This 1946 film from director David Lean has been widely praised as the best big-screen adaptation of Charles Dickens. In addition to a literate, mostly faithful adaptation of the tale of a young boy growing to adulthood with the help of a mysterious benefactor, the film was blessed with a strong cast, including John Mills as Pip, Jean Simmons and Valerie Hobson as Estella, Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket, Finlay Currie as Magwitch and Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham. Thanks to Lean's scrupulous work with cinematographer Guy Green and art directors John Bryan and Wilfred Shingleton, it's one of the few Dickens adaptations to create on-screen images that live up to the descriptions in the books.
In some ways, this is the only horror film from Lean, a director known for his international epics. It features an old dark house haunted by a mysterious, threatening presence (Hunt), dread family secrets, a frightening cemetery and even a law office filled with death masks, taken from clients who were executed. All of these elements are exploited to the fullest in Green's moody black-and-white photography. Lean also made extensive use of forced perspective to heighten the mood. The church that seems to tower over the graveyard was actually only three feet tall.
Dickens's classic had been filmed three times before, including a 1934 Hollywood version starring Henry Hull as Magwitch and Jane Wyatt as Estella. Lean, however, had neither read the novel nor seen any of the film versions when his wife, actress Kay Walsh, dragged him to a stage adaptation in 1939. He immediately realized it would make a great movie. That production featured Alec Guinness as Pip's adult friend Herbert Pocket. Lean would cast him as Pocket in the film, Guinness's first screen film role. In adapting the novel, Lean and his writing team made a few alterations at the end, giving the book an ending they thought would play better with contemporary audiences in the years after World War II.
Literary critics may have complained about that, but audiences in England and the U.S. were enthralled, making the film a big hit. Great Expectations won Oscars® for Best Art Direction and Cinematography and was nominated for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay. The story would be filmed theatrically three more times, including a modernized version in 1999 starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow and Anne Bancroft. There also would be several television versions, but Lean's black-and-white adaptation remains, for most fans, the definitive version.
> Great Expectations was the 12th of Dickens's 13 completed novels and has been often hailed as one of his best. Like many of his novels, it was first published in weekly installments. For 36 weeks in 1860-1861, readers could buy copies of Harper's Weekly in the U.S. or the author's own magazine, All the Year Round, in England to find out what Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham would do next. Originally the story was to have been twice as long, but financial problems (another author's novel serialized in All the Year Round was not selling well) forced him to condense the action, resulting in one of his most acclaimed works. Most of Dickens's novels were originally published this way, written in installments for popular magazines made even more popular by his writing. As a result, each chapter has a complete feel to it until it moves into a final cliffhanger, designed to make readers eager to buy the next issue.
> The literary serial, a complete work published in several parts over a period of time, dates back to the 17th century, when the invention of movable type revolutionized the publishing industry. At that time, full-length books were too expensive for lower-income readers, but with more streamlined printing processes it was possible to sell books in shorter, less expensive installments called fascicles. With more improvements in printing technology and the rise of literacy, the serial format exploded in the 19th century, with many of that era's most prominent works originally appearing in weekly and monthly magazine installments. Dickens was a leader of the movement, but was matched in popularity by Alexandre Dumas pere and Gustave Flaubert in France, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry James in the U.S. and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who published most of his Sherlock Holmes adventures in serial form, in the U.K. The result was vivid, highly detailed storytelling combining memorable characters with thrilling plot turns. Although serialization has fallen out of fashion in literature with the rise of still more streamlined publishing technologies, it has hardly died out in other venues. Many television series, from soap operas to award-winning cable dramas, tell their stories in serial format, while comic books like the X Men have become more densely plotted and complex than anything Dickens could have envisioned.
> Great Expectations is one of the best films made during the first period of director David Lean's career, when he specialized in highly literate, beautifully acted dramas and comedies shot mostly in Great Britain's film studios. He had started his filmmaking career with a series of odd jobs that led to work as an editor, first with newsreels and then with features. After editing about 24 features, he moved into the director's chair as co-director of playwright Noel Coward's flag-waving war film In Which We Serve (1942). Lean and Coward continued working together as the director adapted his plays This Happy Breed (1944), Blithe Spirit (1945) and Brief Encounter (1945). The latter film, about a couple tempted to have an extra-marital affair during the final days of World War II, brought him international acclaim and suggested to critics that England had spawned its first great film director since the appearance of Alfred Hitchcock in the 1920s. That impression was borne out by the success of Great Expectations and another Dickens adaptation, Oliver Twist (1948).
> In 1955, Lean moved into international production, filming Summertime, with Katharine Hepburn, on location in Venice. From there he would move into the type of film most associated with him, the historical epic. He would win Oscars® for his next two films, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), with the latter making Peter O'Toole a star. Those pictures, along with Dr. Zhivago (1965), Ryan's Daughter (1970) and A Passage to India (1984), cemented his style and influence on future filmmakers. His intimate approach to the epic, in which he built massive historical sequences out of small details that perfectly mirror the scene's underlying drama, would inspire such filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who claimed that he learned how to film the big scenes in the Star Wars films from watching Lean's work. That sense of intimacy and knack for finding just the right image run through all the director's films, accounting for the great success of even early pictures like Great Expectations.
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