I have just finished watching the BBC series impertinently entitled Great Expectations. I watched all six episodes because the visuals are superb. The realisation of the period is lush: settings, costumes, photography are a treat for the eye. The BBC has long had a reputation for being good at this sort of thing and I’m glad to see my licence fee spent so prodigally.
The first episode had some promise. Young Pip had the charm he needs to have. I didn’t mind him saying ‘shit!’, though I thought it was probably a bit anachronistic, and wondered where he could have learnt it – not from the upright Joe, surely, nor the puritanical Mrs Joe, or the saintly Biddy, or the bulbous petty bourgeois Pumblechook? I was shocked though when the latter received a beating on the bum by Mrs Joe with tickler. Was that in the book? Not as I remember it. And what was the point?
There seemed at first to be a complex layering of Pip’s character, which Dickens takes time with in the novel. Fine, I said to myself. It was always a principle with me when I was a teacher that we should not critique something for what it never set out to be in the first place; that we should judge a work as a whole; that literary works are open to individual interpretation, and that a different medium allows, nay requires, judicious transformations.
And so I persevered through all six episodes with growing dismay at the cheap and nasty ransacking of a great novel in order to say something quite other. Every character was wrenched out of the original to portray something quite different. The narrative – so brilliantly managed by Dickens to create suspense – was mangled in such a way as to rob it of any dynamism, and finally, of its moral dimension.
A story which has its heart obsession, shame, guilt, embarrassment, and a tough hard-earned redemption, was reduced to a meretricious hodge-podge of clichés to support a fashionable ideology. The action was interrupted frequently for characters to utter pious little platitudes or to affirm their laudable allegiances. ‘I’m a Chartist now, Pip,’ said Biddy. I nearly laughed out loud.
Pip was wrong, Stella was wrong, Jaggers was misconceived, Wemmick was hopelessly wrong. Miss Havisham was a grotesque caricature of Dicken’s terrifying vision. Despite Olivia Coleman’s best efforts the effect was diluted and impoverished by showing too much of her and, God forbid, bringing her into the daylight. The ending was a hilarious nonsense, like the opening of a Hardy novel that had got lost. The sad thing was that these perfectly good actors were betrayed by an arrogant but inept teleplay.
I have no objections to imaginative adaptations of great works but this was a travesty of a masterpiece. It was a gross impertinence to use the title. I will call it Great Expectorations and I spit on it from a great height for wasting six hours of my life.