You cannot have failed to learn that a new film adaptation of Great Expectations has been released today. Publicity for the film is ubiquitous: posters of Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch and Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham adorn the billboards of train stations and the hoardings that overlook thoroughfares. The stars have been interviewed on television and the radio. Even the press has found time to divert its manic attention from Sir Brian Leveson’s clever, clever musings to review the film. The coverage asks the question, do we need another adaptation of Dickens’ well-studied classic? There are plenty of views but few of them bother to consider the novelty of this adaptation (perhaps because the book has not been as closely studied as we assume). David Nicolls’ script has reworked Dickens’ ending(s) so that the film walks between a sentimental outcome and a truthful one.
Nicolls’ experiment prompts two questions. Is a canonical work of art, like Great Expectations, inviolable? Or is it a ‘living entity’ that is refashioned subtly by the interpretation of other artists and the response of their audience? We have asked these questions before, in relation to a version of Moby Dick that tailored the great shroud of Melville’s mimetic descriptions of the sea for the Web, but this is another pertinent example.
Dickens, of course, wrote alternate endings to Great Expectations (most modern editions carry both), which is why, I suppose, Nicolls and Mike Newell, the film’s director, believe that there is artistic value in exploring a third ending, the very ambiguity of which will demand the viewer to imagine how the story continues after the credits have rolled.
If the audience has been inattentive to the characters’ various flaws and shared histories, then I suppose they might plump for the sentimental dream that sees everyone live happily ever after, taking the grandchildren on the Victorian version of caravan holidays on the Isle of Sheppey. The sentimental urge is strong: witness Stephen Fry’s decision to give his adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, Bright Young Things, a real happy ending (promised by the ironic title of Waugh’s final chapter) in which Nina Blount and Adam Fenwick-Symes are weepily reunited in the early stages of the Second World War. This saccharine change is so sick-making, as Agatha Runcible would say, next to the savage melodrama that has come before, that Fry’s film flops. If, however, Nicolls’s audience has been attentive then it can only conclude that the outcome will be sour once the characters have come to accept one another as they are.
Is there value in allowing the audience to reach its own conclusion in a morality tale such as this? Yes, I think that there is, even if they reach the wrong conclusion. The ambiguity of the adaptation is a reason to see the film.