Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations Gets a Gritty 21st Century Reboot

Steven Knight’s new adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations adds drug addiction, the slave trade and even sadomasochistic sex. But lurid flourishes alone can’t save this adaptation.

Shalom Brune-Franklin plays Estella and Fionn Whitehead plays Pip in Steven Knight’s new TV adaptation of Great Expectations. (Miya Mizuno / FX)

It’s too bad that the new six-episode BBC/FX production of Great Expectations now playing on Hulu is so stupid. Charles Dickens’s novel is such an insightful study of class-climbing ambition – and the human wreckage it creates — it seems to me there are ways to adapt it that would make its relevance more than clear to contemporary audiences. But as it stands, David Lean’s haunting 1946 film version is still the one to beat.

If you don’t know the novel, it’s about a working-class orphan named Pip who’s being raised in desolate marsh country by his abusive, much older sister and her benevolent blacksmith husband. Pip gets taken up at random by the local rich woman named Miss Havisham, a mad recluse and jilted bride who still lives in her tattered wedding gown. “I sometimes have sick fancies,” she says in the understatement of the century, and her newest fancy in hiring a local boy to come to her decaying mansion is, “I want to see someone play.”

So on a whim, the boy Pip gets swept up into the world of wealth and lunacy. He gets dropped by Miss Havisham a few years later, with an equal lack of ceremony, at the time when he’s about to begin his apprenticeship as a blacksmith. And that might have been the end of it except for one thing — Miss Havisham’s lovely adopted daughter, Estella. She’s the little jewel in the rotting refuse of Miss Havisham’s gloomy mansion, getting polished to a higher gleam of brilliance every day. Miss Havisham has recognized in Estella the means to “avenge herself on all the male sex” by creating the perfect heartbreaker, the ideal representation of desirability, a beautiful young woman with all the trappings of wealth — the splendid clothes, the delectable accomplishments, all the acquired airs and graces that money can buy. She’s an icy coquette in training: she’ll warn Pip frankly in adulthood that she has no heart, which was lost in childhood.

If you’re wondering how Dickens could possibly get a crowd-pleasing happy ending out of that despairing tale, you’re not wrong to doubt. He was persuaded to tack one on, vaguely indicating that Pip and Estella get together at the end, but his original ending was far more in keeping with the grim trajectory of the narrative.

Writer-producer Steven Knight of Peaky Blinders fame has a whole new approach, which he says can be described as “if you read the book during the day, and had a dream about it at night, this is the dream.”

Given that goal, it’s hardly worth analyzing what we’re looking at in the series, because Knight’s attempt to tell his dreams are no more interesting than most people’s. But it’s worth doing if only to note the difference between someone who had trenchant observations to make about class (Dickens) and someone who’s just noodling around in a vaguely Dickensian mood (Knight).

Knight’s Pip (Tom Sweet in childhood, then Fionn Whitehead as an adult) is “the cleverest boy in town,” already dead set on rising far beyond his working-class prospects to become a gentleman when Miss Havisham sends for him. Where did Pip get such outsize ambitions? We don’t know.

Whereas Dickens’s Pip is an ordinary boy, more sensitive than most, but still perfectly content to become a blacksmith like kindly Joe Gargery (Owen McDonnell), until he goes to Miss Havisham’s mansion and meets Estella. In the novel’s first-person narrative, we get the exact moment when Pip’s class-based self-hatred begins, as Estella exclaims in disgust to Miss Havisham,

“[W]hat coarse hands he has! And what thick boots!”

I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt for me was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.

So Dickens’s point was that exposure to the elite’s loathing of the working class can infect people like a deadly contagion, warping their own view of themselves, making their strenuous lives actively loathsome to them. As a result, they become prey to “sick fancies” as well, as Pip is from that day on, obsessed with the seemingly impossible dream of becoming a gentleman, which will actually mean becoming a fop, a snob, and a betrayer of his friends and his own better nature.

It’s not clear what Knight’s point is.

Miss Havisham’s representative, the pompous corn chandler Mr Pumblechook, arranges for Pip’s services to her with Pip’s sister. Dickens wanted to stress the way Pip’s sister and Mr Pumblechook both subscribed to the same attitude toward children, a sadistically punitive one couched in the starchy rhetoric of high morals and the assumption that children must be continuously scourged for their own good.

In Knight’s version, Mr Pumblechook (Matt Berry) is having a sadomasochistic affair with Pip’s sister (Hayley Squires), enjoying her brutal canings, the same type of canings Pip is always threatened with. Again, it’s not clear what Knight is getting at, but as he puts it:

“It’s about the book, but also things that have come forward as a consequence of reading the book.” Dickens, he noted, couldn’t write explicitly about certain provocative subjects because of the era he lived in. “It’s basically being presumptuous and saying, if Dickens had the liberty to write about those things, which dark alleys would he have gone down?” Knight added.

Some pretty random dark alleys, it seems. If Knight is trying to suggest that Dickens never dealt in people’s twisted sexuality, he really ought to learn about a marvelous thing called “subtext.” Dickens actually made a specialty of portrayals of creepy, kinky, and abusive lechers, which was by no means unusual in Victorian literature. See Daniel Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop, Jonas Chuzzlewit in The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, and Ralph Nickleby in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, for starters.

Knight’s Miss Havisham (Olivia Colman) is not only a wedding-gowned ghoul, living out an interminable self-pitying melodrama of her own rejection, she’s also an opium fiend, able to supply her drug needs from her late father’s stash, as his fortune was founded on the opium trade. In the book, the Havisham fortune was initially founded on a successful brewery, yet another example in Dickens of people acquiring class status through wealth alone, and then afterward attaining the refinements to suggest blue-blooded aristocratic superiority. The deserted brewery buildings surround her mansion, falling into ruin along with everything else, though it seems her monetary fortune has gone on in that self-perpetuating way that huge amounts of capital tend to do.

In Knight’s series, young Estella (Shalom Brune-Franklin) uses opium too, in order to ease her through the cruel games she’s forced to play with Pip’s heart at Miss Havisham’s command. She’s shown weeping at windows when Pip is abruptly sent away, to illustrate that she’s no willing participant in his torture. Dickens’s dual portrait of the irredeemable damage that can be done in childhood is made nonsensical here. By the time Pip meets Estella in the novel, she’s already a cold unnatural creature, trained into artifice and snobbish cruelty, trained out of tears, empathy, pity.

In Knight’s version, the child Estella is spoken of as pretty, but we see an awkward, scowling girl in badly fitting period clothes, so much so that it’s confusing — is she supposed to look plain, sour, and gauche for some reason? Estella is supposed to be a dazzler, a beauty already in childhood, representing everything that wealth can do to show itself off as innately better than the rest of us, as worthy of luxury and cosseting.

The portrait of wealth in Knight’s version is bizarre in general. Miss Havisham and Estella are shown devoting years of their lives, in montages, to training Pip how to be a gentleman, as part of Miss Havisham’s sadistic long con. Rigorous, time-consuming French lessons, dancing lessons, the whole bit. This is despite the fact that, as yet, Pip has no money, no prospects, nothing but the will to rise.

Really? That kind of concentrated effort over time seems hardly credible. Dickens’s repeated emphasis was on how incidental the boy Pip was in the lives of Estella and Miss Havisham — they meant everything to him, he meant almost nothing to them. Knowing this, Pip has to scheme about how to keep in contact after Miss Havisham drops him when he’s beyond “playing” age, by getting her to condescend to see him once a year. It’s only once Pip has his own wealth that Miss Havisham finds amusement in keeping up the connection and letting him believe through verbal hints that she had something to do with his good fortune.

Knight’s take on wealth is in some ways literal-minded — he emphasizes repeatedly that the sources of much wealth in England are tangled up in the drug trade and the slave trade — and in some ways fanciful and melodramatic, as if rich people were likely to spend years sitting around gloating over elaborate, laborious schemes to lead poor people down the garden path.

There are still several episodes left that will run in April, and I suppose I’ll have to watch just out of morbid curiosity to see how Knight is going to try to generate cumulative emotional impact out of his unpromising main elements, presuming that’s his intention. Maybe the climactic scenes will just be elaborately depraved upper-class orgies, and Pip’s moral character will be so debased he’ll forget about love and go all out for money and get into the slave trade and marry Miss Havisham.

The opening scene of the series already indicates that Pip hangs himself from a bridge, so as you can imagine, some pretty lurid and terrible stuff will have to happen. But such is the nature of all gritty reboots.