Thursday, July 3, 2014

Summer Reading: Great Expectations (1946) – Big Pippin'

Yes, I know. I'm an awful human being. I apologize for nothing.

Well, as I said in introducing this year, the film that started it all for me was David Lean's 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations. Let no one say I went back on that deal.

"Just great...unless we can figure out how to get this door open, we're going to be late for the Lucky Charms auditions!"

This is a curious case of an adaptation since it's one Lean went into without having read the book. While this would ordinarily would bode ominously for an adaptation (for two infamous examples, see David Lynch's version of Dune or Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers-which isn't bad, but REALLY clashes with the source material) it actually works out pretty well here. It helps that Lean initially hadn't intended to take on the project but was sold on it after seeing a staged production featuring a young Alec Guinness (who would go on to make his first major film debut in this.) The resulting film, taking many of its cues from that other adaptation, makes for a pretty enjoyable, albeit brisk, run through the original novel.

I'm going to stress the briskness here. Where Dickens' 400+ page novel paces itself over a lot of smaller events and introspection, this movie clocks it all in at just shy of two hours. Like with last year's choice, the nature of this book means sacrifices will be inevitable, with each new adaptation picking and choosing what to focus on. In this case, the focus is all on Pip (played as a youth by Tony Wager and then as an adult by John Mills.) Which is perfectly understandable, but I do admit to feeling a bit surprised on the rewatch at how sparse some of the other characters are by comparison in this version. I'm not gonna raise Hell over less of someone like, say, Pumblechook (who I can see the purpose behind, but the fact is, he's a character who's meant to be something of a pompous blowhard, so it's hard to say I'd miss him here), but I was a little disappointed to remember just how little we see of Wemmick and his double life. Again, I can understand why, but as one of the more likable side characters in the book, I do feel a little sad seeing him get really only one major moment (though Ivor Barnard does make the most of trying to show both the 'work' and 'home' sides of the character.) Even then, those two still make in to the final cut. By comparison, characters like Startop and Orlick are completely excised. Granted, Startop, admittedly, is pretty easy to drop without much noise, but Orlick takes a few plotlines to the cutting room floor with him.

From The Big Book of Cruel Games:
Telephone With The Elderly - For Those Who Like To Play With an Extra Level of Difficulty

To be honest, I think the only area where I'd say the story trimming is actually of a detriment is with regards to how it relates to Estella (played by Jean Simmons and later Valerie Hobson.) I can understand the reason why the movie cuts out the secrets of her parentage and her drifting from Miss Havisham, but at the same time, that's really a big aspect of her character. Without that, she really feels one dimensional. I could argue that is partially on Dickens, who had issues with his female characters, but the adaptation had the chance to work on that. Admittedly, I could keep going on the things that got cut, but that would just be petty after a while. The point is, this is a pretty slim adaptation overall. While I do miss a lot of the omissions, the movie still holds up what it has left pretty well, paring down of Estella's character aside.

On its own, this is a pretty nice look at a side of Lean that people can forget. On the one hand, the man was responsible for some of the great 'epic' films of cinema – films like Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and The Bridge on the River Kwai are some of the titles that really helped secure his place among the greats. By comparison, his version of Great Expectations is a lighter, more personal, and at a few points, show a playful side of Lean. On the rewatch, I was actually surprised at a number of the littler touches in direction I had forgotten about that really help the movie at points. The opening scenes in Pip's childhood, for example, uses several interesting little tricks to help emphasize young Pip's mindset, with forced perspective to place us on his level, and one particularly standout moment during his act of theft where his nagging conscience takes the form of many unseen voices calling out and accusing him. It's one of those bits of the book that one wouldn't expect a film version to include, given it's an internalized element, but Lean's showing us these scenes at Pip's level allows for greater understanding and characterization. Another great standout- both for direction and time management- comes in the middle of the movie as Pip undergoes his tutelage to become a gentleman. This is a sequence that takes up a large chunk of the book, and admittedly could become tedious on screen. Fortunately, Lean manages to streamline a lot of it into a pretty breezy montage, helped along by performances by Mills and an endearingly energetic Guinness.

"No one gets away from the student loan companies!

Alongside the general direction, another area where this film version really proves itself as an adaptation is in regards to its cinematography and art direction. Wilfred Shingleton and Guy Green (art director and cinematographer, respectively) combine their abilities to help bring many of the locals of Dicken's novel to life. For a movie that turns sixty-eight this year, they still look quite good. Highlights like the opening sequence on the marshes and the numerous scenes in Miss Havisham's run-down estate still do justice to their source material.

Finally, as strengths go-and this is often the case with a Lean film- I'd be doing a big disservice to not discuss the actors. Doubly so for an adaptation given they're the ones bringing these characters to life. In this case, I do have to give many of the cast credit for making the most of the fact that many of their characters are presented in somewhat diminished roles. As the main focus, John Mills carries himself well as Pip, though it's a bit strange realizing he was almost forty while playing Pip's teenage years. Though this works to his advantage in some parts, particularly in the voice-over narratives as an older Pip recounts his life. In these parts, Mills does give him a bit more of an 'older, wiser' sound compared to his younger years, where he has a more hopeful, but somewhat reserved manner. Even during the moments where Pip's emotions do come up, Mills does a good job with conveying it in Pip's restraint. It's an interesting take, but one that also fits the British approach to life. As Estella, Hobson is a choice people have criticized over the years. Personally, I don't think she's that bad (though I must admit, I think Simmons nailed the character a bit better in the younger years) but I do have to admit, she did almost feel like she should have been a bit more emotionally cut off, given the nature of her upbringing. She has a decent chemistry with Mills, but it feels odd for the dynamic Estella and Pip are supposed to have. The supporting cast has a lot to offer, and appropriately, the two biggest standouts here were the two who were also involved in the stage version that sold Lean on this project in the first place: Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket and Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham. Guinness, as I said before, plays Pocket with a sort of energetic and easy going air that is actually a charming touch for him. Compared to many of the roles he's known for in his later years, it really helps speak to the range the man had in life. As the reclusive Havisham, I found Hunt an interesting pick – at first she wasn't entirely what I'd pictured of the character, but she found her own sort of rhythm for the role, playing it with a sort of detached weariness later tinged with regret that I found grew on me. It did make me a little sad we never got to see more of her split from Estella, cause I would have been interested to see how Hunt would approach the material.

"The Force? Never heard of the stuff..."

One last note I have to give this from an adaptation standpoint, partially because it's one that has come up quite a bit as a meta note on the film, is with regards to its changed ending. This source makes the idea of an altered ending a bit surprising already, given it's known Dickens himself changed the book's ending after hearing that people found the original finale to be too dark. Along these lines, Lean actually managed to do Dickens a bit of one better, in a way. Admittedly, it's an ending that nowadays would be criticized (some would argue rightly so) as the somewhat cliched 'feel good' Hollywood ending. Taken in its context, however, this ending makes a pretty strong case for itself. As a movie made in Britain in the early years of the post-war, the country was in a pretty bleak spot. Yes, the war was over and won, but that also came at the cost of a LOT of lives. In a way, Lean's redone ending seems appropriate for the situation: an older Pip returns to Havisham's house to find Estella, alone again, on the path to becoming another Havisham. Rather than see the cycle of misery repeated, he entreats her step out into the sunlight again and live, opening the windows and bringing light back into Satis House for the first time in years. Yeah, nowadays it seems a little contrived, but for the time period the movie was made in, I can honestly say I see the logic in Lean's choice here. It's sending a message of optimism that was really needed at the time. In a case like that, I think literary fidelity would be understanding enough to sit this one out.

In all, Lean's Great Expectations is a pretty solid jumping off point for this year's project. It's not a 1:1 recreation (with this book, it's highly unlikely to get that detailed easily,) but the fact is, for the elements it is working with, it does them well. Not necessarily the alpha and omega of adaptation, but a very good bid to tell the story in a brief window.

Well, this was actually kind of a nice revisit for me.

We've got more projects coming up soon, and the next Summer Reading in about two weeks.

Bear with me and keep an eye out!

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