FX, in association with the BBC, has made a sad, gloomy and not very Dickensian mini-series based on Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”. And while that seems to be the point to some extent, it is, nonetheless, sad and dreary and doesn’t count as much as an adaptation as a remake.
Steven Knight, who created the dark period crime drama “Peaky Blinders,” has taken the novel to the studs and erected something quite different in its place. The outlines are vaguely recognizable, but the rooms are all different: the windows have been turned into doors and the doors into windows, and the walls have been painted black, the better for not seeing anything.
Premiering Sunday on FX on Hulu, this version opens with its main character, Pip (Fionn Whitehead), about to hang himself, nothing you’ll find in the book, announcing in no uncertain terms that This Is Not Your Great-Great-Great-Las Great-grandfather’s “high hopes,” or really anyone’s, because they’re not really “high hopes.”
Sometimes you’ll hear things like, “If Beethoven were alive today, he’d be writing movie scores,” or “Da Vinci would be all about AI.” But it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that if Dickens were around now, television would just be the meat of him. His novels, featuring a large cast of colorful main and minor characters in A, B and C stories and in the alphabet, were serialized; he knew how to handle suspenseful situations, loved big revelations and wrote dialogue that fits well in an actor’s mouth. There are reasons why, apart from Shakespeare, no English-language writer has seen his works translated to the screen so often, and often so memorably. Obviously, there are reasons for making these “Great Expectations”, but they have more to do with the TV business than with Dickens.
Subjects start more or less as they do on the page. Living with her semi-abusive older sister Sara (Hayley Squires) and her sweet blacksmith husband Joe (Owen McDonnell) in a village on the Kent coastal marshes, Pip meets Magwitch (Johnny Harris), a escaped convict. him, in the courtyard of the church and is scared to go look for food and a file. After a fight with his nemesis and fellow convict Compeyson (Trystan Gravelle), Magwitch is recaptured and transported to Australia.
Through the offices of Mr. Pumblechook (Matt Berry), Pip is enlisted to become the playmate of Estella (Shalom Brune-Franklin), the adopted daughter of local crazy wealthy Miss Havisham (Olivia Colman). Miss Havisham has not left her house, nor has she taken off her wedding dress, since she was abandoned at the altar many years before, and she is raising Estella to be a ruthless destroyer of men. . Estella plays with Pip and treats him rudely, which only makes him love her even more and regret her low status. As fate would have it, Miss Havisham’s solicitor Jaggers (Ashley Thomas) arrives to say that Pip has become the beneficiary of an anonymous windfall, and he leaves for London to become “a gentleman”. : the fool.
After that, it’s anyone’s guess. The characters are redone beyond recognition. Parts of the book (the references to Cairo, the marine insurance business) take on a new weight and a different context. Knight has taken the gothic elements of the novel and smeared them over whatever was light, comic, or ironic in the original. Instead we have guns and knives, drugs and perversions, public urination and… authentically: horse poop.
Not trusting that a person who loses their moral compass in the pursuit of status will be enough drama, or perhaps simply feeling that it has already been done, Knight has chosen to involve Pip in crime and corruption under the influence of Jaggers, a minor character in the book who becomes important here. (“I’m known to be evil,” he says.) There are nods to systemic exploitation: Miss Havisham’s inherited fortune comes from “opium, indigo and slaves”, and some random expressions of feminism and activism. (Pip’s childhood friend Biddy, played by Laurie Ogden, will declare near the end, “I’m a Chartist now,” referring to the working-class protest movement. But paradoxically, she’s been given little to do within the Serie. .)
Nobody doubts that Olivia Colman is a great actress; I hope to see her nominated for the occasional award for her Miss Havisham. I love Matt Berry, who, like any living actor, was born to play Dickens characters. Thomas has great vocal authority; It would be nice to hear him read Shakespeare. Still, he wouldn’t pass judgment on any actor for his work here. Most are unable to get past the stylistic miasma of the production (Whitehead sounds stoned even when Pip isn’t stoned) or the entirely new words they’ve been asked to say. (“That’s why I’ve decided not to blow your brains out right here in this alley,” definitely not Dickens.) Even Jaggers’ title generation announcement about Pip’s “great expectations” has been scrapped in favor of “I’ll teach you first to be a rat, then a snake, then a vulture, then with the blood dripping from your beak I’ll teach you to be a gentleman.” OK.
If we decouple the series from its source, what then? Many viewers will not have read the book or seen previous adaptations. On its own merits, it remains a grim and violent work, insisting on the haunting in most of the scenes, including the ones that don’t deserve the treatment. It’s loaded with spooky sound effects, a jarring, moody score, and post-production coloring to erase any trace of natural light. The series gets sillier as it gets more serious, and builds to a strangely light-hearted conclusion, given the dour hours before it, which shares only one fire with its literary antecedent. None of the character development feels earned. The narrative threads are clumsily designed; his tether feels comfortable.
In the sense that the filmmakers seem to have accomplished exactly what they set out to do, I suppose you could call this “Great Expectations” a success. For “Peaky Blinders” fans, this may be just the Dickens they’ve been waiting for. And they are welcome to it.