Mike Newell: Put aside your preconceptions of Great Expectations

"We have this big, larger-than-life, wonderful, grandiose, grotesque version in our heads. I felt strongly that there was a way of doing it that could have more of the terrific humanity and emotion"

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It seems fitting that the London Film Festival should have closed last night with Great Expectations, doffing a cap to one of the capital’s most famous sons, Charles Dickens. But in adapting the classic novel, director Mike Newell and writer David Nicholls knew they risked being caught in the shadow of another great British dramatist, director David Lean whose 1946 version has outshined many subsequent efforts.

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Speaking ahead of the premiere at the Mayfair Hotel, Newell (joined by Nicholls and star Jeremy Irvine) stated his case for revisiting this oft-told story. “It’s one of those books that people think they know and I don’t know that they do,” he said. “Because in fact, if there is a sacred text in all of this, it isn’t the novel – it is the David Lean movie, but it’s not the novel. And the David Lean movie, fine though it is – and there are chunks that I carefully ripped off – he messes about with the story and he messes about with the class and he messes about with the sex.”

Nicholls is equally unsentimental about Lean’s work, though he does understand its enduring appeal. “The genius of the Lean film,” he said, “is that he finds a visual language for the expressionism in Dickens… The performance style is very big, drawing on that theatrical, larger-than-life quality and of course that’s in the book and it’s kind of what we mean when talk about ‘Dickensian’, but when I read Dickens, I think he’s is a much subtler writer than he’s often allowed to be. I find him incredibly emotional and heart-breaking, really, really powerful and deeply emotional.”

For this reason Nicholls calls Great Expectations his “favourite book” and he mourns the loss of certain nuances in Lean’s retelling. “The character of Biddy, some of the complexities of Joe Gargery and some of the motivation of Miss Havisham have been lost because we have this big, larger-than-life, wonderful, grandiose, grotesque version in our heads. I felt strongly that there was a way of doing it that could have more of the terrific humanity and emotion that I find so powerful in the novel.”

Certainly, Helena Bonham Carter imbues Miss Havisham with a vulnerability that takes it beyond gothic caricature and Ralph Fiennes gives a tender portrayal of the escaped convict Magwitch, but what of the sex Newell refers to? Irvine explained his approach to playing the lovelorn Pip, noting, “The Lean version was very much of the time and I felt that there was a modern way of—well, these are obviously two teenagers who have very strong desires and there should be a real lust in there as well. I made a strong decision that I didn’t want to get caught up [in that idea] that ‘We’re doing a period movie so we should all be terribly withheld.’ I don’t believe that two people, even at that time, if they felt that strongly, that they wouldn’t just scream at each other, so I wanted there to be that violence and that sexiness which Mike was talking about.”

Classicists may be relieved to hear that Newell hasn’t gone as far as to insert any fumbling in the pantry, but he did intend for Holliday Grainger to bring some earthy sensuality to the role of Estella – an opportunity, he explained, that was denied her predecessor. “Valerie Hobson complained bitterly that Lean would not let her go there. He was fixated on the business of chill, of coldness, of holding it back – repression – which I think says quite a lot about Lean and hardly anything about the book.”

And Newell’s criticism doesn’t stop there. He branded the finale “a colossal failure in the David Lean movie” and again, questioned his motive. “He just cops out to ‘We’ve got to have an upbeat ending’. Well, why have we got to have an upbeat ending? Originally that ridiculous ending was savagely downbeat to the point where it was thought it would harm the film commercially, so he rewrote it.”

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But, Dickens famously penned two different endings for his novel as well, eventually settling for a few rays of hope to break the gloom imposed by Miss Havisham, and Nicholls’ interpretation has already been the subject of controversy because (as he described it) it falls “somewhere between the two”. Not entirely faithful to the source then, but does this really matter? Lean’s film has stood the test of time despite revisions, and evidently it still has the power to stir deep emotions, not least for those filmmakers who might hope to make as big a dent in the popular consciousness. Of course they can hope, but they shouldn’t expect…