I mean…it was okay?
I admit that save for A Christmas Carol, and a handful of well-composed single lines in other works, I really never got all that into Charles Dickens to begin with. I respect his technical expertise absolutely, and his popularity. But personally, I felt that he was a little too much of his time for me to get into his work. His plots seemed a little unnecessarily complex, there are some twist coincidences that strained my belief, and the language seemed just a tiny bit too melodramatic for me to dig it. Again, this is all exactly what the audiences of his time were looking for, and he had an unusually keen eye for human behavior that helped him create some of the most notable characters in the Western Canon. But for me, Dickens’ books were things I only read when assigned them by a teacher, and they have never really escaped that academic bucket with me.
Film adaptations of Dickens’ books sit a bit better with me; a lot of the heightened language is absent, largely because – well, it’s a film and not a book. Adaptations often also prune back the plot complications a little, in the interest of time. Like here – there are some plot points from Great Expectations the book that didn’t make it into filming, so we are left only with the story of the orphan Pip, and how two encounters during his childhood – the first with an escaped convict, and the second with the fantastically eccentric recluse Miss Havisham – have an enduring impact on the course of his life well into his adulthood.
You also get to see some of the more over-the-top elements from Dickens’ books. Roger Ebert had a good point in his review of this film; almost all of the central characters from Dickens’ books were a little on the dull side, so it’s the secondary characters we notice, like Miss Havisham (Marita Hunt), the former bride who brought her entire life to a screeching halt after she was left at the altar decades before. It’s arresting enough to read about Miss Havisham’s dusty drawing room and banquet hall still set with her wedding feast – complete with a moldy cake still sitting at one end – it’s another to see it.
A film also lets you keep in some of the super-goofy moments for comic relief, like when Pip visits someone for an urgent meeting and finds he’s looking after his elderly father for the day; the “aged parent” is profoundly hard of hearing, so Pip’s companion says to just periodically look over at him and nod and smile so he doesn’t feel left out. The next few minutes’ action concern Pip in a deep conversation with his companion, punctuated by both periodically turning to look at the “aged parent” with cheesy grins and big nods. It’s terrifically silly.
But overall, even though director David Lean does coax some good performances out of his leads (Anthony Wager as the boy Pip and John Mills as the adult), I think my own Dickens disinterest just kept me from warming to this.