It’s always best to go into any book-to-film adaptation with very low expectations. This is especially true of any Charles Dickens adaptation. When I originally saw the Alfonso Cuarón version of Great Expectations in 1998, I hadn’t yet read the novel (truthfully, I only finished reading it last week). And considering my crush on Ethan Hawke at that time, it’s pretty safe to assume that the only reason I watched the movie at all was because he was in it. This weekend, I decided to watch Great Expectations again since the novel was so fresh in my mind.
That’s usually a set up for disaster, I know, especially considering this particular film version didn’t get the greatest reviews. But I actually enjoyed seeing a modern take on this classic book, although I can certainly see why many people didn’t. Director Alfonso Cuarón created a real look and feel to this film, one that was likely a little too stylized and possibly esoteric for many viewers, which is probably why he felt the need to include a voice over throughout the film. I don’t think that Dickens would have even recognized the story he wrote in this version of the movie. Let’s just say that Mitch Glazer’s screenplay was very, very loosely based on the book.
There are way too many differences between the movie and the book to list here, but a few did stand out. The movie focused almost entirely on the love story between Finn (aka Pip) and Estella, played by Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. And instead of Pip going to London to begin his education as a gentleman, Finn goes to New York to become a famous artist. The escaped convict plot line is also way more complex and interesting in the book, although just about the only thing that felt at all Dickensian about the film version was Robert De Niro’s performance as the convict. And while Miss Havisham’s plan to raise Estella to break hearts is so beautiful and sad in the novel, in the movie her motivations aren’t clear at all. She (named Ms.Dinsmoor in the movie) is less like a jilted lover stood up on her wedding day and more like a crazy cat lady living in an abandoned old Florida mansion. Either way, that is one unforgettable character.
One thing I’d forgotten about the movie was how great the soundtrack is. “Siren” by Tori Amos and “Sunshower” by Chris Cornell are incredible songs, and in general the music is pretty perfect throughout the entire film. Remember when soundtracks were just as good if not better than the movies themselves? To this day I love listening to the soundtracks for Trainspotting, Reality Bites, and Romeo + Juliet.
But back to Great Expectations. According to The Wire, Cuarón kind of regrets making it. Here’s what he had to say about the experience:
“And then I got a bit engaged in the machinery. I forgot that I used to do my own stuff, and I became this reader of screenplays that they were sending to me. And I started forgetting that I had a voice. It started to become more about the industry. And then I did a film that was a horrible experience, Great Expectations (1998). That is a film that I should have not done. I passed many times, and then I ended up saying yes for the wrong reasons.”
It’s always a bit of a let down when the people involved in making a movie aren’t happy with the way it turned out. I’m pretty sure he would do a much better job with it now considering that he’s gone on to direct some amazing movies since Great Expectations, such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Gravity.
There are many other movie versions of Great Expectations that I’m kind of curious to see. I think I’ll start with the 1946 film version starring John Mills and Valerie Hobson, which I’ve been told is the best adaptation of the book, and then I’ll move on to the 2011 mini-series where Gillian Anderson plays Miss Havisham. I’d definitely like to see that.