Adapted From: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Hank Azaria, Chris Cooper, Anne Bancroft, Robert De Niro
Screenplay: Mitch Glazer and Alfonson Cuarón
Directed By: Alfonso Cuarón
Great Expectations is a novel that has captured the imagination so much that many adaptations have been produced down the years, as most recently as 2012. There is a reason that it has become such a widely-read and studied classic; its themes of ambition, unrequited love and manipulation are universally felt and Pip's naivety is something we've all experienced with the wider world at some point in our lives.
However, there has not yet been an adaptation of Dickens' novel that gets it entirely right. Instead, each adaptation accentuates an element of the novel before mining it for their own narrative; David Lean's beautiful rendering starring an ageing John Mills as the youthful Pip captured the thrill of of the big city and the Gothic grandeur of Satis House before moving into the ending of a more conventional love story for an audience still reeling from the Second World War and in need of a happy ending. That's something that has appeared in other adaptations too, such as the recent BBC version starring Douglas Booth as Pip and a wonderfully bizarre Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham. Revelling in its Gothic weirdness, but forgetting the comedy of the novel (Joe's culture shock scene in London should be played for laughs), Sarah Phelps' adaptation used Estella as the focus, without the deep set irony that she was never in love with Pip. Once again, Dickens' unconventional tale is rendered into something decidedly more traditional.
All of the above adaptations have something in common; they are all set within the confines of the novel's mid-nineteenth century setting. Mitch Glazer and Alfonso Cuarón's adaptation pushes the novel's universality instead, transplanting the very English narrative of class and social advancement into a very American narrative of success. In doing so, names are changed; Pip becomes Finn (Hawke), Miss Havisham becomes the batty Ms Dinsmoor (Bancroft) and the marshes of Kent become the swamps of Florida as the foggy London streets become the gleaming blocks of Manhattan. This is also decidedly not the seemingly more rigid world of the mid-nineteenth century either, rather it is the "free" world of the American 1990s.
Removing Great Expectations' original setting proves to the adaptation's strongest asset, putting Pip's ambition in sharper relief by filtering it through the culturally ever-present American Dream. When Finn is younger, his fascination with Estella also becomes a fascination with her world; the parties, the wealth, the glamour. He attempts to get into the parties that she attends, but is left stranded at the doorstep, not on the list to get in, both literally and metaphorically. Estella comes to represent the upper echelons of society for Finn, even once he has moved to New York and set to become the darling of the arts world. It's only once he becomes successful that her friends, who took great delight in mocking his back country ways, treat him well.
The idea of success is instrinsically linked to the American ideal of working for your success, rather than having it simply handed to you as it does in the novel. Though Lustig (de Niro), the film's version of Magwitch, is still Finn's benefactor, it is predicated on the fact that Finn is an artist. Pip simply becomes a gentleman once he receives the endowment whilst Finn has to create an entire art show before he is recognised, albeit with the finances to do so. This filtering of the narrative through the American Dream, that all-pervasive theme throughout American literature, is a fascinating spin on the tale and one which ensures it stands out more from the other adaptations. Instead of waiting at the door and being turned away, Finn instead bursts into the high society party that Estella is attending; now he has money and fame, he is no longer barred by the doors that held him back in his youth. He is capable of moving throughout society, despite not knowing or understanding any of the traditions that came before him.
Satis House, an ironic nod to Pip's view of it as the place in which he achieves his satisfaction, becomes Paradiso Perduto, a decaying colonial mansion that instead acts as a representation of Finn's constant sense of being tortured to get what he wants. It is fitting that the film ends in Paradiso Perduto, with Finn and Estella simply holding hands as ambiguously as they do in the book. Paradiso Perduto is due to be destroyed and with it, the manipulation that has kept them both trapped throughout the film.
The ever-presence of green within the colour scheme keeps that idea of money and success at the forefront of Finn's progress through this world. It's no coincidence that the dominant colour in Estella's costumes is green. She is Finn's ultimate prize and to achieve her, he must be wealthy and he must be successful. Like his literary counterpart, Finn rarely stops to consider Estella's own feelings in the matter until she finally tells him that she has been manipulating him on behalf of Ms Dinsmoor for their entire relationship. Even amid all the changes to names, setting and character traits, the character of Estella remains the one constant between both the adaptation and the novel. She remains the ultimate goal of all of Finn's expectations and her character and story also remains largely unchanged.
Paltrow's performance doesn't quite capture the mercurial quality that her literary counterpart has, largely because her rendering of enigmatic often feels more wooden than mysterious. She's allowed to be more sexually free than Victorian conventions would allow, but that largely translates to a lot of naked Gwyneth Paltrow rather than anything particularly erotic. However, Glazer affords her more sympathy that the novel does (largely thanks to having the spurned Pip as the narrator), emphasising the way in which not only Finn or Ms Dinsmoor objectify and use her, but the way her society does also. She marries for social advantage, yet the film doesn't seek to punish her in the same way as the novel; she's not the victim of a violent husband, merely circumstance.
Yet a large part of the problem with Cuarón's film is that it is massively uneven. Thematically, it's very strong and weaves Dickens' tale into something new without losing any of the qualities that make the novel so beloved. Its execution, however, is mixed. The highly stylised world clashes with the interference of the film's producers to make it less ethereal, battling beauty with grit in a juxtaposition that feels awkward rather than insightful. Sadly, it's the realism that fails to work. Dickens' story is a dark fairytale of thwarted expectations and the high gothicism of Miss Havisham, the looming ghost of Magwitch and Estella's cruel beauty are all stylised to emphasise Pip's naivety. Cuarón pushes this stylised world into the twentieth century and retains that same technique to clash Finn's ideals with the world around him.
Cuarón has spoken out about his experiences making this film and the difficulties he and Glazer faced in rendering their vision of Great Expectations on screen, having called it a "bitter lesson". Oddly enough, it was the script that proved the most troublesome and it was producer Art Linson who drafted in an uncredited David Mamet to write Finn's voiceover. The voiceover is an interesting aspect to the film, one which actually hues pretty closely to Pip's narration in the book. Finn states right at the beginning of the film: "I'm not going to tell the story the way it happened. I'm going to tell it the way I remember it." Instantly, the audience is put on their guard about the authenticity of the story they are about to see unfold. Finn's experiences, as with Pip's, are all subjective.
It cleverly puts a remove between the audience and the story; we analyse what else is going on, what Finn isn't telling us, and it gives us the freedom to interpret the scenes away perhaps differently to the way in which Finn is presenting them. This is especially true of any scene involving Estella. However, as it was intended to do, the voiceover removes much of that magical hyperstylisation that makes Cuarón's film stand out as a modern Dickensian fairy story. It may be in-keeping with the book, but the film is only really connected to Dickens in its basic narrative and themes. With the voiceover, everything becomes a bit too literal and the symbolic qualities become too prescribed.
As an adaptation, Cuarón and Glazer's screenplay is a clever rendering of the wider themes of Dickens' narrative, demonstrating its universality by displacing Pip with Finn in a twentieth century American society. Sadly, the film's uneven pace and tone creates too much disconnect to render it a truly great adaptation. Instead, it's a noble failure, one that still stands as a solid interpretation of the text, without producing anything particularly revolutionary in the process. At least, unlike many other adaptations of Great Expectations, it doesn't fall into the trap of giving Pip/Finn a happy ending; Paradiso Perduto, the symbol of his expectations, is about to be torn down and Estella is a broken shell of a woman, capable of apologising to Finn for what she has done. They simply hold hands and stand, finally, as friends.