Sunday, February 21, 2010

#31: Great Expectations

(David Lean, 1946)

The year before he made Great Expectations, his first of two Dickens adaptations, David Lean made Brief Encounter, my favorite film (and reportedly his) by the director most famous for his widescreen epics Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago. That film had been based on a play by Noel Coward, who also wrote the screenplay. The two films are strongly representative of the impression of British post-war cinema: refined and repressed melodrama and proper, impeccably produced adaptations of historic novels.

I happen to prefer the former, which is not to say that I didn't enjoy watching Great Expectations, but more that I don't tend to lend such conventional (and "respectable") adaptations much weight. After all, how different is a Merchant Ivory film from a Michael Bay film? Are they both not perfectly crafted entertainments with the perfect Pavlovian additives for their respective audiences?

That's basically how I felt about Great Expectations, a film that does little to add to its source material, but gets by on the charm of its performers and the talents of its production team, most notably David Lean. The director is often unfairly dismissed and overlooked, in my opinion - even Lawrence of Arabia has not aged as well as it should in film circles, possibly owing to the essential need to see the film on the big screen. Here he manages to bring the material to life extremely effectively, although the narration can be a bit clunky, and the now cliché opening pan away from the first page of the novel is a bit terrifying when settling in to a two-hour movie.

Still, the film brings up the eternal question of what makes a worthy adaptation. Some people enjoy the visual realization of their favorite novels enough to warrant a film production, but I tend to feel that a film should bring something new to the material. Great Expectations fails in this respect, which prevents me from saying the film is any type of great, but if you don't want to take the time to read the book, this two hour condensation is a great way to know the story, albeit with the cinematic requisite (spoiler alert?), the happy ending.

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