February 28, 2008

Mini-review: Great Expectations (1999)

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. Click here for the full list.)

Great Expectations (1999 BBC version)
Great Expectations (movie; 1999)
Written by Tony Marchant, from the original novel by Charles Dickens
Directed by Julian Jarrold

Did you know that there's been at least 14 movie and television adaptations made of the 1861 Charles Dickens classic Great Expectations? Neither did I, until actually reading the book for the first time last year, in preparation for writing an essay about it here for the "CCLaP 100" series going on at the site these days. I ended up really falling quite in love with this complex, melancholy story, so thought it'd be interesting to tackle some of the film versions that have been made over the decades; my first, for example, was the three-hour 1999 BBC adaptation starring Ioan Gruffudd of "Horatio Hornblower" and "Fantastic Four" fame, as well as '70s legend Charlotte Rampling in the role of cranky old-maid Miss Havisham.

It was at that point where I learned something that I have a feeling I'll be saying a lot over the coming years, as I tackle more and more of the film versions of Great Expectations that are out there; that as good as they might be (and this '99 version is pretty good), it'd be difficult for any movie or television version to capture the full scope of what makes the original novel so special. It's the ultimate irony about Dickens, in fact, because of it being true in so many cases; that his extra-long serialized stories just sometimes beg for a smart, short film version, but by their very length this is an inherently difficult thing to pull off. In this case, for example, director Julian Jarrold decided to go with a quiet, unrushed, sometimes minimalist feel; his Great Expectations features very little background music, a plethora of sweeping shots along the desolate fringes of Kent, and a way of montaging certain events so as to be able to skip over dozens of pages of text at a time. When combined, then, with the lush period costumes that the BBC is so well-known for, plus smart location shooting that got them the most bang for their limited television-budget buck, it's not a bad adaptation of the novel at all, something that falls on the higher end of the Masterpiece spectrum instead of the lower (like the recent dismal adaptation of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park with Billie Piper; did anyone else catch that stinker?).

But it's just not complete, I guess, not in the overpowering way the novel is; the full literary experience leaves you with the kind of deep and full understanding of these characters that no three-hour television adaptation will ever be able to, no matter how pretty the costumes or sweeping the landscape. That's what makes a good Dickens adaptation such an elusive thing; the fact that so many people continue to try I think says great things about the author himself, and why he is so important when it comes to the history of English-language literature. This BBC version of Great Expectations is an entertaining one to be sure, one you should definitely check out if re-run again on your local PBS station; I'm not sure I'd say, though, that you should go out of your way to see it, to the point for example of renting it out on DVD.

Out of 10: 8.4

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:14 AM, February 28, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |