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Great Expectations: novel vs. miniseries adaptation

The third season of the Oxford World’s Classics Reading Group has now come to a close, but the fun isn’t over yet. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst will be answering your Dickens questions LIVE on Twitter on Friday 25th September at 3pm GMT (11am EST). Tweet your questions to @owc_oxford with the #OWCReads hashtag and Robert will answer them on Friday.

Because Great Expectations is one of many literary classics, it’s a popular candidate for adaptations into a number of movies, television series, and even a musical. After finishing this season’s Oxford World’s Classics reading group season, I obsessed over the characters and Dickens’s literary finesse– nothing was out of bounds of curiosity. The adaptation that caught my attention the most was BBC’s television miniseries that broadcasted on PBS in the US. In only three hour-long episodes, we’re granted a delightful adaptation of the novel. After binge-watching the series, I’ve compiled a few of my comments on the 2011 adaptation compared to the novel. But beware: spoilers lie ahead!

The missing time element

When we first follow Pip into Miss Havisham’s eerie home, the Satis House is seemingly frozen in time; the clocks are all stopped at twenty minutes to nine. But the show never makes a mention of the significance of 8:40AM, not even so much a hint or b-roll footage of a stopped clock. The forced stoppage of time highlights Miss Havisham’s unhealthy obsession over the past. Without that time element, we only get a glimpse of how deeply affected Miss Havisham is by Compeyson’s betrayal.

The lack of Biddy

Personally, I enjoyed Biddy in the novel, and while the adaptation did quite well without her character, I thought there was quite a lack of gentle firmness that she ultimately represents. Biddy is Pip’s first teacher and is, in a sense, his first “benefactor”. She teaches him to read and write without expectation for any repayment, and when Mrs. Gargery was injured, Biddy took charge of the house while Joe kept at the forge.

Some call Biddy the “anti-Estella”, and there is some credit to the claim. Biddy was not overly beautiful in the way Estella was, but her solid character, intelligence, and compassion for others gave me someone to cling onto empathetically (arguably, most people probably would identify with Biddy before Estella). She’s a strong character that could have done so well to round out the adaptation, but alas, Biddy never had a fair shot.

Joe’s “defensive and disappointed father” persona

Something about Joe’s character in the BBC adaptation didn’t quite sit well with me. He was scornful of Pip’s leaving home and refusing to become a blacksmith, but I suppose realistically, that would be a father’s natural reaction. The Joe in the adaptation alienates Pip, which is a huge leap from the Joe in the novel, who would give Pip his unconditional love so long as Pip accepted him.

For the purposes of the adaptation though, Joe was portrayed especially well. He’s much more confrontational with Pip than in the novel. I couldn’t help but feel a pang of hurt when, after Pip’s first few visits to Satis House and Pip begins to change his behaviors, Joe says, “Don’t know who I’ve got sitting in front of me sometimes.” Their relationship is strained throughout the series, which, given that Biddy isn’t there to leverage high-strung emotions, makes way for great dramatics.

Cold, cold Jaggers

After finishing this season’s Oxford World’s Classics reading group season, I obsessed over the characters and Dickens’s literary finesse– nothing was out of bounds of curiosity

Perhaps one of the more disappointing portrayals in the adaptation, Jaggers was terribly cold towards Pip. I was looking forward to the dinner at Jaggers’s house with Herbert Pocket, Startop, and Bentley Drummle. In the novel, Jaggers actually takes an interest in Drummle’s character, showing us a more human side of the lawyer. But in the adaptation, he’s quite brutal; in fact, he admonishes Pip at one point, barking at him, “Curiosity killed the cat. And nature can be most brutal.” We never get any other side of Jaggers other than his cold left shoulder and his cold right shoulder.

Antagonism of Orlick

One of the aspects I thought the novel lacked but that the adaptation did quite well was portray Orlick as the annoying, villainous pest. I didn’t grasp quite the same level of horridness of his character until closer to the end of the novel (when Pip is tricked into entering the lone house in the middle of the marshes) when Orlick reveals to Pip he had hit Pip’s sister. But throughout the adaptation, we see Orlick lurking in the corners when he isn’t arousing conflict with Mrs. Gargery or Pip.

Literary adaptations have a rather tall order to fill; in addition to meeting the standards of those who have read the book, these adaptations must also make as much sense as possible to someone who’s never picked up the book. On top of that, certain plot points must either be adjusted or removed altogether, which is sure to ruffle some feathers.

Admittedly, I’ve plenty more notes on the differences between Great Expectations the novel and the miniseries, but overall it’s done a fair job of telling a story of a boy who unexpectedly came into fortune and how it ultimately plays to his downfall.

Have you watched this adaptation? If so, what did you think of it? Are there aspects you really enjoyed or disliked? Let us know in the comments below.

Headline image credit: Great Expectations by Todd Anthony. (c). BBC via PBS.com.

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