There is a palpable darkness to Steven Knight’s adaptation of “High expectations.” It’s figurative, embedded in the characters and story, but also literal, with dirt and rot covering everything.
This retelling of Charles Dickens’ coming-of-age novel is not the romantic version viewers have seen before.
“At the time, London was pretty horrible, it was pretty dark,” says Knight, who wrote the limited series and was one of the executive producers. “Great Expectations” was published in 1861 after being serialized in a weekly newspaper. Knight explained that, at the time, fiction writers like Dickens were not allowed to write about drug use or sex outside of marriage.
“It’s not that those problems didn’t exist, it’s not that people weren’t taking drugs or whatever else was going on,” he says. “I tried to think, if Dickens had the freedom, as he would now, to write about those things, what dark alleys would he have gone into?”
The series, which premieres on Sunday on FX on Huluwas the ideal follow-up for “A Christmas Carol,” which Knight adapted in 2019, because it’s a “monolith,” he says. The story, about a young man named Pip (Fionn Whitehead) trying to rise through the class ranks in England, offered an opportunity to revisit iconic characters. There was also a personal connection.
“Pip is the son of a blacksmith; I am the son of a blacksmith and farrier,” says Knight. And Pip doesn’t want to. This book is about someone who decides to do something else, so it had a bit of a resonance for me.”
To adapt “Great Expectations,” Knight read the novel several times, but chose not to read it page by page. She did not outline or plan. Instead, she just started writing.
“The way I would describe it is I read a book and then I have a dream about it,” Knight says. “You read the book and then all these things are there. And these themes and these characters are there. And then you have this journey of your own where you chart your course through all of those things that you’ve absorbed.”
Although the episodes are generally faithful to the original text in plot and tone, they feature very few lines of dialogue from the novel, which Knight did on purpose.
“Dickens’s dialogue is second to none,” he says. “Then you could do that again, and I don’t see why you would, or you can take the spirit of the thing and the journey of the thing and do it your way. It’s an adaptation, but it’s not a replica.”
Whitehead, who spent six months filming the series last year, says he felt it made the characters and story more relatable, which may resonate with younger audiences.
“Sometimes people can have a hard time relating to period dramas because it feels so disconnected from the way we live now, and it’s hard to empathize with the characters,” he says. “It was a relief for me to be able to make (Pip) feel closer to home and not feel too forced by the language.”
Along with Whitehead, the cast includes Shalom Brune-Franklin as Estella, Johnny Harris as Magwitch, and Owen McDonnell as Joe Gargery. But also standing out is Olivia Colman, who joined the series as the reclusive and vengeful Miss Havisham, a character previously played by Helena Bonham Carter, Gillian Anderson and Anne Bancroft in other adaptations. Due to her schedule, Colman filmed all of her scenes in just a few weeks.
“I was pretty late because I kept saying, ‘I don’t think I should do it. I don’t think I should do it,’” says Colman, who was nervous about the part, particularly after seeing her friends Anderson and Bonham Carter do it. “(She) is a character that a lot of people can envision and a lot of people think they know. After a certain amount of time, you just have to say, ‘Well, this is my chance to do it and I want to do it.
Miss Havisham, a wealthy spinster who is raising Estella while she plots to meddle in Pip’s life, wears a wedding dress she hasn’t taken off since she was left at the altar years before. Instead of the dress being dusty and cobwebbed as in previous iterations, the show’s costume designer envisioned a look in which Colman’s Miss Havisham appears to be rotting from the inside out.
“The costume, you can’t see it close enough, it’s covered in opium ash, and from below, it’s turning green and rotting,” says Colman. “For me, that was a great way to get in. His anguish was rotting her heart and mind.”
Visually, the series is shrouded in darkness. Many of the scenes take place at night, and Whitehead remembers being covered in dirt for much of production. Sex and drug use are shamelessly featured, and London is chaotic and noisy.
“My mother once said, ‘The younger generation thinks they invented sex,’” Colman says with a laugh. “And of course, it’s been going on forever.”
Retelling a classic novel can sometimes mean imbuing it with modern themes. But Knight thinks the work is more timeless. He says the novel endures because it continues to connect with its readers, regardless of the era.
“I don’t think that to adapt it you have to start inserting contemporary concerns,” he says. They are already there.
Colman found the story “shocking” in its relevance to the deeply entrenched British class system that persists today. American audiences may not have first-hand experience with the restrictive class system, which can affect someone’s life trajectory through education and career opportunities, in the same way as British viewers. But Colman and Whitehead feel it’s important to show how you can stop people, regardless of who’s watching.
“Dickens found it unpleasant,” says Colman. “His heroes of him come from the lowest class. Unfortunately, depending on where you’re born, class still dictates much of what happens to you as you get older. And it’s disgusting. And it’s still there.
“Dickens was one of the first writers to really talk about working-class characters in a non-condescending way and to give them agency as whole, well-rounded characters,” Whitehead added. “That was a very important thing to do, and to keep doing it.”
Knight remains busy with many other projects, including an upcoming Netflix adaptation of Anthony Doerr’s World War II novel, “All the Light We Cannot See.” He too recently opened Digbeth Loc. Studios in Birmingham, England, where his upcoming BBC series “This Town” and the highly anticipated film “Peaky Blinders” will be filmed. But Dickens remains at the forefront of his mind. Next, he is considering taking on “A Tale of Two Cities.”
“(I love) the way he writes and the way he writes dialogue and the fact that what he’s done has given you a team for broadcast TV,” Knight says of his fascination with the author. “He wrote in episodes. He is very contemporary, in that sense. There are many possibilities.”
Where: Special Effects on Hulu
When: Anytime from Sunday
Classification: Not qualified