David Lean’s 1946 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is not the most complete screen version of the novel, but it remains the definitive version. I write about the film and the production for Turner Classic Movies.
David Lean’s adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic is one of the most beloved British films of all time. His journey with Great Expectations began in 1939, when he attended a stage production of the novel adapted and directed by Alec Guinness, who served as narrator and played the supporting role of Herbert Pocket. In 1945, as Lean and his partners in Cineguild (the independent filmmaking unit he had formed, with cinematographer Ronald Neame and production manager Anthony Havelock-Allan, within the Rank Organization) pondered their third production, Lean suggested the Dickens novel. His partners concurred – it would be just the kind of prestige project that could break into the American market – and J. Arthur Rank put up the money for the production. Playwright Clemence Dane was hired to adapt the sprawling novel but, in Lean’s own words, “It was no bloody good” and the partners decided to write it themselves, as they had their adaptation of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1945). Rather than try to condense the whole novel into a rushed journey through the plot, they focused on the integrity of Pip’s story and his defining scenes and pared away plot elements and supporting characters that didn’t serve his dramatic journey. Much of the dialogue was taken directly from the novel. Cecil McGivern and Kay Walsh were brought in when Lean left to work on Brief Encounter (1945), with Walsh credited for coming up with their ending (Dickens had written two endings for the novel, neither of which McGivern or Walsh found particularly effective for a cinematic treatment).
After the intimate romanticism of Brief Encounter, Lean went for a harder, sharper look and opened the film with a dark, nightmarish scene. Skinny, wide-eyed Pip (played by newcomer Anthony Wager) runs through the marshes to visit his mother’s grave on a stormy night, when he is startled by an escaped convict (Finlay Currie). Pip is overwhelmed by the imagery and terrified by the desperate convict, who demands food and the boy’s silence, and Lean shoots the scene is if from the perspective of this small boy, terrified and at the mercy of this dangerous world. It’s a piece of pure cinematic creation, accomplished with forced perspective sets (the creaky church looming in the background) and glass mattes to create the stormy sky, the kind of ingenuity they would need to create a visually rich world on their budget. Lean started the film with Robert Krasker, his cinematographer on the intimate Brief Encounter, but was unhappy with his soft look and replaced him with Guy Green, who brought a starker look and a more dynamic contrast to the imagery. To enhance the perspective of the young Pip, Green shot his scenes as a boy with a wide lens to exaggerate the size and space of the sets. The most visually evocative scenes in the film, however, take place in Miss Havisham’s shadowy mansion. Summoned by the mysterious matron to her shuttered manor, he enters a gothic haunted house that time forgot and finds an eccentric, possibly mad dowager in a rotting wedding dress, holding court in a musty throne room dominated by a decomposing wedding cake, a reminder of the day she was jilted at the altar. Havisham has sent for Pip to become a playmate for her ward Estella (Jean Simmons), an impertinent young beauty with whom Pip immediately falls in love. Apparently, young Wager also fell in love with teenage Simmons (how could a thirteen-year-old boy with stars in his eyes not?) and even played the hero in real life. According to Simmons, her dress caught on fire from a candle she was carrying through a scene up a flight of dark stairs. “Everybody stood aghast, but Anthony came and tore it off me and put it out. This boy was the one who saved me.”
Read the complete piece on the TCM website here.