TV Review: Masterpiece Classic – “Great Expectations”

When Charles Dickens finished Great Expectations, he gave it to his friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton to read. Bulwer-Lytton thought the ending, in which Pip remains single and Estella remarries after her abusive husband dies, was too bleak and encouraged Dickens to change it. Dickens took his advice and crafted a more optimistic ending that vaguely implied Pip and Estella would eventually marry.  Dickens scholars and fans debate which ending is best and where you fall on that side of the debate will determine your happiness with the second half of Masterpiece Classic’s Great Expectations.

With a three-hour running time of a 500 page book is going to necessitate some changes. Characters and story lines are scuttled. Relationships are changed. Plot points are achieved in completely new ways. While the choices made by the screenwriter were not jarring, nor did they change the essence of the story or the motivations of the characters, they were perplexing and, in many instances, unnecessary.

The greatest beneficiary of the changes is the character of Estella. The screenwriter and director crafted the character with the optimistic ending in mind, giving Estella a conscience and feelings that Dickens never did. In the novel, Estella warned Pip away from her but I never felt like the waring was given because of any particular regard she had for Pip, but more from a desire to be rid of a nuisance. Implying that Estella harbored genuine feelings for Pip made her character more sympathetic and deserving of Pip. It also gave a character that I felt was too one dimensional in the book some much needed depth.

While I had issues with Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Miss Havisham, and I think the screenwriter tweaked her dialogue in unnecessary ways, the imagine of Anderson as Havisham walking down the stairs of Satis House in her bridal veil came very close to making up for it. Unfortunately, nothing could make up for the fact that Abercrombie and Pip looked like a 21st century metro sexual dressed as a 19th century gentleman.

With adaptations such as these I have two criteria to decide how “good” the movie was. One, would I buy the DVD? With Great Expectations the answer is “No.” Besides the image of Miss Havisham descending to the stairs to her death, there is nothing memorable about this adaptation.  Two, would I recommend it to others as a good representation of the book? My answer for that would have be “No” as well. The gold standard I judge these adaptations by is the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series. While it isn’t a fair comparison – that was a 5 hour mini-series – it is possible to faithfully adapt a dense book into a three hour running time. For the best representation of that, see Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South starring Richard Armitage.  Great Expectations falls short in faithfulness. While they kept the theme of the story intact, there were too many little, unnecessary changes that makes this adaptation average instead of great.

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.

Occupy Sunday Night TV – Can’t we spread the wealth?

Earlier this year when CBS announced The Good Wife‘s move to a Sunday timeslot I was irritated. I

The Good Wife (TV series)

Image via Wikipedia

viewed Sunday night as a television wasteland and a slap in the face to CBS’s most critically acclaimed show. How wrong I was. Sunday night, on network and cable channels alike, is a murderer’s row of critically acclaimed television. Some of these shows are on the other side of their prime (Desperate Housewives), some are popular with viewers but met with skepticism with critics (Once Upon a Time), some are insanely popular and critical hits (The Walking Dead) and others are just trying to hang on by the cleverness of their conceit (Dexter). How is someone supposed to choose what to watch? My DVR can only record so much and with the NFL on, it can’t record two things while I watch a third. First world problems, man. First world problems.

7:00 pm

  • Once Upon a Time
  • NFL

8:00 pm

9:00 pm

  • Pan Am (ABC)
  • Hell on Wheels (AMC)
  • Hung (HBO)
  • Homeland (Showtime)

This isn’t even a complete list of what is on Sunday night. I have only included shows I watch regularly, have watched at one time or another or would like to watch if I had access to the premium channel.  Nor have I included shows that are not currently airing but that air new episodes on Sunday night (Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Treme, Breaking Bad). In fact, I could pull just about any critically acclaimed drama (one thing these all, with the exception of Hung, have in common is being an hour-long drama) out of the hat and it most likely airs on Sunday night. Though I love having a DVR full of great television Monday morning, watching everything and reading The AV Club and What’s Alan Watching after sure does kill Monday for any sort of productivity.

Tell me, gentle readers: What do you watch on Sunday night? Which show do you watch live? Do you read recaps from television critics as well?

Masterpiece Classic – Downton Abbey Episode 1

Part one of a four part series, Downton Abbey was a huge hit in the UK before being imported to the States by PBS for their Masterpiece Classic brand. For the past week, American television critics have heaped praise on the drama that updates the formula pioneered by the early 70’s drama Upstairs, Downstairs.

Downton Abbey begins in 1914 with the news of the Titanic’s sinking and the death of the heir of Downton Abbey being transmitted by telegraph. (It will be two years before Downton installs the newfangled telephone. The residents of the eponymous country house are just getting used to the recently installed electric lights.) The heir’s death means that a third cousin – a lawyer from Manchester and son of a doctor! – will inherit the title, estate and fortune of the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley, on his death. The Earl’s daughters, American wife, Cora, and dowager mother have different ideas. Cora is a “buccaneer,” an American heiress that married into the English aristocracy and whose fortune saved Downton Abbey from ruin 24 years earlier. Robert’s father, the prior Earl, tied up Cora’s fortune into Downton so tightly that to carve it out of the land and title will leave the estate in ruins. As a result, Crawley refuses to fight the entail, a British legality that forces the estate to be left to a male heir. Not good news for the Earl’s three daughters.

(Do not fret if none of that made sense. Julian Fellowes, the writer and creator of Downton Abbey does an excellent job explaining the entail and what it means for every character in the first episode.)

The servants below stairs are just as invested in who their master will one day be and feel very protective of their family. The lives of the servants below stairs share equal screen time with the lives of the aristocracy above stairs and are just as intriguing, if not more so. The viewer knows that change for everyone, above and below stairs, in the form of the Great War is on the way.

The best reason to watch Downton Abbey is for Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess and Penelope Winton as Mrs. Crawley, the new heir’s mother. Their confrontations are pure upper class British gold.

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