It was quite a surprise to learn that David Lean had not read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations before he embarked on his film version in 1945. The closeness of the adaptation, the understanding of the characters, make one swear it was made by an aficionado, for Dickens is part of every English child’s education. Lean was not “well read”—amongst Dickens’ works, he claimed acquaintance only with A Christmas Carol—but like Dickens, he was a born storyteller.
Lean brought to the project all his experience as a film editor—he cuts, dovetails, transposes, and simplifies, without betraying the source novel, though the ending to one of Dickens’ most pessimistic works has been somewhat modified. Lean was also anxious to make a film which would establish him as an independent artist following his four-film partnership with Noel Coward. Lean took with him associates from the Coward days: producer Anthony Havelock-Allan; Ronald Neame, a former cameraman; and production designer John Bryan and cameraman Guy Green, both of whom won Oscars® for their work.
Lean’s previous film was Brief Encounter—a romantic fantasy disguised as a realistic drama. Great Expectations reveals a director free of any stage conventions and relishing his craft. The opening of the film has been studied for years and is held up as an exemplar of film editing. But it is also abrilliant synthesis of location shooting (the pan across the marshes with their lonely gibbets) with a studio set (graves with a back-projected church and looming sky), in which the hero, Pip, has his first fateful meeting with the fearsome Magwitch.
Straight from the first two pages of Dickens, Pip’s narration and his description of the graveyard is so thick with detail that the shock of the criminal is diminished. It takes a movie, and a visual stylist like Lean, to translate this into pictures. From the very start, Lean brings Great Expectations close to the horror film—and the scene has been copied in horror films ever since.
The scenes in Miss Havisham’s decaying, petrified, and cobwebbed house show a similar Gothic concern, a heightening of Dickens’ already vivid description. These scenes also influenced horror movies, as well as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, with its embittered Norma Desmond living in a musty mausoleum and contriving disaster amongst the emotional lives of the young.
One of the criticisms often levelled at David Lean is his conservative choice of subjects. Michael Powell, for whom Lean worked as an editor, wrote about Great Expectations in his autobiography and described, with a hint of condescension, “how difficult it is for young and inexperienced producers tochoose a subject which is both commercial and valid.”
But commercially, Dickens was a shrewd choice by Lean. The film was a big success, making John Mills and Alec Guinness major stars. And, in Powell’s terms, it was valid. Dickens was appalled by the iniquities of Victorian society; this social criticism (present in all his novels) obviously survives in thefilm. But it also rang true in 1946—the year after the war and the year after Britain had elected a Labor government sworn to a welfare state in which decent health and education services would be available to all, not just the elite. The theme of social mobility which lies at the heart of the film, and its observations on the dignity of labor (embodied by the blacksmith Joe Gargery) caught the mood of Britain at the time. Pip’s defiance of Miss Havisham came to symbolize Britain’s rejection of Victorian values, which had survived to the start of World War II. One British critic thought the film showed “accidental Marxism.”
Lean would pursue these ideas in his second Dickens adaptation, Oliver Twist (1948), and make them even more explicit. He would later examine the sexual repression of the Victorian era in the underrated Madeleine (1950) and, finally, blow a raspberry at it in the comedy Hobson’s Choice (1954).
There was, perhaps, a personal involvement in Great Expectations which gives the lie to Lean being a cold, detached technician, a manipulator of emotions. Like Pip, Lean had serious identity problems. He’d married a cousin who had borne him a son, whom he helped financially but otherwise ignored for most of his life. Pip’s fortune and misfortune, his sense of loss and his sense of not belonging, might well have elicited a deep level of understanding and a displaced sympathy on Lean’s part.
In later years, Lean would resist making further adaptations of big, bulky, classic novels. After Lawrence of Arabia (1962), screenwriter Robert Bolt suggested they tackle Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, an idea which received a frosty response from Lean. “Robert,” he wrote, “it would be really lazy to do an already-written novel. That wouldn’t be the point of our working together.” Lean resisted what he saw as a regression, a return to the days of his Dickens adaptations. He wanted to create a lasting, original work of art. But hefinally gave in and surrendered to an existing blueprint: They made Doctor Zhivago (1965), Ryan’s Daughter (1970, based on Madame Bovary, another book Lean had not read), and A Passage to India (1984). At the time of his death in 1991, Lean and Bolt were finally laboring on Nostromo, which Leanmay have considered a weakness.
Fortunately, the Dickens-Lean partnership was more than a great strength. It was a marriage made in heaven.
Adrian Turner, a British film journalist and critic, is the author of books on David Lean, Billy Wilder, Hollywood in the ’50’s, and most recently, screenwriter Robert Bolt.