Should I Just Watch the Movie?: ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens

A commonly held opinion is that reading the book is always the more intellectually beneficial option when in comparison with passively absorbing the film adaptation. Reading is in essence the pursuit of knowledge exercising the human mind, whereas watching is thought to remove any need for brain activity altogether, since the worlds are already created for us, rather than in our imaginations. What this initial observation does not take into account however is the quality of the moving picture and to what extent it adheres to the basic plot or message of the book. When looking at classic, canonical texts such as the work of Dickens, the common perception is that ‘just watching the movie’ is an act of blasphemy disregarding the timeless workmanship of such geniuses as Charlie D. In the case of Great Expectations at least, I beg to differ. Great Expectations has been adapted on to the big screen again and again but the film I am referring to at large is Mike Newell’s 2012 adaptation for the BBC starring such big names as Helena Bonham-Carter, Robbie Coltrane, and Ralph Fiennes (all of whom coincidentally take up a large proportion of the Harry Potter cast list).

What I believe is the major factor towards everyone not reading Dickens is the myth that his stories are for the culturally refined and the academic elite. Of course this is not the case at all as Dickens’ works were never originally written with the purpose of becoming the groundworks of twenty-first century academia, rather a common paperback for the literate lower classes. Personally I think that everyone should endeavour to become exposed to the canon and a mediator between the academically acclaimed novel and popular culture, I believe, is the movie. The transparency with which Newell presents Dickens’ classic tale is no exception, breaking the extensively sub-plotted tale into one (relatively simple) plot line which encapsulates the major message of the novel, that one’s social class is not necessarily a synonym for one’s life fulfillment.

Although Helena Bonham-Carter interprets the role of the cantankerous Miss Havisham with a beautifully sad elegance, the maniacal hysteria of the woman who Dickens portrays is lost, subjugating her into more of a sympathetic character rather than the obsessive and abhorrent skeletal figure which I had always imagined. Pip, too, falls prey to a level of criticism as he becomes just another Hollywood hunk rather than the common lad who forms the archetype of multiple Dickens plot lines (and is a fabrication of Dickens himself as a working class child in the Victorian era). Despite his uncharacteristic good looks, Jeremy Irvine plays Pip inventively and accurately, allowing the viewer to understand the true selfishness of his character as he is dragged deeper and deeper into the luxurious confines of the upper classes. As one would expect, both Robbie Coltrane and Ralph Fiennes’ presentation of their characters (Jaggers and Magwitch respectively) is to me, without fault; portraying the traditionally Dickensian multi-layered personas of complex and meaningful characters who aid the purpose of the plot perfectly.

Rather than dragging this evaluation on much further I think that it would be fair to say that although reading the book will always give you a greater grasp of the author’s innermost thoughts and feelings on the text as a whole, sometimes there just is not enough time nor patience to thumb through a hearty paperback when you could get the basic gist of it in a couple of hours. So, if you have any interest whatsoever in the complex, dark hilarity of Dickens’ universally acclaimed portfolio, I would recommend immensely that you begin by watching Mike Newell’s adaptation of Great Expectations as any exposure to great literature is a triumph both to the mind and to the imagination.

Great Expectations Movie Trailer (2012):