March 31, 2023   5 mins

If you were choosing a Dickens novel to adapt for the screen, you’d need a really good reason to opt again for Great Expectations. David Lean’s 1946 film, with its spectacular cinematography, is already exquisite, and in 2011, Gillian Anderson turned in a mesmerising Miss Havisham. Steven Knight’s justification for his new BBC adaptation falls far short of both. Rather than find a fresh way to articulate what is vital in Dickens’s bildungsroman, Knight has taken the bare outline of the novel to tell a different story about the corruption of youthful ambition in an imperial London.

Certainly, there are imperial subtexts to Great Expectations. An English man writing in the middle third of the 19th century, obviously Dickens carried a set of attitudes towards the Empire and its relationship to the Condition of England. As his satire of Scrooge’s obsession with decreasing the “surplus population” by letting people die showed in A Christmas Carol, Dickens hated Malthusianism. But his alternative to addressing the consequences of population growth during industrialisation was imperial emigration.

The actual expression of Dickens’s own worldview clearly does not though interest Knight. In his telling, Pip equates becoming a successful gentleman with getting rich in the colonies, while Dickens packed off characters to the colonies who could not succeed materially or morally in England. They either went voluntarily, like Micawber in David Copperfield, or as prisoners, like Magwitch in Great Expectations and the sadistic Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby. In Great Expectations, Pip’s friend Herbert moves to Cairo to practise merchant shipping because he gets nowhere in business in London, and an indebted Pip joins him when he realises even a life in Kent is no longer possible for him. Indeed, Dickens sent five of his seven sons, whom he deemed likely failures, to imperial life: one to the East India Company, one to the Bengal Mounted Police, two to Australia, and another to the Navy. (Walter Dickens died aged 22 trying to get back home from India and is buried in Calcutta.) Only Dickens’s eldest son, Charles junior, and the one successful son, Henry, were allowed to stay in England.

Great Expectations is also concerned with ignorance about the source of inherited wealth. Magwitch’s return to England, after he made a fortune farming in the penal colony of Australia, is a brutal revelation for Pip, whose whole view of his London life rests on him mistaking the surface of things for reality. As Pip assumes wealth breeds wealth, Magwitch’s lower-class toils initially incite “abhorrence”. His first instinct is to hide the truth and exile Magwitch, so that he can resume his gentlemanly ways. But Pip has to learn to see Magwitch as a flesh and blood human being to whom he owes gratitude. For Dickens, the Magwitch story has a symbolic purpose: the return of unbearable knowledge about the price another has paid abroad. While he does not make clear that farming in Australia means farming appropriated land, the point is there to be made.

By contrast, Knight’s telling traduces the literal Magwitch-Pip story and robs it of its human and thematic heart. Knight’s miss on the Pip-Magwitch relationship is part of his whole approach to Pip. Dickens’s novels are populated by memorable, strange characters and Pip is one of them. Pip’s entire consciousness arises from a moment on a “raw afternoon towards evening” when he fearfully learns “the identity of things”: that he is in a churchyard, that he is an orphan, that the surrounding “wilderness” is the marshes, that the beyond is the river, that the wind comes from the “savage lair” of the sea, and that “the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, [i]s Pip”. Just as he has articulated this litany to himself, Magwitch arrives from behind his parents and siblings’ graves, crying “keep still you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat”. Rather than possessing any childhood faculty of wonder, Pip has a darkened and guilt-ridden Gothic imagination. After an acquaintance of Magwitch turns up one night at the village pub to give Pip money, he conjures images of the man shooting him with an “invisible gun”. Fighting Herbert, he feels like “a species of savage young wolf”. By his adolescence, he reprehends himself for things he has not even done.

In starting Pip’s story with him reciting Malvolio’s lines on greatness from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Knight offers a more familiar, and less striking character: the intelligent boy from the provinces knowingly superior to those around him and desperate to leave what is beneath him behind. This Pip neither needs nor has a dark alter-ego whereas in the novel the journeyman at the forge, Orlick, expresses in action what lurks in Pip’s inner consciousness.

This set-up lessens the shame that comes upon Pip arriving home from Satis House, and it misses entirely what a strange kind of snob Pip becomes. Pip’s whole conception of the superior life he wants to live is shaped not by visions of grandeur, but the decay of a world a touch of natural light away from turning to dust. Pip knows that the attempt to rewrite the laws of Creation at Satis House is disturbing his mind. On his first trip, he momentarily sees Miss Havisham as a terrifying spectre calling to him, yet afterwards “Miss Havisham and Estella and the strange house and the strange life appear to have something to do with everything that was picturesque”. On one beautiful summer day, as afternoon turns to evening — the same hour of the day in winter he meets Magwitch — ­he walks with Biddy, the woman who he knows he should love, along the river. He begins to wonder if he “was not more naturally and wholesomely situated, after all, in these circumstances, than playing beggar my neighbour by candlelight in the room with the stopped clocks, and being despised by Estella”. But, as he says of such moments, the “confounding remembrance of the Havisham days would fall upon [him] like a destructive missile, and scatter [his] wits”.

Dickens’s Pip fails to succeed at making money in the capital city because his mind is so distorted that he can see little clearly beyond the reality of Estella’s character. Even after Magwitch reveals his secret, Pip imagines that the wind and the rain had for weeks been carrying “mysterious warnings” from the “wicked spirit” of Magwitch because this is the kind of Gothic script that runs in his mind.

Although it is too late for him to lead the life he could have led if his imagination had not been warped, Pip’s arc is his return to the world of natural light, where he finds forgiveness. In his final confrontation with his alter-ego in the pitch blackness of a sluice-house on the marshes, Pip feels on the brink of death, until a “gleam of light” comes in through the door. After he begins to recover from his illness, he realises spring has emerged from the death of winter and he can see the physical beauty of the marshes. By contrast, Miss Havisham, while forgiven by Pip, dies in the darkness of fire, reflecting “her profound unfitness for this earth on which she was placed, in the vanity of sorrow which had become a master mania, like … other monstrous vanities that have been curses in this world”.

Pip’s journey back to the realm of light cannot be told in Knight’s series because as well as making Pip’s ambition so conventional, he sanitises Satis House and its occupants. Olivia Coleman’s Miss Havisham is not a quasi-mythical character enveloped in decay, in the grip of the notion that her suffering demands the entire passage of time with its rotation of light and darkness stop. Instead, she is a relatively energetic woman in her wedding dress surrounded by obvious wealth in a house where there are more than a few glimpses of daylight. Far from darkening her, her opium-taking brightens her.

Dickens was in good part a Christian storyteller writing stories of redemption. That is a part of why he was so popular and why he endures. It matters that as he moves towards the light Pip learns to love Magwitch, and in freeing himself from his self-corruption can love Joe again. There is nothing at all wrong with any adaptor of Dickens looking at what politically underpins Dickens’s literal story to draw out more of the historical world underneath this tale. Dickens was a realist writer, too, who very much worked out his religious stories in the concrete setting of England. But to rewrite Great Expectations as a vehicle for a historically driven story to which Pip’s pilgrimage is incidental is to violate the whole hope Dickens invested in storytelling.

Helen Thompson is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Cambridge and co-presenter of UnHerd’s These Times.