The plot Dickens: Why TV needs to get over its Great Expectations obsession

·4 min read
Have at ’em, Havisham: Olivia Colman as the reclusive Miss Havisham in ‘Great Expectations' (BBC/FX)
Have at ’em, Havisham: Olivia Colman as the reclusive Miss Havisham in ‘Great Expectations' (BBC/FX)

When it comes to Dickens adaptations, it helps to temper your expectations. The revered Victorian writer is perhaps the most frequently adapted novelist in history – but to what end? The results are wildly inconsistent: for every The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) or Bleak House (2005), there are a dozen insipid Christmas Carols, or a handful of regrettable Oliver Twists. The BBC are once more throwing their (old-fashioned bowler) hat into the ring with a new six-episode screen version of Great Expectations. But how many more hats can this particular ring withstand?

Starring Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead as Pip, Shalom Brune-Franklin (Line of Duty) as Estella, and Oliva Colman as Miss Havisham, the new BBC series is a retelling of Dickens’s rags-to-riches bildungsroman – roughed up a bit with some distinctly modern sex and violence. Peaky Blinders scribe Steven Knight wrote the adaptation, the latest in a long line of Great Expectations adaptations for the screen. The BBC itself had tackled the material as recently as 2011, with a miniseries starring Gillian Anderson. For many people, David Lean’s 1946 adaptation remains the gold standard of Great Expectations on screen, and the numerous subsequent efforts can be seen as quixotic attempts to rebottle this lightning. As Nick Hilton argues in his two-star review of the new series: “This adaptation of the great novel is needless and lazy […] even with the infusion of sex and violence and post-colonial theory, it is hard to feel excited about this new take.”

Of course, a novel such as Great Expectations surely merits re-adaptation from time to time. It is a towering literary achievement, with characters and story beats that have endured in the popular imagination for well over a century. But does it need to be rehashed quite so regularly? The latest BBC adaptation smacks of imaginative failure. There are countless lesser-known Dickens stories that could make fascinating or timely TV miniseries. Why doesn’t the BBC instead tackle Hard Times? Or the almost-never-adapted Barnaby Rudge, which explores the Gordon Riots of 1780? And the horizon need not end at Dickens. There are also a host of other great 19th-century authors whose work is almost completely neglected by the blinkered whims of TV commissioners. Why not put Great Expectations on ice for a couple of decades, and spare some love for the work of Elizabeth Gaskell?

The need to continually re-adapt Great Expectations can probably be read as a sign of our culture’s all-consuming obsession with “familiar IP”. (For the mercifully unaware: “IP” stands for “intellectual property” – legalese appropriated as corporate jargon.) While the phrase is typically applied to mainstream popular fare – such as Batman, or Star Wars, or Game of Thrones – the “familiar IP” mindset has infected almost all areas of corporate-creative decision-making. The prospect of adapting Great Expectations, a novel that almost everyone has heard of, and about which many people harbour strong and life-long affection, could be seen as an easy win amid a TV landscape where competition for viewers has never been tougher or more multitudinous.

When it comes to over-frequent adaptation, Great Expectations isn’t even the worst offender of Dickens’s oeuvre. That ignoble honour belongs to A Christmas Carol, which seemingly inspires a new, utterly innovation-less adaptation each year. Knight is something of a repeat offender when it comes to dodgy Dickens series: in 2019, he wrote BBC’s dreary Christmas Carol, starring Guy Pearce as a weirdly young Scrooge. A Christmas Carol at least has the excuse of being something of a festive curiosity – there’s something seasonally apt in hauling it down from the attic each Christmas along with the tinsel and baubles. Great Expectations has no such gimmick. It’s also a damn sight longer and more convoluted: whereas most Carol adaptations can be chomped through in an hour or two, Great Expectations often takes up a whole series of television.

With a few rare exceptions – Netflix’s trashy, revisionist Bridgerton, for instance – costume dramas are not a genre with a lot of cache at the moment. If period melodrama is what you’re after, it’s understandable that the BBC would see Great Expectations as one of the few safe investments. But at some point, we have to question what point there is in endlessly reiterating the same too-familiar story. Maybe it’s time to let this coming-of-age classic finally grow old.