Great Expectations (1946)
Director, David Lean
It sometimes happens that a film is worthy of the excellent book it is based on. You need a great screenplay written by someone who knows what is essential to the book, and what, though important or illuminating or delightful, can be cut – not without wincing and regret, but it has to be so, since the novel is one kind of art, and film is another. And this was something that David Lean could do.
Lean was a hard-driving, much-swearing, difficult man to get along with, but he was also a genius, and of all the directors I know of, he was the one who could best pull off what I’ve described. I think that his Doctor Zhivago (1965) is at least as good as Boris Pasternak’s novel, and his The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is in every way superior to the book. With Charles Dickens, that madcap genius who is always at your elbow, jesting, jogging, pulling you here or there, endlessly inventive, giving you characters like Pip or Joe Gargery or Miss Havisham that remain with you all your life, you have to know when to keep that genius under rein, and when to let it take you where no one else can. And that’s what Lean does in Great Expecations. You begin with a scene on the moors, with an escaped convict, a graveyard, a small boy, and threats of death, and you make it into comedy. How, without losing the human power of it all, while still suggesting more than you say? How can you bring that convict back to England, now a rich man, to see the boy he has anonymously made wealthy, now grown up, and to have that return be more than an embarrassment to the young man – an opportunity to redeem himself, to make himself rich indeed by making himself poor, and yet without a trace of preachiness or mere sentimentality?
Great Expectations was Alec Guinness’s breakout movie, as he plays Herbert Pocket, the good friend and advisor to the callow young Pip (John Mills). Everybody in the film is fine, from the slow-thinking but sure-hearted blacksmith Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles), to the man-hating and self-cloistered Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), to the young Jean Simmons, playing Pip’s beloved Estella when she was a girl and she first won his heart, only to be cruel to him at her patroness Miss Havisham’s instruction. But Finlay Currie, playing the convict Abel Magwitch, wins my vote as the best of them all. After you see him in the role, you cannot imagine it being done otherwise: a perfect blend of menace and kindness, ignorance and shrewdness, sin and love, vindictiveness and generosity.
I’ve shown the film to homeschoolers, and they laughed with its comedy, and shed a tear or two with its tragedy – but it is not tragedy, either. It is comedy, comedy in the Christian sense, passing through the valley of the shadow of death. Pip expected money and station and prestige. He got something better.
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A few months ago I began, but haven't finished a BBC version. Have you seen it? Though I haven't read the book, to my sorrow, I thought that it was quite excellent. I want to watch this one. I LOVED Room for One More!
The absence of Dickens from modern education is perhaps its greatest indictment (which is saying something). He’s just too dangerously decent, I suppose, we wouldn’t want to stir up humanity in the children when we’re trying to fill them with sloganeering…
I’m sure you know it, but when it comes to David Lean and John Mills, it doesn’t get much better than Hobson’s Choice!