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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."
When Pip is left a small inheritance by a mysterious benefactor (he assumes it is Havisham), he travels to London to become a gentleman in high society. Lean sweeps us along his odyssey from his humble home in the country to the crowded bustle of London, and he charts the transformation of the innocent, generous child into the class snob that money and social standing has brought him, an ugly flaw that Pip confronts when his true benefactor is finally revealed. Lean reportedly told John Mills, who had appeared in Lean's In Which We Serve (1942) and This Happy Breed (1944), that he couldn't see any other actor in the role of the grown Pip. Mills jumped at the part, but not before Lean cautioned him that the role was a "coat hanger" for the colorful gallery of supporting characters. "(T)he part would need everything I could give to prevent our hero from being swamped," Mills wrote in his autobiography. Alec Guinness, reprising his role from his 1939 theatrical production, made his official screen debut as Pip's jovial London roommate Herbert Pocket. "I had very little ambition to be a movie star," confessed Alec Guinness, whose only previous film appearance was as a bit part in the 1934 Evensong. He was dedicated to the theater and, like many stage actors, suspicious and a little disdainful of the movies, but he brought bright personality and warmth to the screen and became the embodiment of a Dickens character. It was his first of six films for Lean, who later directed Guinness to his first Oscar® in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
Valerie Hobson (who just happened to be married to producer Anthony Havelock-Allan) plays the grown Estella, trained by Havisham to be a heartless social mercenary, and the major supporting roles were filled out by some of the most striking character actors in Britain: Finlay Currie as the convict Abel Magwitch, Bernard Miles as Pip's guardian Joe Gargery and the imposing Francis L. Sullivan as the decidedly humorless lawyer Jaggers, a role he played in the 1934 Hollywood version of the novel. Martita Hunt reprised her role as Miss Havisham from Guinness' stage production, and her imperious portrayal is magnificent.
It was an expensive production that paid off. The reviews of Great Expectations were glowing; it was a big hit in Britain and it played Radio City Music Hall in the United States. The eminent film critic James Agee wrote that it was "never less than graceful, tasteful, and intelligent; and some of it better than that," and New York Times critic Bowsley Crowther proclaimed that "the British have done for Dickens what they did for Shakespeare with Henry V; they have proved that his works have more life in them than almost anything now written for the screen." Great Expectations was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay, and won two Oscar®s: for Guy Green's black and white cinematography and for the art direction and set design of John Bryan and Wilfred Shingleton.
The adaptation by Lean and his collaborators is a model of intelligent adaptation, rich with character and atmosphere yet focused firmly on the journey of Pip, from young orphan on the Kent marshes to young man in London society. Lean fills Great Expectations with a wealth of visual detail and vivid characters and personalities without allowing them to swamp his hero, and he directs with a warmth and humor often missed in such costume dramas and reverent literary adaptations. Though greatly pared down, this third screen version of Dickens' novel remains to this day the quintessential cinematic incarnation.
Producer: Ronald Neame
Director: David Lean
Screenplay: Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame, Kay Walsh; Charles Dickens (novel)
Cinematography: Guy Green
Art Direction: Wilfred Shingleton
Music: Walter Goehr
Film Editing: Jack Harris
Cast: John Mills (Pip), Anthony Wager (young Pip), Valerie Hobson (Estella), Jean Simmons (young Estella), Bernard Miles (Joe Gargery), Francis L. Sullivan (Mr. Jaggers), Finlay Currie (Abel Magwitch), Martita Hunt (Miss Havisham), Alec Guinness (Herbert Pocket), Ivor Barnard (Mr. Wemmick), Freda Jackson (Mrs. Joe Gargery), Eileen Erskine (Biddy), George Hayes (convict), Hay Petrie (Uncle Pumblechook).
by Sean Axmaker