Classics From Criterion: GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946)

Charles Dickens is an another author who I am sorry to say I have not read which is a situation that I hope to remedy soon.  That having been said, I have recently been on a reading binge which has brought me back to my bookworm roots.  So when I was trying to decide on a movie to watch the other day it seemed only right that I choose something with a literary basis.  Which led me to my copy of David Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS.


The story is that of a boy named Pip (Anthony Wagner).  He is a poor boy and an orphan, who now lives with his sister and her husband.  One stormy evening he makes his way to the churchyard to leave flowers on the grave of his parents.  While there he is startled by a gruff man with shackles on his arms and legs.  The man, named Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie), is an escaped convict and steals what items Pip has in his pockets and then demands that the frightened boy bring him food and a file for his chains.  Pip returns to his sisters home where he is greeted by her husband, Joe (Bernard Miles).  Joe is a blacksmith and is kind to Pip while his wife, Pip’s sister, is decidedly not.  After a less than pleasant dinner, Pip sneaks into the kitchen after everyone else is asleep and steals a meat pie and a file from Joe’s workshop.  He then hurries off to find Abel but runs into another escaped convict, this one with a scar across his cheek.  When Pip finally finds Abel he tells him about the another man with the scar.  Abel becomes agitated and thanks Pip for helping him before running off into the night.


Sometime later soldiers come to the door looking for Joe.  They need help repairing a pair of shackles that they need in order to recapture some escaped convicts.  Joe repairs the shackles and then takes Pip along while they watch the soldiers hunt for the escaped men.  It isn’t too long before they hear sounds of a struggle and come upon Abel wrestling the man with the scar.  Abel declares his hatred for the other man and is once again arrested.  As the two men are lead back to the prison boat, Abel confesses to Joe that he stole a meat pie from his house but never mentions Pip playing any part.


Some time passes and Pip is summoned to the great house of the eccentric spinster, Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) to act as a companion to the teenaged girl who lives there named Estella (Jean Simmons).  Estella is cold and cruel, though beautiful, and she mocks Pip’s manners and coarse behavior at every opportunity.  Though he finds her behavior hurtful Pip still falls in love with her.  During his visits to the house he also meets a skinny young boy who challenges Pip to a fist fighting match.  Pip easily beats the boy who surprisingly stands up and politely thanks Pip before the latter takes his leave.  When Pip turns fourteen his visits come to an end as he must begin his apprenticeship as a blacksmith.  Estella also leaves at this time, heading to France in order to learn how to be a lady.


Six years later Pip (John Mills) and Joe are visited by Miss Havisham’s lawyer, Mr. Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan).  Mr. Jaggers tells Pip that he is the recipient of a mysterious benefactor who hopes to help turn him into a gentleman with “great expectations”.  Pip leaves Joe, who has been made a widower in recent years, along with the new housekeeper Biddy and travels to London where he is set up in an apartment by Mr. Jaggers.  At the apartment he meets his roommate, one Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness) who in fact turns out to be the skinny boy Pip met all those years before in Miss Havisham’s garden.  Herbert is charged with teaching Pip how to become a gentleman.  Herbert and Pip run up debts in their quest to make Pip a true London gentleman.  Herbert also tells Pip the truth of Miss Havisham and her intentions when it comes to Estella (Valerie Hobson), whom Pip still loves.


This version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS is not based so much on the book as it is the 1939 stage adaptation which happened to feature Martita Hunt and Alec Guinness in the roles they would also play in the film.  David Lean had never read the Dicken’s classic and was cajoled into seeing the play by his wife.  The ending of the film was somewhat changed from that of the book thanks to an idea once again from David Lean’s wife which lead to her receiving a screenplay credit.

While GREAT EXPECTATIONS is a slimmed down version of the classic work it in no way feels rushed or choppy.  The whole story moves along with such compelling and intriguing action that you can’t help but get swept along.  Considered one of the best, if not the best, film version of a Dickens’ story I have to say that this film was absolutely wonderful.  There is a darkly twisted sense of humor that Dickens’ seems to have in many of his stories and that is evident here.  From the death masks on the wall of the lawyer’s office to the elderly man who only wants a nod from you now and again to keep him happy, evidence of the Dickensian sensibility is everywhere.  It feels as if David Lean has a great respect for the source material and made an effort to honor that.


For such a complex and rich story the film version does a remarkably good job of pacing and plotting.  The story never feels bogged down in details and the characters never become muddled.  Yes there are certain elements from the book that are glossed over or removed and I am sure that if/when I read Great Expectations for myself I will find many things that the film never mentioned.  But GREAT EXPECTATIONS the film is smart, funny, exciting, suspenseful, and tremendous.  It is exceptionally well done and it is a film that I had never seen before but one that has now found its way on to my favorites list.  Moreover, GREAT EXPECTATIONS the film did the one thing that I believe all films based on books should do.  It made me excited to read the book!

If you have read Great Expectations or if you have seen this film or both let me know in the comments what you thought and how it compared to the book!