Great Expectations

The characters are Charles Dickens’s, as is the story (mostly), but David Lean made Great Expectations memorable.  Ask anyone who was a kid in 1946, when the film came out.  They’ll tell you that the opening sequence where Pip is surprised by an escaped convict while visiting his mother’s grave still gives them nightmares.

And who can forget Miss Havisham, the strange, obsessed old lady, still dressed in her bridal gown?  She’s been living in her darkened mansion for decades, growing more bitter by the day.  Mice dart in and out of the crumbling wedding cake on the cobweb-covered banquet table.  She summons Pip to play with her adopted daughter, Estella.  Lovely, haughty Estella, still a girl when she and Pip are introduced, but already cruel, remote.

“You can break his heart,” Miss Havisham tells her, savoring the prospect.

And to Pip she gives this chilling order:  “If she favors you, love her.  If she tears your heart to pieces, love her.”  Sinister Miss Havisham lives long enough to see her hopes fulfilled, and experiences a pang of regret when Pip confronts her with the evidence of his unhappiness.  But the damage cannot be undone.

Redemption arrives from an unexpected source.  Magwitch, the escaped convict whom Pip tried to help, if only out of fear, has been the boy’s secret benefactor for years.  He arranged to have Pip educated, to make him a gentleman.  Now he turns up in London to see the results with his own eyes.  Here is a bad man transformed by love.  Naturally, this being Dickens, he must pay the price for the crimes he committed, but he dies content, with Pip at his bedside in the prison infirmary.  And Pip is the better for having known him—although here the film and the novel part company.

Watch the movie, then do what I’m doing.  Reread the book.  You’ll enjoy it more than you did in high school.

 (7 February 2011)