We Expected More From Olivia Colman’s ‘Great Expectations’
No one who’s read Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations could forget the first time that Pip, the young orphan and blacksmith’s apprentice, meets the wealthy town recluse Miss Havisham. She’s invited Pip to her mansion uptown to play with her adopted daughter, Estella, and he’s forced to attend by his domineering sister. He observes one particular detail: Miss Havisham “was dressed in rich materials—satins, lace, and silks—all of white. Her shoes were white. She had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white.” Later in the book, Pip learns from a relative of Miss Havisham’s why she clings so fiercely to this traditional wedding color: She was left at the altar by a fortune hunter. Her trauma has trapped her in the past, one of Dickens’s central themes.
The classic 1861 novel, which explores Pip’s sudden elevation thanks to a mysterious benefactor, has inspired endless adaptations of varying faithfulness. In FX’s new limited series, helmed by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight and premiering Sunday, Dickens’s dialogue is less recited than interpreted. Knight suffuses the palette of his series with Miss Havisham’s haunting whiteness. He holds his camera on the mist of England’s marsh country, which Pip traverses to lay flowers on his parents’ grave, and the moth-eaten wedding dress Miss Havisham still wears. He explores the color’s decay too: Havisham’s grisly teeth rotting from her opium addiction, the cobwebs adorning a wedding cake.
It’s a lot of reverential window-dressing, an abundance of grim atmosphere in search of deeper meaning. The actual storytelling, meanwhile, is a far cry from what Dickens accomplishes.
The novel’s characters are dynamic, ranging from cruel and neurotic to boisterous and lovable. They take action. They crack jokes. But Knight’s versions are acted-upon, spectral figures who drag around their melancholy. Gone is the mannered Estella insulting Pip by quipping, “He calls the knaves Jacks, this boy,” or the escaped convict Magwitch grabbing Pip by his heels and yelling, “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat.” They instead address themselves, soliloquizing about their circumscribed social roles. Estella broods: “I am like a lighthouse, alone, and a warning to others to stay away.” Magwitch aboard a galley ship, cries, “I am a volcano, burning with injustice!”
Of course, adaptations of classic books do not need to adhere so closely to their sources to be successful; interpretation breeds creativity. Greta Gerwig’s recent Little Women treated Louisa May Alcott’s work with airy reverence too, going through the author’s archives and using lines that weren’t in the book to give it a more contemporary feel. But the changes were spare and subtle enough that they thematically enhanced Alcott’s work. Plus, Gerwig weaved the iconic lines of Little Women, like “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” into her vision with a soaring musicality.
Knight’s departures from Dickens are hardly so elegant. As with his poorly received take on A Christmas Carol, by straying so far from the original dialogue, his changes veer toward the unintelligible. “That’s the thing: the expectations,” Estella says to Pip, after he asks why they’re working so hard to turn him into a gentleman—one of many instances of the show attempting to explain a title that really, truly does not need explaining.
One of Great Expectations’ most vivid characters is Pip’s older sister, Mrs. Gargery. She’s reactive, fiery, and beats poor Pip with a stick that she calls Tickler whenever he spends too much time at their parents’ grave: “Churchyard! If it warn’t for me you’d have been to the churchyard long ago, and stayed there,” she scolds in the novel. However much of an abusive caricature she appears on the surface, she’s also a foil for Pip. She, too, has buried her parents and five siblings; she has had to assume the responsibility of raising her infant brother. When Miss Havisham first brings Pip to her mansion, she dreams that his fortunes might be made by going there. Her obsession with status ends up becoming Pip’s.
But Knight doesn’t trust in our ability to see beyond the caricature. In the series, when Pip returns home one day with a holly wreath for Christmas, Mrs. Gargery, Scrooge-like, tosses the holly into the fire. Then she makes a sauce to go with the night’s Christmas duck, a throwaway detail meant to evoke sympathy that’s ultimately flattening. “You made it on account of all your harsh words,” her husband, Joe, says. “You speak your goodness through your savory sauces.” Now there’s a metaphor for you.
The meat of this Great Expectations concerns Pip’s journey with his guardian Jaggers, an imposing and rule-bending lawyer, after graduating from Miss Havisham’s “school” and moving into the grisly world of London society. They throw bodies overboard on ships; Pip debates whether he should sleep with sex workers. He’s in love with Estella and strains to convince her to escape her impending arranged marriage. Eventually, addiction takes over; Knight indulges in a hazy, five-minute montage of Pip high on opium. (No, this does not happen in the book.)
Knight’s Pip is hard to root for. Great Expectations is difficult to realize onscreen because Pip’s first-person narration cushions our reactions to much of his increasingly snobbish behavior. On the page, it’s clear how little pleasure he derives from acting selfishly toward his brother-in-law, Joe, or his childhood best friend, Biddy. Knight bases his script off of certain exchanges between characters that happen in the book, but without Dickens’s set-up, much of it seems silly. When Pip receives Miss Havisham’s initial offer, he shares it with Biddy, in a lengthy speech about getting one step closer to becoming a gentleman. Biddy responds, “I’m happy for you,” clearly jealous that Pip’s gender affords him a mobility she’ll never have. Pip reacts without empathy. “You don’t look happy,” he says, unable to suppress a cocky smirk. Her aphoristic reply feels like an extension of the show’s dilemma, rather than her own: “Pip Gargery: clever, odd, and also completely blind.”
In the finale, Pip arrives back in the marsh country and plans to propose to Biddy. She quips knowingly about her predicament: “Biddy, not Estella: the lesser of two options.” The line speaks to the book’s conclusion, in which Biddy ends up marrying Joe when Mrs. Gargery dies. She does not wait around for Pip. Without spoiling Knight’s final landing place, he is hardly so tough on his tragic hero. Yet ironically, it’s there that the series finds a kind of emotional meeting point with the book on which it’s ostensibly based—if not exactly for the best.
Dickens had originally intended to leave Pip alone, holding out no hope for a life with Estella or Biddy—a suitable conclusion to a complex examination of the choices we make and their consequences. But at the suggestion of a friend, Dickens changed the ending so that Pip and Estella, as adults, reunite in the place where Miss Havisham first forced them to play and leave holding hands. It’s a hokey ending that, like Knight’s adaptation, betrays the psychological depths the novel suggests. But at least with Dickens, it feels like a letdown. The final act of this limited series is less disappointing than inevitable. That’s the thing, after all, about expectations.