"Great Expectations" (Book 132) and 24 hour Dickens

If "Great Expectations" had been written a hundred years later, its quite delightful title might have fallen away in favor of one more in Philip Larkin's line: "They f**k you up, your mom and dad...". Except of course there is a distinct lack of actual moms and dads in Dickens's novel, and those who are still present and breathing seem barely aware that they are parents.

From time to time I have an insistent desire to read books that are appropriate to the place I am visiting, and occasionally this madness translates into a stubborn determination only to read books in their "natural setting." Earlier this summer, I accompanied my grandparents on a seniors' bus tour to the gardens of southern Wales. I was an object of great interest, as you might imagine, being (besides my grandparents) the only American, the only person under the age of 55, and utterly (UTTERLY) ignorant about gardens. I spent many a bus-ride through lush green hills and towns once populated by miners and now by IT professionals reading Caradoc Evans's "My People," a reviled classic of Welsh literature. I would recommend that everyone dip into one or two stories from this collection, which deals with the biblical harshness of life in Nonconformist Welsh towns. It apparently caused such a furor when it was first released that it was burned in many parts of Wales.

At any rate, I decided last Christmas that I would read Dickens in London, and nowhere else (a vow that promises a very slow progress through the poor man's oeuvre, since I am only in London for a few weeks a year). I don't have a lot of Dickens under my belt at the moment ("Oliver Twist" and "Tale of Two Cities" from high school, "Bleak House" from my graduate comprehensive exams), and I am determined to read one of his works and one of Faulkner's every year until I conquer both bodies of work. I decided to start with the book that everyone else had to read in high school, a trying educational experience that left my poor boyfriend with the conviction that it was "the worst book ever written:" "Great Expectations." So good old "GE" (which ended up being delightful in every possible way, contrary to my boyfriend's scarred rantings) was begun in London last Christmas, and then abandoned with a coldheartedness worthy of Estella when I returned to the States.

I finished it on a trip to London in July, but in the interim I had watched David Lean's 1946 film, which was made all the more magical by the fact that I had preserved a miraculous ignorance of the plot's resolution up until that point, despite its cultural ubiquity. The film is extraordinarily lively (although it goes terribly wrong in its representation of Estella, I think), but as I finished the book I could already feel the disappointment kicking in. Even a really excellent movie adaptation abridges a novel in terrifying, deflating ways. There is no defense against that sort of disappointment; a novel's breadth and detail of characterization is just not equivalent to a film's powerful (and often subtle) visual approach to the same goal.

So I want to argue for what I think would be a major innovation and improvement to our current system of adapting novels for the screen (in this case the small screen). The British, and increasingly HBO in America, have done excellent work adapting novels into two or three part miniseries, 6-8 hour extravaganzas along the lines of "Pride and Prejudice" and the recent "Bleak House." But this does not go far enough - even these highly successful adaptations still seemed painfully cramped in their plotting at time, and were forced to elide many important details. The novel-adaptation miniseries needs to be reconceived on a larger canvas, and I think this work needs to be done by American networks which work within the framework of a longer season. Let us have a "Bleak House" or a "Middlemarch" the length of a "Desperate Housewives" or a "Sopranos" season. Audiences are clearly capable of sustaining interest in a long plot arc and a highly subtextual mode of characterization on TV, and the serialization so prevalent in 19th century novels forms an ideal transition to the suspenseful demands of the one hour, year long television drama. So let's see it, TV producers: 24 hour Dickens.

"Great Expectations" (1860-1861)
Charles Dickens

"My people" (1915)
Caradoc Evans

"Great Expectations" (1946)
dir. David Lean