Swamp of Boredom Book Club: TV Review – Great Expectations

This is the first adaptation of Great Expectations that I have seen so all of my thoughts on the Masterpiece adaptation starring Gillian Anderson will be in comparison to the book.

Being new to Dickens and Great Expectations, I didn’t expect to have strong ideas or feelings about this adaptation. I thought I would watch it, dislike Estella, be riveted and repulsed by Miss Havisham, have an affinity for sweet, slow Joe, not feel very strongly one way or another about Pip, enjoy having visual representations of the marshes and Victorian London and be left with a general complaisance of the whole affair.  Imagine my surprise when, after my initial pleasure at the portrayal of Magwich and young Pip’s encounter, the rest of the first hour of the mini-series left me less than satisfied.

The first hour of the mini-series, like the first volume of the book, relies heavily on the shoulders of its most interesting character, Miss Havisham. My excitement about Gillian Anderson in the role is in direct proportion of how disappointed I was in Anderson’s characterization. Visually, Anderson’s Miss Havisham is perfect (I won’t even get into the quibble in some quarters about her being too young to play the part). She is pale and ghostly, just as someone cooped up in their house and shunning sunlight for 20+ years would be. But, Anderson has given her version of Havisham a whispery, girlish voice that is completely opposite to what I read on the page. The Havisham I read was hard and bitter with a voice to match. She was shrewd and calculating, with hard glittery eyes, not floating around with a dazed expression and a soft voice. Anderson’s spacy portrayal of a calculating woman made her cold dismissal of Pip seem dissonant and out of character.

The actor that played young Pip was wonderful in every scene, holding his own with Anderson and Ray Winstone as Magwich. Too bad they misfired so horribly on the casting of the grown-up Pip, whose pouty lips and prominent cheekbones are better suited for a Abercrombie catalogue than as a 19th century blacksmith. Granted, Abercrombie and Pip was only in the last five minutes of the first hour and didn’t have much to do, but I couldn’t stop staring at his lips to pay any attention to anything else that was going on. Unless Abercrombie and Pip wows me with his acting skills, I predict this will be a problem.

The quirks that made so many of the characters interesting – Joe’s simple sweetness, Jaggers finger biting – have been jettisoned. Our introduction to Herbert Pocket varies greatly from the book, in action and in Herbert’s characterization. One thing that was confusing in the book but was cleared up nicely in the movie was Miss Havisham’s motivation for indenturing Pip to Joe. Havisham saw Estella give Pip a kiss after he fought Herbert, thought Estella was getting too attached and decided to sever her connection with Pip. Is this alluded to in the book? I can’t remember, but I will go back and see. If not, it is a good explanation for an action in the book that made little sense to me.

I watched Great Expectations with my 10-year-old son who loved it. He mentioned yesterday that he wanted to watch it again and was excited to watch the conclusion. Granted, some of his excitement is due to being able to stay up until 9 pm but I will take any interest in the classics, even if I’m not entirely pleased with the adaptation.

Other Thoughts:

  • Estella comes across much better in this adaptation than in the book. She seems genuinely uncomfortable with the role Miss Havisham has cast her in. Of all the characters in Great Expectations, Estella gets the least amount of characterization, in my opinion, so this interpretation of her is just as valid as the more prominent one that casts her as completely cold and unfeeling.
  • The clocks looked to be stopped at 10 o’clock instead of 9:20. Maybe I saw it wrong, but if I didn’t and it was a different time than the books, I have to wonder why they would change it?
  • I understand light is necessary to film, but there was way too much sunlight in Satis House.

Swamp of Boredom Book Club – Great Expectations Volume 3

After a confusing start and a thought-provoking middle, in Volume 3 Great Expectations turns into Pip’s Great Adventure. He is kidnapped and almost killed by Orlick, plans and almost pulls off the escape of his benefactor, Magwich, discovers the true parentage of Estella through a bit of unintended investigation, arranges for the continuation of Herbert’s success (without his knowledge) and consequently Herbert’s marriage, saves Miss Havisham from a fiery death and finally achieves a modicum of success as a clerk with Herbert’s company. With all of that going on, how could it not be the best of the three volumes?

The beginning of Volume Three finds Pip in the doldrums. He had just discovered his patron was not Miss Havisham, as he suspected, but a convicted felon who breaks the law by returning to England to see Pip. When Pip confronts Miss Havisham about her letting him believe she was his benefactor, she is cold, insisting she never said anything to encourage the idea. When Miss Havisham hears Estella reveal to Pip that she is marrying Drummle and Pip’s subsequent declaration of undying love, Miss Havisham realizes with horror that her teachings have made Pip as miserable as she has been since her jilting. Estella doesn’t care for Miss Havisham’s guilt or Pip’s misery.

Magwich’s return to England is discovered by his former partner and it becomes apparent to Pip and Herbert (who Pip has taken into his confidence) that they must get Magwich out of the country before the Crown finds him and hangs him for returning when sentenced to Australia for life. Magwich’s former partner, Compeyson, who just happens to be the same man who jilted Miss Havisham, and the police catch up to Pip and Magwich on the Thames, a scuffle ensues and Magwich and Compeyson go overboard. Only one survives. Magwich spends the rest of his days in prison, with Pip visiting him regularly, but luckily dies before he can be hung.

Pip, through his experiences, discovers that wealth and social standing do not determine a person’s worth. The characters that are depicted as being the most honorable are also the poorest – Wemmick, Joe, Biddy, Herbert and, initially, Magwich. Those that are in the social strata that he aspires to are cold, cruel and think only of themselves – Miss Havisham, Estella and Drummle. It is also interesting to note that the only good that comes of Pip’s “expectations” is the furtherence of Herbert’s career. It is the one thing that Pip is proud of.

Overall, Great Expectations (★★★★) was an enjoyable read. Would I read it again? Maybe, though it wasn’t so enthralling that it achieved a spot on my list of comfort reads.* There is the possibility that, with the knowledge of the plot and characters and a better understanding of Dickens’ writing style, a second reading would be more satisfying than the first. There are more Dickens novels to read before I pick up Great Expectations again, but I would recommend it as a great introduction to Dickens to anyone.

*Comfort reads are novels I pick up when life is getting me down. They always make me feel better. They include Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion by Jane Austen, Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher, Rose by Martin Cruz Smith and pretty much anything by Georgette Heyer.

Five Things I’m Looking Forward to This Week

  1. The publication of Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear (Tuesday) – My disappointment with Maisie Dobbs’ previous outing has tempered my expectations for this, Winspear’s 9th book in the series. I still love the character and the setting but I expect more from the mystery, which is what I’m going to try to focus on this time around since I highly doubt any of my character development concerns will be addressed. This is the only mystery series I have stayed with consistently and I wonder if my reservations about series such as this (character stasis) is coming to light. It would be a shame if so.
  2. The Mentalist 4.19: “Pink Champagne on Ice” – we’re getting into the home stretch for season four and I honestly have no idea where they are going with Patrick Jane. From the description, this is a stand-alone so we probably won’t get any forward motion on Red John. But, we might get some Jane backstory.
  3. Great Expectations – Friday, I post my review of Volume 3; Sunday, I watch part one of the PBS mini-series starring Gillian Anderson.
  4. Bully – I’m taking my boys to see this movie whether they like it or not.
  5. Sunday Night TV – Really, television executives? The Good Wife, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Masterpiece Theater (Great Expectations)…I really don’t know if my DVR can handle it all. Thank God that pesky part-time job is out of the way so I can devote 4-5 hours to staring at a screen Sunday night.

What are you looking forward to this week?

Swamp of Boredom Book Club – Great Expectations Volume 2

A few years ago during the height of its popularity, I  tried to read The Nanny Diaries. I couldn’t get past the first few chapters because I couldn’t relate to an urban family lifestyle that included absent parents and nannies. Using relateability (this doesn’t seem to be a word; huh) as a guide, you would think my bookshelves would be lined with novels about scandalous PTA moms, hyper-competitive youth sports or a wine soaked book club. In fact, I avoid women’s fiction in general because the last thing I want to read about is my life. My life is highly satisfying, safe and frankly a little boring. Just like I like it. If I want to know about another woman like me and what’s going on in their life, I’ll call a friend. I read to escape into other worlds, worlds which I can hardly relate to but that are fascinating just for that reason. Yes, I understand this is a direct contradiction to my reaction to The Nanny Diaries (and Bridget Jones Diary and I Don’t Know How She Does It).  In the end, what matters to me is how interesting the unknown world of the book is, how well the author creates the world and its characters and, crucially to me, if I learn anything. Those three things are what draws me to the classics and historical fiction like Great Expectations.

How well is Great Expectations meeting those three goals? The world Dickens has created is interesting, but not entirely unknown due to the great amount of fiction I’ve read set in Victorian England. He is a master at description and the London that Pip experiences for the first time is vivid and detailed. His characters are, likewise, vibrant, though many of them, especially tertiary characters, tend to fall in the all one thing or the other trap, broadly written either overly comic or overly unsympathetic. His nuanced creation of the main characters – especially Jaggers and Wemmick – make up for this quibble. As to the final goal, my perceptions or knowledge of Victorian London has not been expanded, but enriched. In volume two I did learn something about myself.

I grew up in a small town in East Texas and had a safe, uneventful life. I loved my parents and got along well with them. But, as happens with teenagers the world over, so much so that it is a tired out, rote stereotype used too frequently in fiction, I was desperate to get out of my small town. I choose a state school that was as far away as I could get but still be in the Southwest Conference (dating myself, there) and proceeded to turn my back on everything I had been taught growing up, save my morals and firm beliefs of right and wrong. (Contrary to what many believe, liberal ideals and high moral standards of right and wrong can inhabit the same psyche, but that is touching dangerous political territory, a subject I promised never to broach on my blog, and has nothing to do with Great Expectations.) This was back in the day when you could fly roundtrip on Southwest Airlines for $50 so that first year, I went home quite a bit. I am ashamed to admit that when I did, I acted much the same way Pip did when he walked down the street of his hometown, head held high and overflowing with self-importance and worth.  I had nothing to be arrogant about, nor did Pip considering his greatest accomplishment in Volume 2 is running up an astounding debt and pulling Herbert down with him.

Which brings me back around to relatability and to a point I made in the review of Volume One:

I love how Dickens’ can gently skewer human nature and our foibles, getting us to laugh at ourselves while never seeing ourselves in the picture he so adroitly paints.

I saw myself in that aspect of Pip, but I’m not so arrogant to believe there aren’t negative characteristics of other players that I laugh at, deluding myself the entire time that particular foible is not mine but yours. Arrogant Pip makes me squirm because I believe I have left that immature attitude behind but the shame of my actions linger.

Other Thoughts:

  • Herbert, besides being a little bit of a Gary Stu, serves as Mr. Exposition early on in the volume, telling Pip the details of Miss Havisham’s jilting. The man that wooed her, Compeyson, was working with Havisham’s half brother, Arthur, to swindle money? I can’t remember the details. Shame on me. It was a very interesting story.
  • But, not nearly as interesting as the scene at the end of the volume when, during a dark and stormy night, Pip learns the true identity of his benefactor, the convict he assisted when he was young, Abel Magwich.
  • There was a great little comic interlude at the beginning when Dickens introduces us to Herbert’s family.
  • Besides Herbert, Pip’s other confidant is Wemmick, Jagger’s clerk, who very neatly keeps his work and family life completely separate, and brings Pip into the latter.
  • While I was more comfortable with Dickens writing style, there were still many allusions and turns of phrase that went over my head.
  • While looking on the internet for information about Great Expectations, I found a discussion on Dickens and readings from this novel on the BBC World Book Club podcast. It’s a great listen, if interested.

What did you think of Volume Two? Was it easier to understand? Is there any character or event that you can personally relate to? What do you think is going to happen to Pip, Magwich, Estella and Miss Havisham?

Before Spring Break last week, I had every intention of pre-writing posts to automatically post while I was away. Of course, I didn’t get around to it and as a result, this blog has been dormant (besides the auto post for Great Expectations, Volume 1) for nearly two weeks. For that, I apologize.

I know y’all are dying to know what has been keeping me so busy.  For Spring Break, my family and six others from our neighborhood went skiing in Colorado, along with every other Texan on spring break. Much to my husband’s dismay, we drove there and back, 12 hours going, 15 hours returning. Not sure why the discrepancy, though the 45 minute rage inducing attempt to get fast food in Raton, NM, might have something to do with it. I got almost no writing done, save a 30 minute burst of creativity as we drove through West Texas. If you’ve ever been to West Texas, let alone driven through it, you might think I’m being ironic when I say that, but I’m not. My novel is set in West Texas and the landscape, as monotonous as it is, can be quite beautiful, especially at sunset. I did lots of thinking about my novel, though, which some days is almost as good as writing.

While on the trip, I finished Great Expectations. (A post about volume 2 will be up tomorrow.) While I don’t want to spoil my future reviews/posts, just know that my opinion of the novel at the end was better than at the start.

In the last month, I have resolved to read more and watch less television. Only a very few shows have made the cut with me (The Mentalist, The Good Wife, Luck (RIP), Masterpiece and the upcoming Game of Thrones) which has freed up my down time for reading. After all, successful writers don’t say, “If you want to be a good writer, watch more television!” They tell you to read and read a lot. I followed Great Expectations with Henry James’ Daisy Miller (★★★),” a novella whose scholarly introduction is almost as long as the novel itself. Then, I moved on to my neighborhood book club selection for the month, In the Garden of Beasts (★★★★)by Erik Larson, a book that deserves its own post. Now, I’ve picked up Guns, Germs and Steel, a nonfiction book I’ve wanted to read for years. I predict it will sit on my bedside table and be read in fits and starts for a few months. I want to continue reading books, by American authors if possible, written during the time of my novel (1870s) to obtain a firm grasp on the rhythms of speech and sentence structure that will enable me to replicate it, to a degree that isn’t off-putting to modern readers, in my novel. To that end, I am considering another James novel or, possibly Edith Wharton (though her publishing time is 30 years after the time of my novel).

To combat the mind-numbing boredom of driving through West Texas and New Mexico where radio signals are sparse, on impulse I downloaded a bunch of podcasts. My greatest find was the BBC World Book Club podcast. Each month, the BBC World Book Club host interviews the author of the month’s book with questions sent in by readers across the world. I have listened to four or five of the 51 available. I have learned something valuable from each one. I highly recommend them for writers, or anyone interested in the process or writing.

My love of Rolos suckered me into making these brownies which, unfortunately, turned out to be a big waste of a bag of unwrapped Rolos. Recipe not recommended.

Because I’m procrastinating (I really need to get a grip on this horrible, horrible fault of mine) I just made a sourdough starter, which my dog seems very interested in. I need to go move it to a higher counter and then get back to work.

What has been keeping you entertained the last two weeks?


Great Expectations Volume 1

When, in a fit of excitement for the PBS’s 2006 mini-series, I purchased a copy of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, the size of the book gave me only a momentary pause. After all, if ever there is a book that can be held up as a selling point for e-readers, Bleak House and its 1000+ pages is it. Still, I wasn’t daunted; the satisfaction of seeing that book in the “Hell, yeah I read this” section of my bookshelf would be my reward. Obviously, not reward enough. Bleak House languished on my bookshelf for weeks, maybe months, until I finally pulled it down to tackle it. In the end, the length of the book didn’t keep me from reading it. The first page did. I sold the book back to Half Priced Books, at a significant loss, to banish the evidence of my failure (it wasn’t a very fetching book spine, anyway) and enjoyed every second of the mini-series, deluding myself that it was as good as the book.

I could give you many excuses as to why I didn’t soldier on and read Bleak House, all of which would be valid but would also not eradicate the essential truth that I was too lazy to give the effort required to allow Dickens engage my attention. Make no mistake, reading Dickens requires great effort on my part, especially in the early going. My difficulty is akin to the difficulty I have reading sci-fi and fantasy, as if there is a secret language, a crib sheet of information, that I am not privy to but that, if obtained, would unlock each and every one of the frustrating allusions, metaphors or obscure references that populate Dickens’ work. It takes a great effort for me to type that comma laden sentence and admit that, in short, I don’t feel smart enough to understand what Dickens is saying roughly half of the time. There was also trepidation that this admission would somehow undermine my authority on Dickens. Authority! Ha! I somehow expected myself to become an overnight expert on Dickens (along with all of my real life responsibilities, to boot) and be able to talk intelligently about every aspect of the great author’s work by reading the first volume of one book over four days. Which is patently ridiculous, I know. I believe I took the idea of great expectations too much to heart.

I love how Dickens’ can gently skewer human nature and our foibles, getting us to laugh at ourselves while never seeing ourselves in the picture he so adroitly paints. He does this by creating caricatures instead of characters. Miss Havisham is the jilted old maid, but in the extreme. Mrs. Joe the abusive mother figure. Pumblechook the pompous patron. Mr. Wopsle the absurd theatrical. We can safely laugh at these people because we aren’t like them at all, though we know someone who is. I haven’t read enough Dickens to know if these extreme characters are hallmark of his style, though if my experience with the mini-series adaptations of Dickens’ work is true, it is. His comic characters are completely ridiculous, with just enough reality to keep them grounded. His sympathetic characters, while not all good, have noble and easily overlooked faults. In volume one, Pip has the most shading and depth, primarily because the novel is told from his point of view. The characters around him are sketched based on Pip’s opinion of them. Pip isn’t an unreliable narrator but he is ignorant, immature and a less than stellar judge of character, though he can be perceptive. I’m curious to see how frustrated, if at all, I get with him throughout the book.

Now, the table is set. Characters have been put into place. Plot points and motivations have been buried beneath the caricatures. Pip has been given a fortune by an anonymous benefactor and he leaving the marshes for London. How big of a fool will he make of himself before he realizes his great expectations? That, my friends, is the question.

Other Thoughts:

  • The most interesting character in Volume One is Miss Havisham, the jilted bride that has not seen the light of day since twenty past nine o’clock in the morning, many years ago. She lives in a state of suspended reality, never-changing out of the bridal dress she wore when the fateful letter of her lover’s rejection was delivered. We learn much more about Miss Havisham and her backstory in Volume Two.
  • One quibble with Volume One is there isn’t a great indication of the passage of time. Pip could be anywhere from 5-10 at the beginning of the book and by the end of volume one, I have no idea how old he is. Late teens? I could find out, easily, with a bit of googling but I haven’t researched or read analysis of the book, choosing instead to write these reviews based solely on my perceptions, no matter how wrong-headed they may be.
  • Much is made in volume one about Pip being “raised by hand” by Mrs. Joe. My 21st century sensibilities told me that meant that Mrs. Joe believed in the “spare the rod spoil the child” school of child rearing. Thanks to my annotated text, however, I discovered that “raising by hand” meant bottle feeding a baby.
  • It’s always fun to discover where phrases that you’ve heard referenced come from. Notably, “Ever the best of friends.”  I don’t know what that is so familiar to me, but it is.

What did everyone else think of Volume One? Did it take you a while to get into the novel? Do you think my confusion might be due to the difference between American and British readers, i.e. many of these allusions Dickens makes would be easier for Brits to grasp? Is the novel interesting enough for you to read on? Dickens experts, feel free to set me right or expand on volume one in the comments.

Swamp of Boredom Book Club: Great Expectations, We Have Them

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham

Just after I posted the poll asking my readers what Charles Dickens novel I should read to celebrate his bicentennial birthday, I received an e-mail from PBS letting me know that they will be showing a new adaptation of Great Expectations starring Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in April. After very little research, I discovered there will be a major motion picture adaptation of the novel starring Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham. Easy, peasy, the decision was made for me. Great Expectations it is.

One reason why I’m hesitant to read Science Fiction and Fantasy is that I don’t know the shorthand, the lingo. So much of what is written goes over my head. I feel a bit like that when it comes to Dickens, as well. A text with footnotes helps, to be sure, but I always feel like I’m missing something, as if I’m at a party with a person cleverer than I and, instead of taking the risk of looking stupid, I just nod, smile, laugh at the appropriate moments and drink a copious amount of wine so I won’t care that I’m so obtuse. In the best case scenario, the wine jump starts my brain and everything becomes clear. In the case of reading Dickens, I begin with trepidation and in confusion but force myself to soldier on until that inevitable point when the Dickensian turns of phrase cause barely a pause.

That confession isn’t meant to scare off readers new to Dickens but to encourage you to keep with it despite a little frustration and confusion. I find that most Victorian literature is like that but once I understand the writing style of the author and get into the story, I am eager to finish and read more. With Dickens’ birthday and the two adaptations of Great Expectations coming out this year, I thought it would be a great starter book for a Swamp of Boredom Book Club.  How regular this feature becomes will depend on you, the blog reader, and your participation. In case you’re wondering, not every book will be a classic and, if there is enough interest, I will solicit suggestions from you.

During the month of March, we will read Great Expectations and I will post recaps/reviews of the three volumes. If you have your own blog, you can post your own review of the appropriate volume and link to that in my comments or, if you don’t have a blog, you can give your thoughts in the comments section. Of course, Read the Movie Reviews will come after each adaptation with the same opportunity to link back to your blog or post in the comment section.

Great Expectations Posting Schedule

Volume 1 – Friday, March 16

Volume 2 – Friday, March 23

Volume 3 – Friday, March 30

Mini-series Part 1 – Monday, April 2

Mini-series Part 2 – Monday, April 9

Movie – TBD

Sound off in the comments if you are participating and link back to your blog so I can add you to my Blogroll.

There are numerous editions of Great Expectations to choose from. It is available free on Kindle, thorough Google Books and, possibly on the Nook. I recommend getting an annotated version for the reasons I stated above – they are very helpful for explaining some of the antiquated turns of phrase that we aren’t aware of. The best annotated books have the notations at the bottom of the page, in my opinion, because flipping to the back of the book is irritating. That’s my personal preference, but either way, I recommend an annotated version. Be aware that those volumes have introductions written by scholars that give away the plot. If you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read it. But, those intros can also be helpful in understanding the story.