Friday, August 22, 2014

Summer Reading: Great Expectations (1983) – Australia Gets Its Revenge on Dickens

Oh man...this...this is a special installment here for Summer Reading.

In picking which adaptations of this book I was going to cover this summer, I initially had a hard time making a choice.

One of the big hurdles I encountered was the fact that, well, a lot of these adaptations are pretty long. Several of these were clocking in at three hours and over, Which is great for adaptation's sake, but it makes for a sizable time investment.

One interesting challenge I found in this, both in terms of length and trying something different, was an animated adaptation made for Australian television in 1983. Even more surprising, and somewhat alarming, it was only seventy minutes long. So I decided to bet on the wild card and give it a watch.

In hindsight, that six hour version sounds like it would have been a better bet here.

I've gone through a few drafts trying to nail down the problems with this movie, because there are a LOT of them. Not just as an adaptation, mind you, though that alone is a heaping helping of problems. Beyond that, its just not a well-made movie.

I'll start with the latter just because it's (arguably) the shorter list here. Probably the most damning thing I can say for this as a movie is the fact that, as a film, it's pretty unremarkable on almost every level. I realize that's a pretty broad stroke to make, but it's not really off base. Just about everything on this movie runs between mediocre or outright bad. The music, for example, is really only notable when it's being repetitive, and even that's not exactly high praise for the parts being repeated. The voice casting is largely forgettable – a feeling that's sadly reflected in the fact the casting call doesn't even identify who played what role, simply dumping all the voice actors on you in one list – with the only performance remotely notable being whoever played Pumblechook, simply because it sounded like he was trying for an honest-to-God parody. The animation, meanwhile, has a look and feel that evokes those low budget days of Hanna-Barbera. I was actually even surprised this didn't default to the old 'loop the background' trick at any point. On top of this, the art just seems really limited in terms of conveying emotions. Magwitch occasionally manages a convincingly angry face, but everyone else just seems placid in almost every circumstance. Probably the highest point of this being in the film's opening scenes – despite being dwarfed by an angry convict who is threatening him with murder and cannibalism, the expression on Pip's face suggests less mortal terror, and more the sense that he came out to his parents' grave to light a joint in peace.

"Yeah, my heart and liver, I get ya man..."

On top of all of this, the movie's brisk running time means a lot of it just rolls off the audience without leaving any sort of impact. Characters make leaps in their development without any sort of path to why they reached that point. I mean, I know Dickens was himself prone to the unexpected shifts for the sake of dramatic twists, but even he would look at this and have a hard time buying some of the shifts this version makes. In the end, the movie doesn't really have anything commendable to it to make the seventy minutes worthwhile- And that's just as a movie.

As an adaptation – hoo boy.

"This wasn't part of the plan!

As I said above, this movie gave me a whole new respect for the lengthy adaptations of this novel. Mainly because as I looked at this as an adaptation, the more it helped drive home the themes and ideas of Great Expectations, as well as what sit wrong with this version for me: this is an adaptation that's focused solely on the narrative of Pip's rise and fall in fortunes.

This is a big piece of the novel, don't get me wrong. The problem is, it's only one piece of the larger whole. Taken on its own, it's a pretty sparse little narrative and really not that impressive to tell just as is. This is a story that's a textbook case of the phrase 'it's the journey, not the destination.' Yes, Pip's circumstances set things in motion, but it's the people he meets and interacts with that really help him grow and mature – whether it's his increasingly complicated feelings for Estella, his dealings with Jaggers, or his friendship with Herbert Pocket, Joe, and Wemmick, Pip's story is built not so much by his fortunes as those he encounters because of them. Which is really one of the big points of the story – as much as Magwitch believes the money and social climbing will "make" Pip, he's actually made more by the people he meets than the money he gets. So having this story focus on the arc of his fortune feels like a huge miss in this capacity.

Said miss is even more egregious when it's done at the expense of the many characters. The first section, admittedly, isn't too bad here-Rushed, but not too bad. The problems arise when we first meet Miss Havisham. She is really only a rendition of Havisham in the very loosest sense. Thanks to the sparse art style, she doesn't really give the impression of a shut-in recluse as much as she does just an older woman in an off-white dress. Besides that, she lacks the bitterness and later remorse that made Havisham so memorable. Likewise-and one that actually really frustrated me- this version of Jaggers lacks the character's signature hyper-legal mindset. When Pip finally comes to him after learning who his benefactor is, having Jaggers talk about it plainly instead of circumventing things by discussing the matter with Pip in vague legalese felt like the character was Jaggers in name only. Herbert makes a game attempt at capturing his incredibly friendly and easy going personality, but given how little he gets to accomplish in the greater story, it ultimately goes nowhere. It's particularly frustrating – for a book whose biggest strength is its cast of characters, this adaptation really falls hardest in that territory.

Besides missing the character element, this version has a few rather perplexing changes to the events that I'm still trying to work out the logic on. One of the first of these we get very early on, when the film decides to have Pip express interest in being a gentleman before he's even been sent to Havisham. This is the adaptation equivalent of putting the cart before the horse: Pip's drive to be a gentleman is ultimately born of his love for Estella and the realization of himself as common that he'd never been aware of before. Having him desire this before he's ever really realized his standing feels like a fumble in the editing room that could have been quickly fixed. The other notably annoying events here – this movie seems to love having characters fall to their deaths. I can accept the interest in a shortened version of the death of Mrs. Joe, given it's a story the book plays out a while, but having Pip and Joe come in to find her dead, concluding she fell down the stairs – but still had time to pen a quick letter begging their pardon – is just a really clumsy move. For them to then choose to have Havisham fall out a window when her dress catches on fire, rather than burn as she initially does, feels like an odd way to get around having to animate a burn victim. Of course, the fact the scene unintentionally implies Pip just leaves her corpse in Satis House opens up to a whole other disturbing element.

"It says 'Not Me.' That invisible bastard's killed again!"

I can't rightly call this the worst movie I've ever seen – cause I have stared into the eye of some awful, AWFUL films compared to this. But this is honestly the weakest offering I've encountered so far for Summer Reading. It makes a bare minimum effort to try, but ultimately remains a lackluster production that, by virtue of either lack of time or budget, only seems to go through the very basic motions of the book while not really seeing why they happen. I find myself comparing this to last year's review of the animated version of The Hobbit – except where that also suffered from lack of time and budget limits, it still made up for it with a distinct style and an effort to at least stay spiritually true to the story – by comparison, this is a rather bland affair that tells the story in much the same fashion as a kid writing a book report before a class.

Kind of a shame.
While I didn't have exceedingly high hope for this, I was at least hoping this would be interesting in the attempt.

Can't win 'em all, I guess.

Two weeks to the final entry for Summer Reading, and more work to come in the next few days.

Till then.

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