#5 in my ranking of David Lean’s films.
Adaptations of Charles Dickens novels are hard and doing them to a degree of greatness felt out of the reach of feature films to me for a long time. There’s simply too much in the original source material that in order to capture the breadth of the novel, you had to sacrifice depth, and in order to capture the depth of the novel, you had to sacrifice breadth. That’s an easy mantra to apply when talking about some of his longer works like Bleak House, but Great Expectations was always one of Dickens’ shorter novels and never felt out of reach. And yet, I’d never seen an adaptation that seemed to feel alive and complete in ways that convinced me that they could have existed without the original source material. Then I revisit David Lean’s 1946 adaptation of the novel and discover that it had been done greatly once, at least.
Moving on from Brief Encounter, Lean’s last collaboration with Noel Coward, Lean did what seemed to be the popular thing at the time and made film adapting a popular work of classical fiction for the screen, the second time in less than two decades that the British film industry had attempted adapting what is often regarded as Dickens’ greatest work. Going into the project, Lean threw out a screenplay from a Dickens’ scholar and tasked his producing partner, Ronald Neame (who would go on to be an accomplished film director himself with a body of work that included Tunes of Glory) that each he and Lean would write drafts independently. The ending is different from the several endings that Dickens had gone through pre and post-publication based on ideas from Lean’s then-wife, Kay Walsh, who received a writing credit for the contribution.
Going over the plot of one of the most well-known stories in the English language seems a bit redundant, so I’ll avoid writing about the moment to moment happenings of the film. Instead, I’ll focus on why I feel this adaptation works independent of the source material in ways that most Dickens’ adaptations don’t. For starters, the movie opens with absolutely gorgeous and moody atmosphere on the moors and in the graveyard where Pip meets Magwitch. The fog is heavy and the set design is just this side of Burton-esque with leaning walls, gravestones, and the church just outside of view. The movie spends a solid half hour with the young Pip before he ever goes to London, providing us with a solid amount of time to see the events around Magwitch and the invitations to Satis House, the rundown home of Miss Havisham. Satis House is wonderfully built and populated with the aged effects of a woman in perpetual mourning for an event that never happened decades prior.
Performances are great throughout from John Mills playing almost twenty years his junior as the adult Pip to Jean Simmons as the young Estella, Alec Guinness (in his first major role and the first of a professional relationship with Lean that would last until Lean’s last movie A Passage to India) as the adult Herbert Pocket, Francis Sullivan as Mr. Jaggers, and Finlay Currie as Magwitch. They all imbue their characters with a breathing humanity that makes them feel like more than half-forgotten elements from a larger story taking up space in a story that they don’t really belong in anymore. One of the real emotional joys that manifests because of this is late in the story, after Magwitch has been captured, and Pip falls into a delirium. The first thing he sees when he comes out of it is the face of Joe, his sister’s widower, and because Bernard Miles had played Joe so innocently and warmly, the sight of him is as warming to the audience as it is to Pip.
Now, a note on the ending. Dickens wrote an ending where Pip and Estella see each other but do no end up together. That was greeted poorly by his audience, so Dickens wrote a new ending where Pip and Estella meet back at Satis House with an ambivalent final sentence that could have been read a couple of different ways. The movie ends far more definitely with the two meeting in the house of the former Miss Havisham with Estella rather blatantly becoming Miss Havisham after having been abandoned by her lover after her parentage came to light. Pip frees Estella of the future she’s planned for herself, bringing light into the long table room for the first time in decades, finally breaking through Miss Havisham’s conditioning of Estella, and the two run off happily ever after. I find this ending to be very well earned on the part of the characters with Estella falling into the right place, Pip finding her with his love still intact, and Pip using his love to extract Estella from the future that Miss Havisham had inadvertently built for her.
The movie looks great, is performed extraordinarily well, and feels like it could exist without the original source novel’s existence. It is an exceptional adaptation and story told with the practiced hand of David Lean, and is one of the best cinematic versions of a Charles Dickens novel put to film.