivaled by Oliver Twist. And third? Today’s subject, Great Expectations.

Records show eleven takes on the novel. The first one arrived in 1917. An early talkie from 1933 lists Valerie Hobson in the cast, a notable point since she went from a minor role in that adaptation to the love interest in the 1946 version (1947 if you go by its U.S. release date). Confining the films to two hours or less forces them to ignore many elements from Dickens’ book; I just listened to an audio version of it which spanned twenty hours. This means the BBC format of several two-hour programs provides more details and characters from the book. But not everyone wants to follow Dickens precisely. Two-time Oscar winning director Alfonso Cuaron modernizes action and resets it in Florida for his take starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. A quick scan on the Washoe County Library web site or such streaming services as Amazon Prime shows several versions available to borrow or rent.

In choosing one of those 11 variations to feature in my book, I selected the 1946 interpretation. The old poster highlights one reason the story gets told so often: it provides Great Romance. Great Thrills. Great Suspense. Great Adventure. At least by Dickens’ standards; those addicted to comic book action might think otherwise.

But those willing to slow the pace easily spot those great elements highlighted in these movie stills: a spooky opening sequence on a dark and stormy night in a graveyard; a creepy house haunted by a living ghost of a woman; and a chase—slow speed since it involves a masted ship and rowboats, but nonetheless a chase. And for cinema buffs, another great shows up in the name highlighted by the DVD—David Lean.

By 1946, David Lean boasted a strong box office track record, which enabled him to tackle the complications involved in making Great Expectations. He went on location to the Chatham Docks, to St. Mary’s Marshes in the Thames Estuary, plus built detailed sets based on the Restoration House in Rochester. While I call my book chapter “Great Expectations in London,” I admit a tenuous tie to the city—about an hour of the film occurs before the iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral Dome appears.

But back to Lean. His last name works for this version of Great Expectations, an effectively slimmed down take on Dickens. Yet overall, his last name seems ironic since Lean specialized in big movies. Nominated for eleven Oscars--six as best director--he won twice for epic spectacles, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.

His directing approach makes sense. As he described, “Film is dramatized reality, and the director’s job is to make it appear real.” He also said, “I’m first and foremost interested in the story, the characters.”

With Great Expectations, the story proves alluring and features those highly visual elements already mentioned: the spooky cemetery; the haunted house; the river chase. But perhaps more memorable than his plotting, Dickens specialized in distinct, memorable characters.

As narrator, and ostensibly the lead character, Pip stands in for the reader as a sort of everyman—easier to relate to than the story’s other damaged people. Pip demonstrates flaws since he so readily jumps to wrong conclusions, but his big heart eventually sets things right. Actor John Mills plays Pip—a good choice for the time since audiences regarded him as Britain’s Everyman during the forties. He captures Pip’s innocence well, but the 38-year old actor never quite looks young enough to pass for a 21-year old Pip.

Next up: Miss Havisham, another amazing creation from Dickens. Jilted on her marriage day, Miss Havisham never moves forward, locked in time and wearing her unraveling wedding gown. She seeks vengeance and ultimately becomes her own victim. Director Lean hired Marita Davis to portray Miss Havisham after seeing her in the role for a 1939 stage version of the story. The part remained her best, though she went on to win a Tony for other work. As a character, Miss Havisham lures many actresses, including Anne Bancroft, Charlotte Rampling, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Gillian Anderson of The X-Files.

Though they get less page and screen time, other characters stand out. Magwich, what a name! Sort of scary, but not so bad, as the character ultimately proves. Or Estella, like stars in the sky, beautiful and distant. Director Lean picked perfect faces for the parts. With his beak nose and rough features, Finley Curry makes a memorable Magwich, a role later played by actors like Ralph Fiennes and Robert De Niro. Meanwhile, 17-year old Jean Simmons shines with such beauty that Pip’s tumble into love at first site makes complete sense.

Another memorable character: Herbert Pocket, Pip’s best friend and sidekick. An amusing name for a likeable character, Pocket provided a stage role for the youthful Alec Guinness. Paring the novel into play length with a role for himself, Guinness developed the template Lean used for his movie. The working relationship between Guinness and Lean continued for decades with movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge On the River Kwai, which brought Oscars to both men. Of all performers in Great Expectations, Guinness probably boasts the longest shelf life. Grandkids and great grandkids might scratch their heads over the sight of John Mills but everyone knows the guy who first played Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

So: characters, and story, the two big points Director Lean seeks, saying he prefers that viewers not notice technique. Yet try to avoid appreciating the skill that went into camera angles and set design for Great Expectations. Both look great. And both won Oscars.

And finally, a historic perspective. Great Expectations opened to great success, earning five Oscar nominations including best picture and director. Posters emphasized its colorful action and stars like Valerie Hobson, who later faded under unusual circumstances. But for the most part, everything about Great Expectations brightened. Today, as the cover of a remastered version declares, many regard it as “the greatest Dickens movie ever made.” A big build-up, one that leads to great expectations. But with brilliant cinematography, set design, acting, and writing, the movie lives up to those expectations.


© 2019 by Robin Holabird
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