I’m pretty sure that around halfway through the new BBC adaptation of Great Expectations a television executive turned to another television executive (they share a double bed, like Morecambe and Wise) and said, “I think it’s time to remake Great Expectations.”
People who want to adapt Great Expectations have always been with us, and the gaps between production schedules are shrinking. It’s only 12 years since the BBC’s last adaptation, in which Gillian Anderson trod a soundstage as Miss Havisham, and it stands to reason that the next one will probably start airing before this one finishes. And why not? Great Expectations is one of three books left in Britain (also: How to Grow Food and The Stud, by Jackie Collins), and when I am head of drama at the BBC I will put the whole budget into adaptations of Great Expectations. It will be Great Expectationses all the way down. At least one of them will end with Pip turning to the camera, shrugging and saying, “I had such Great Expectations!” and then a descending trumpet will go “wah wah!” and I will be fired but happy.
Television adaptations of Great Expectations were once a scarce resource. It’s shocking to think of it now, but there were no television adaptations of Great Expectations at all for the whole of the 19th century. Of course, most of my information about the 19th century comes from other versions of Great Expectations, and I acknowledge it would be weird if the cast of Great Expectations were watching a television adaptation of Great Expectations. That’s another thing that would happen in my version.
The showrunner of the new adaptation, which began on BBC One on Sunday, is Steven Knight, who also made Peaky Blinders, and the word on the street (Twitter) is that he’s dragging Dickens into the 21st century with dark and gritty material. Maybe Magwitch will have a leather jacket. Maybe Pip will have an eyepatch. Maybe he’ll have two eyepatches. Maybe there’ll be a car chase. Maybe Miss Havisham will go clubbing. And who among us hasn’t read Dickens and thought, “You know, this guy should try dealing with some real-world problems for a change – child labour, poverty, inequality, opium addiction, prostitution, child abuse, violence, spontaneous human combustion, the feckless rich, the grasping middle class, the wretched poor ... Why don’t you write about those things, Charles Dickens, you snowflake?”
And so Knight shakes things up by opening with Philip – the adult version of our hero, Pip – leaping from a bridge with a rope around his neck. I write “gritty” in my notebook and nod approvingly. This doesn’t happen in the book, but I think we all agree that the original opening of Dickens’s novel is a notorious snoozefest. A child being terrified by an escaped convict in a foggy graveyard? Yawn. That’s so last week’s adaptation. If you’re commissioned to create just one of an endless series of adaptations of Great Expectations you have to differentiate yourself. (I write “Pip vs Dracula?” in the notebook I keep about Great Expectations adaptations.)
Pip in this version has notions of grandeur well before he has any interactions with Miss Havisham, his benefactor. At the smith’s forge where he works with his brother-in-law Joe he quotes Shakespeare (the ghost of Dickens: “Dude, I am right here”) and uses big words to annoy his sister, Sara, aka Mrs Joe. (People followed the Potatohead/Pacman spousal-naming system in the 19th century.)
Knight softens some of this story. Though it’s established that Pip is habitually beaten by his sister with a Switch (this anachronistic Nintendo reference is, surprisingly, in Dickens’s original), we also see a very un-Dickensian scene of her feeling sad about being violent. This seems a bit sentimentally 21st century to me. Yes, I also feel sad after beating people with a Switch, but I suspect people were okay with it in the 19th century.
We first meet the convict Magwitch on a nearby prison ship, where he is yelling something incoherent about his enemy and is soon bashing his head against the door of his cell. Is “door” his enemy? It is not. His enemy is Compeyson, the man in the next cell, who is starting a fire in order to escape. Magwitch does not have the secret of fire. So he bashes through the door, bludgeons some guards and runs away, drooling, into the marsh. (Johnny Harris as Magwitch is great – brutish, hotheaded and touchingly vulnerable.)
He finds Pip speechifying to his parents’ graves and sets about terrifying him. This is fair enough. Pip is a bit of a dose. Magwitch orders him to procure food and a file with which he will free himself from his leg irons. Pip does all of this. Then back chez Mrs Joe, a bumptious businessman played by the delightful human ham Matt Berry announces that renowned local nut Miss Havisham wishes to procure Pip for vague reasons. It’s the 19th century, so Mrs Joe asks, essentially, “How much?” I think modern viewers will respect the hustle.
We cut to a scene in which Magwitch and Compeyson struggle violently together in the mud (“Such is the lot of man,” I write in my notebook) before being rearrested. Then Matt Berry takes Pip to meet Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham’s general resonance has changed a bit through the years. In the olden days she was seen as a grotesque and monstrous figure. Nowadays, a mortgage-free woman in a rotting wedding dress who owns a cake covered with rats would be seen as an absolute legend #girlboss #takingcareofbusiness. This is doubly the case with the excellent Olivia Colman in the lead role. If armies of young girls aren’t wearing soiled wedding dresses, baking rat cakes and trying to destroy the men in their lives by the end of the week I’ll despair for their generation.
So far I quite like Knight’s version of Great Expectations. All the beats of the original are here. It’s a bit like a Burt Bacharach song covered by a good metal band. Far from unnecessarily modernising Dickens, a lot of the time Knight actually seems to hark back to something older and more theatrical, where actors gurn and soliloquise about their intentions and, where possible, make the subtext text. It’s helped by the facts that it has an amazing cast and that the plot is, well, Dickensian. But don’t worry if it’s not for you: another adaptation of Great Expectations will be along any minute.
Yellowjackets (Paramount+) has returned for its second season. We’re two episodes in and it’s still deliciously entertaining. Split between two timelines, it’s the tale of a girls’ soccer team whose plane crashes in the wilderness in a very well-realised 1990s, but also the middle-aged survivors, in the present day, grappling with the terrible things they did to survive. What things? It looks as if they indulged in a little light cannibalism and, possibly, ritual murder. The amazing Melanie Lynskey and Christina Ricci in particular, as two of the weird and steely adult survivors, are compelling enough to convince me that these things also happened during production. Personally, I feel the survivors showed remarkable restraint in not resorting to cannibalism until some months after the crash. I suspect I’d have done so as the plane was descending.