When I call film adaptations successful, what I usually mean is, they capture the tone, mood, and spirit of what I experience reading. So what does that mean, exactly?
Reading a great book makes me think and create. It invites me to make connections and, from those connections, to make meaning. It allows for ambiguity without confusion. How can film adaptations retain the purposeful ambiguity of great books, the kind that leaves space to interpret?
I suppose if I knew the answer to that, I’d be making great films from great books instead of writing about them. However, I did see one film recently that felt like a great adaptation: Mike Newell’s 2012 Great Expectations.
I wasn’t planning to watch the film. Great Expectations is a book I love so profoundly that I didn’t want anyone else’s creative vision playing Frankenstein against my experience. But I recently watched a video about Newell’s adaptation by Lauren of Reads and Daydreams. She does a series called Page to Screen for which she reviews a range of film adaptations of classic books. Her favorable analysis piqued my interest.
I ended up loving it. Here are the three main reasons why:
The cast list reads like a who’s who, and watching the actors bring these characters to life shows why they’re top of the game. Robbie Coltrane’s cute face and soulful eyes played perfect counterpoint to the smarminess of his Mr. Jaggers. Ralph Fiennes brought pathos galore to Magwitch. Sally Hawkins captured the vexing Mrs. Joe without overplaying her shrillness. As the iconic Miss Havisham, Helena Bonham-Carter hit just the right note of deranged without devolving into caricature.
I could go on and on because almost every character, from the bit to the starring, captured what I experienced reading the book.
It wasn’t so much that they matched what my imagination had conjured. It was more that, upon seeing them, I thought, “Hey, I know you!” I felt this with Biddy and Estella and especially with Wemmick and his Aged P (who was exactly as I pictured him). In fact, when I first saw Wemmick on screen, I didn’t like him, which is how I felt reading the book. With both the novel and the film, my sense of him warmed through his interactions with Aged P. Watching him in the film felt like a true deja vu experience. And that hardly ever happens when I watch film adaptations.
The two characters I wasn’t as sure of were the adult Pip and Joe. Full disclosure: Joe is one of my favorite literary characters, which can make for a tough sell. Still, I felt the film Joe wasn’t as sympathetic as Dickens wrote him. In the film, Joe felt more exposed, as if we were meant to see him as embarrassing. Whereas in the book, Pip’s embarrassment felt unjust.
As for Pip, the heart of the story, I didn’t have that startling experience of recognition from the first moment he appeared on screen. This had more to do with a physical disconnect than with how Jeremy Irvine played him. Irvine just seemed a bit too handsome and physically distinct from young Pip. Which is strange seeing as young Pip was played by Irvine’s brother! At any rate, he won me over with his expressive portrayal.
Great Expectations isn’t one of Dickens’ monster tomes. Still, the plot would inevitably need trimming to fit standard film length. This is where I usually hold my breath. Will the plot extractions be glaring? Will they disrupt the tone of the original? Will the story become the screenwriter’s for the telling? They weren’t and didn’t and not really. The skeleton plot remains mostly intact, so you can take away a solid grounding of the story basics from watching this film. Pip’s missteps in London are shaved a bit close to the bone, and Orlick and his storyline are edited out completely. But these don’t excessively disrupt the key narrative progression and dramatic reveals.
One thing I did miss is seeing one of my favorite scenes in literature: The Christmas dinner when Joe responds to Pip being verbally harassed by giving him more and more and more servings of gravy. To be fair, it’s quite a minor scene. On the other hand, it’s such a lovely way we see Joe’s kindness and deep affection for Pip.
This is where I felt most strongly what Lauren meant when she said the film “felt like” Great Expectations. I have to say, an early scene in the book and the film – which features Joe carrying Pip on his back as they help soldiers search for missing convicts – was exactly as I’d pictured it in my mind’s eye.
Dickens’ level of detail can be overwhelming for readers. Can you imagine trying to pull out and recreate just the right ones to capture the novel’s mood? This was done so well in the film. It is visually consuming. The prison ships, the landscape, Miss Havisham’s dilapidated estate, the juxtapositions of posh London with its gritty back alleys, the degeneracy of the upperclass men’s pursuits, Estella’s cold beauty, Magwitch’s attempted flight – all were handled with impressive finesse. The filmmakers have created such a strong sense of place and character that echoes the novel.
Coupled with the effectiveness of the acting and the savvy plot reconstruction, watching this film did feel like being inside the book. If you haven’t seen it, here is the trailer:
Have you seen it? What are your thoughts on what makes for a successful film adaptation?