Brian McFarlane’s Great Expectations (2008)

by Mark Wallace

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (first published in 1860-61) has been consistently adapted and re-adapted for the screen since the advent of cinema. It still ranks behind Oliver Twist and  A Christmas Carol in the most-adapted-Dickens tables, but Brian McFarlane’s Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations: The Relationship Between Text and Film (2008) demonstrates the rich adaptation history of this text.

McFarlane is, perhaps first and foremost, a great admirer of Dickens’ novel. It deals, he announces at the outset, with the “universals of human experience” (1). He even believes that “everything in this novel does work towards its ultimate coherence” (12), which is a big statement, and one which makes it clear that McFarlane holds modernist rather than post-modernist views of the text, views in which coherence and unity of purpose lead to aesthetic greatness.

This can lead to a specific problem with regard to study of adaptations: the tendency to use comparison with the novel for evaluative purposes. Anything that is different is seen as a failure, anything that is similar to the novel or that seems to recall its “spirit” is lauded. This is an incredibly prevalent response to adaptations, both among laypersons and adaptation scholars. McFarlane is very aware of this, and denounces all those who concentrate on “the misguided notion of ‘fidelity'” (87), “the foolish and irrelevant question of ‘fidelity'” (143) to the source text. He makes several such denunciations throughout the book.

The problem is that such repeated and even excessive disclaimers don’t really serve to hide the fact that McFarlane frequently employs a covert fidelity methodology to judge the adaptations. This is particularly true of those he doesn’t like (he’s much more insightful on films and series he does like, of which more anon). On the 1934 film version, he opens with the complaint that “it never begins to feel like the original” (83). On the 1975 film:

For all that one adheres to the notion that a film, adaptation or not, must be primarily judged on how it stands as a film, it is hard to suppress the feeling that if Hardy et al had taken serious heed of what Dickens was up, they might have made a more engrossing film. (108)

The apologetic disclaimer followed by the resort to fidelity criticism is typical of the book. There is a basic tension in McFarlane’s stance. What this book demonstrates, really, is the need for a coming to terms with the widespread notion of fidelity, rather than the palpably anxious renunciations that here co-exist with a continued use of the source text as an aesthetic touchstone.

But this attitude relates mostly to the adaptations that McFarlane does not like, principally the 1934 and 1975 films. He is considerably better on those adaptations he does approve of. Among these is the 1999 tv series starring Ioan Gruffodd and Justine Waddell. Here, McFarlane makes some interesting points about how the series “offers a way of reading the novel that was not available to its first readers” (76), giving a close reading of certain scenes and shots wherein the politics of the novel are transformed into something more contemporary. Feminist elements are present in this series; there is an “increased interest in the damaged lives of women” (78), such as Mrs Joe, Mrs Havisham and Estella. McFarlane’s point, too, about the way that the positivity of the conclusion in Lean’s film gives way to a sense of atrophy in this series is interesting and thought-provoking. Such ideological shifts in the narrative are often the most interesting things about adaptations through different time-periods, so this was a welcome change in approach.

Methodologically speaking, McFarlane is a narratologist (as outlined in his earlier monograph Novel to Film). This looms large here, too, as he breaks up the plot of Great Expectations into its “cardinal functions” and then compares this plot to that of David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) (he does this in more detail in Novel to Film) the two plots are very similar, and it is an interesting exercise in adaptation practice to study how Lean has translated Dickens’ novel, changing only for concision, hardly ever for aesthetic purposes:

There may be several such omissions but the film “changes” very little in the matter of events and the perspectives from which they are viewed (150).

Equally important is the discussion of how Lean retained the emphasis on Pip’s subjectivity without using much in the way of voiceover. Here notions of subjective camera-work, composition of screen space and Pip’s near omnipresence constitute McFarlane’s main argument, and it is a convincing one (again, this is gone into in more detail in Novel to Film). This more technical filmic analysis provides another layer to the book, complementing the narrative analysis and the cultural analysis. Narrative analysis is McFarlane’s forte, but his ability to incorporate other approaches adds much to the readability of this book.

Good points about this book are the narratological analysis, which is the most systematic yet attempted in adaptation study; the cultural analysis, which is less methodologically developed – this may disturb the scholar but it makes it more accessible to the lay-reader; and the technical filmic analysis, which is, again, not as developed as the narratological, but which shows McFarlane’s ability to incorporate different approaches. His style is generally approachable and clear. Bad points are the contradictory attitude towards fidelity, the sometimes over-reliance on evaluative language, and the fact that some of the case studies are less substantial than others (especially with regard to the books, plays and radio series that are dealt with, apparently from memory based, in some cases, on a single encounter).

Tomorrow, I will post on the David Lean film Great Expectations (1946), McFarlane’s favorite version, but one which I find to be flawed for a simple reason that McFarlane doesn’t go into in his book. (here)



Moody shots from the great opening scene of Lean’s Great Expectations