Turning books and films: The case of Great Expectations

I would like to use the example of the 1998 adaptation of Charles Dickens Great Expectations by Alfonso Cuarón and starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert De Niro, Anne Bancroft and Chris Cooper as the basis for discussing the delicate process of turning books and films. One thing that always helps is to assemble a stellar cast.

Robert De Niro as Arthur Lustig (Magwitch)

Robert De Niro as Arthur Lustig (Magwitch)

 Chris Cooper as Joe (Joe)

Chris Cooper as Joe (Joe)

 Ethan Hawke as Finnegan "Finn" Bell (Pip) and Gwynetth Paltrow as Estella)

Ethan Hawke as Finnegan “Finn” Bell (Pip) and Gwynetth Paltrow as Estella)

Anne Bancroft as Ms. Nora Dinsmoor (Miss Havisham)

Anne Bancroft as Ms. Nora Dinsmoor (Miss Havisham)

The first problem for any director in adapting the book is that they generally choose popular and well-known books, Great Expectations being a wonderful example. I first read it when I was 12 and have reread many times since then. So, like many filmgoers, I come to these film adaptations with some fairly well-established ideas about the book and its characters in particular. The director, who tries to be faithful to the original, is more likely than not to offend my sensibilities in some way.

If you are very familiar with the book, you often have a picture of what the characters are like. This picture is  probably pretty vague, ill-defined and fuzzy, something you really cannot describe. But once a director puts that character on the screen, you get a very clear idea of what that character is not like. You may not be able to articulate your view of the character particularly well, but you certainly know that the director has got it wrong.

 Directors getting it wrong. Estella would never have dressed like this

Directors getting it wrong. Estella would never have dressed like this

This is always going to be particularly true of characters who are developed over 300 pages of a great novel. So my fundamental thesis is that it is impossible to produce a faithful rendition of Pip or Estella that pleases everybody, or anybody, for that matter.

And so we come to Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations.  Cuarón made no attempt to be faithful to the original, which he changes in a number of ways.

The first is that the central focus of the film is not on the growth and development of Pip, but rather on the romance between Pip (now called Finn) and Estella. Clever isn’t it. Cuarón has changed Pip’s name but not Estella’s. It’s the same, but slightly different.

Capturing the changes that Pip undergoes from his childhood through to adult maturity in a film of around an hour and a half is going to be well-nigh impossible. One of the subtle ways in which Dickens develops Pip’s character is in the way that Pip observes and describes the world around him and this is going to be very difficult to portray on film. So, in the film, we do not have a young man growing up in a moral vacuum the way Pip does in London. Rather we have a young man, Finn, an increasingly successful artist finding his way in the world. But he is still a young man in love with Estella and the film character carries many of the resonances of the novel.

Cuarón has also changed Miss Havisham to Nora Dinsmoor. In many ways, Nora typifies Cuarón’s approach. I think that Anne Bancroft’s portrayal of this character is the most brilliant of any of seen on the screen. She’s crazy in a way that Miss Havisham is not in the book but she’s just as vindictive and just as destructive. And having her dancing around her decaying Florida mansion, quaffing large quantities of gin, to different versions of Bésame Mucho is cinematic gold. It captures the tackiness, the decay and the destructive self-preoccupation of this woman absolutely perfectly.

For me, casting Gwyneth Paltrow is Estella was a stroke of absolute genius. She has the ethereal beauty that breaks young men’s hearts. And she’s more accessible than the original Estella.

When she kisses Pip at the fountain in the gardens of Paradiso Perduto, she establishes the sexual attraction between the two, which is played out in the film, but is not present in the novel.


Establishing the relationship between Finn and Estella in this way makes the ending of the movie rather more satisfying and convincing than the ending in the novel. In the novel, we understand Pip’s love for Estella, but her feelings for him are rather more of a mystery.

The relationship between Finn and Estella is captured brilliantly in the scene where she poses nude for her portrait. This scene brings together idea of Finn as both artist and lover and begins to establish Estella’s willing participation as muse and lover.


What makes this such a great film is that Cuarón establishes the relationship between Finn and Estella at the centre of the film. Even the relationship between Finn and Arthur Lustig (Pip and Magwitch), so very important at the end of the novel, becomes a descant. But it is in recasting Great Expectations as a love story that makes this such a great film in its own right.

At the end, it’s a happy ending, in both the film and the novel, and this happy ending is appropriate for one of literature’s great love stories.

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