Culture > Movies

Film: Lowered expectations

Movies | Hollywood just doesn't understand Charles Dickens's novel

Issue: "Clinton: Under seige," Feb. 6, 1998

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with updating a classic. After all, part of what makes a classic a classic is its timelessness. That's why the recent film Romeo and Juliet, transported to modern Venice Beach, worked--in an odd way; the pair of shallow, self-centered lovers were no less so for being '90s Californians. But the release of the newest film version of Great Expectations shows that modernizing must be done carefully, with consideration for what is enduring about the original. Book buyers beware: A novelization of the movie has made it to bookstore shelves (and can often be found in the classics section), but it is not-repeat not-the Dickens classic. If Gwyneth Paltrow is on the cover, it's not the real thing. The film version of Great Expectations is a disappointment. What makes Dickens Dickens is his characters. Unfortunately, writer Mitch Glazer (Three of Hearts) and director Alphonso Cuarón (A Little Princess) have given us believable moderns in place of the unbelievably delightful Dickensian cast. The major disappointment is the main character, Pip, renamed Finn in the movie. Finn is a poor-but-noble white kid from the Florida Gulf Coast, with talent and dreams of becoming a famous artist. With the help of an anonymous benefactor, Finn travels to Manhattan where his art wins him fame and admiration. In short, he's a typical Hollywood hero. The problem is that Pip (the character in the novel) is nothing like Finn. Dickens's readers meet Pip, they sympathize with Pip, and before too many chapters pass, they even love Pip. But they know that Pip isn't noble and that Pip is never admirable until the end of the novel. The clear Christian theme of Great Expectations (the novel) is that nobility--true nobility--isn't bought with money. Pip is (like most of us) selfish and vain, and money merely makes him more so. He only becomes worthy and admirable when he humbles himself and takes tender care of his benefactor, the convict Magwich. Even his name, Pip, invokes the biblical image of the seed which must die and be buried before it can live and grow. The movie focuses on the relationship between Finn and Estella, the cold, cruel ward of Ms. Dinsmoor (Ann Bancroft), the new name of the novel's unforgettable Miss Havisham. But the novel focuses on what it means to become a truly noble person. And the way Dickens accomplishes this is through his troupe of unforgettable characters, most of whom didn't make it into the movie. Strength of character is displayed in Herbert Pocket. In the book, Pip meets Herbert on the day of his first meeting with Miss Havisham and Estella. On his way out the gate, a Pale Young Gentleman (Herbert) challenges him to a boyish fight; after repeatedly being knocked down and bloodied, the Pale Young Gentleman valiantly rises again and again until he can stand no more. Pip's admiration grows. Years later, when they meet again as young men, Herbert still embodies the strength of character that is sharply lacking in Pip. The biblical commandment to honor one's parents is embodied in Wemmick, the legal clerk who dotes on his "Aged Parent" ("Aged P" for short), in stark contrast to how Pip dishonors Joe, the man who lovingly raised him and protected him from the worst cruelties of his guardian sister. These are the examples that eventually lead Pip to take the honorable course of caring for his benefactor, though it means giving up his fortune (since it came from a convict) and going back to his lowborn status. It's only then that Pip is rewarded with love and happiness. These are themes Hollywood put aside in favor of a longshot love story; they're also the very themes that make Great Expectations worth retelling.

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