I wouldn’t ever claim that Charles Dickens’s stories don’t relate to our age. Poverty? Check. Child abuse? Check. Dehumanizing social systems? Check. Sadly, the ills that Dickens detailed in his beautifully arranged Victorian novels remain quite relevant, as do his notions about the toxicity of deceit and cruelty. He is as ripe as ever for adaptation, and new versions of Dickens’s work continue to pop up on a regular basis, “A Christmas Carol” most frequently of course.
The latest in the long line of Dickens is a six-episode take on “Great Expectations,” which arrives Sunday on Hulu. It has been developed and written by Steven Knight, the guy who created “Peaky Blinders,” a gritty gangster drama set in England after World War I — and Knight has to a large extent refashioned Dickens to match some of the tone of that series. He has added twisted, complex motivations, drug addiction, sex, and violence to the coming-of-age story, and he has articulated a number of quiet themes loudly. He has kept the plot outline, but colored it in with the current fashion for explicitness and extremes, just as he did with his painfully slow take on “Christmas Carol” in 2019, which opens with a boy urinating on Jacob Marley’s grave.
As a lover of literary adaptations, I was thoroughly turned off. Except for some fine work by Olivia Colman as the iconic Miss Havisham, the embittered puppeteer who wreaks vengeful havoc on our hero Pip, I was by turns irritated and bored. For me, it was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.
I’ve embraced many adaptations that have offered different interpretations and emphases; I’m not a purist by any means, especially when there is some spiritual connection to the original, some glimmer of the essence. At times, the more unusual readings are revealing: To an extent, an adaptation can give us a glimpse of the era in which it was made as much as the era in which it was written. Our responses to older works can be illuminating in their own right.
For instance, notice the growing presence of people of color and the prejudice against them in period pieces. In the likes of Armando Iannucci’s movie “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” and PBS’s “Sanditon,” the palette isn’t all white, a reflection of contemporary audiences and our awareness of race. These additions don’t usually alter the deeper meanings — especially when it comes to Dickens, who was nothing if not socially conscious. Similarly, both Kenneth Lonergan’s excellent four-part version of E.M. Forster’s “Howards End” and the 1999 movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” clearly nod toward the role of slavery in the white characters’ lives to a natural, expansive effect.
These alterations don’t make me wish their creators had changed the title, as has been done in the past, when “King Lear” became “Succession,” “Emma” became “Clueless,” and “Romeo and Juliet” became “West Side Story.” Knight’s “Great Expectations,” though, made me wish it had been called “Have a Sham” — not that a title change would have helped the series move along less lugubriously. Television is an ideal medium for Dickens, as the release of episodes can mirror the release of chapters in his day; but in the case of “Great Expectations,” more time works against it.
I don’t think there is only one way to film a Dickens novel, and that that must be the PBS “Masterpiece” way, with a strong degree of loyalty to the original in both structure and tone. “Masterpiece” continues to deliver fine literary adaptations; a good four-part “Tom Jones” is on the way this April, and few of the Dickens installments of “Masterpiece” in the past 20 years have shone, notably “Bleak House” and “Little Dorrit.”
But the new “Great Expectations” strains to be different, beyond the diversity of its cast. The changes seem like a forced effort to turn the Dickens story into some kind of prestige TV product, with Pip’s sister’s BDSM scene, for example, or that time Miss Havisham sends Pip off to lose his virginity with a local woman. The miniseries doesn’t just ask us to envision Dickens’s novel with a more modern feeling of what reality might have been like back then; it pushes us to bring a profound sense of cynicism to a writer whose visions relied on redemption. We know Dickens was prone to sentiment and to the conviction that virtue will prevail — but the answer to that dated approach is not to rub our noses in darkness.