Great Expectations (2023)


Considered by many to be one of Dickens’ greatest novels, Great Expectations is a coming of age story about a young boy with a rise of fortunes that learns through a series of events the value of true goodness. This recent adaptation by the BBC adds in foul language, opium dens, women’s rights, and changes the entire second half of the story to give it a new ending.


Young Pip lives a rather miserable life with his cruel sister, but he finds some comfort in the compassion of her husband Joe (Owen McDonnell), a warm-hearted blacksmith who intends him to take over the forge one day. But Pip has far greater expectations for himself—he wants to be a gentleman, and when the rich, eccentric Miss Havisham (Olivia Coleman) sends for him to play with her adopted daughter, Estella, he thinks one day, perhaps, he might live up to his own ambitions, since both of them seem interested in turning him into a proper gentleman. Miss Havisham seems intent on ensuring that Pip falls in love with Estella, but she has no interest in him in return… and ten years later, Pip (Fionn Whitehead) does rather fancy Estella (Shalom Brune-Franklin). But abruptly, one day Miss Havisham gives him enough opium to trade at the local market and purchase a new suit of clothes, and then locks him out of the house.


Soon, the sinister lawyer Mr. Jaggers (Ashley Thomas) arrives to invite him to London to embrace his fortune, with the stipulation that he must leave at once, with no time to bid farewell to his family or to Estella. Before Pip knows it, he’s caught up in a bunch of shady business dealings, and a figure from his past is about to rise and return to haunt him…


I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this six episode miniseries, because Steven Knight has a tendency to dwell on darkness, and not really understand Dickens in favor of his own re-imagining; a few years ago, he ‘blessed’ the world with his version of A Christmas Carol, which severely altered Scrooge into an unforgivable scoundrel and gave him no redemptive arc. He’s also behind Peaky Blinders, a popular story about evil people doing horrible things to each other. His Great Expectations wasn’t as bad as I expected, but it’s still not great. Its worst sin, other than arrogantly assuming it can improve on Dickens, is that it’s incredibly dull, and the addition of opium dens, multiracial casting, and a slew of f-words can’t solve that problem. Pip is never a likable character, but here he’s also flat and boring, besides being rather intolerable. And we spend the better part of several episodes following him around while he and Jaggers form shady business deals in London (some rather complicated insurance fraud in which they hope to financially benefit).


Knight also changes the entire second half of the book, which rewrites the ending. Certain characters have different fates here than in other versions of the story, including someone getting the back of their head blown off. Rather than the sensible but sinister lawyer in the book, Jaggers forges dead men’s signatures, blackmails judges with what he knows about their sexual indiscretions, and frames clients for insurance fraud. Miss Havisham presents Pip with a local whore on his eighteenth birthday, spends half her time drugged out of her mind, and made all her money off opium smuggling. There’s also various modern additions thrown into the dialogue for virtue signaling, including Pip refusing to make chains for slave ships (despite the profit it would get him), and Biddy engaging in feminist talk about how she won’t be stuck barefoot in the kitchen, that is rather obvious.


Some of the ideas and changes intrigued me, because I might have chosen similar ones had I been writing this story—such as pairing up two characters at the end who “miss” getting married in the book. It’s also an exciting choice to have the ultimate “show-down” and climax in Satis House (Miss Havisham at last gets the chance to confront the man who left her at the altar). And if the foul language had been toned down, and it had been cut by one or two episodes, the story might not have dragged as much, but it still dwelled mostly on darkness and had none of the satiric wit and humor of Dickens’ story (which includes such fun asides as a man having a drawbridge, a mini moat, and a small cannon he shoots off once a week for larks). Instead of emotional beats, the heavy-handed script drums us over the head with meanness—in all other adaptations, Pip’s increasing discomfort and shame over Joe’s poor country manners causes us to cringe when eventually he insults the sweet Joe. Here, Pip just meanly says to his face that he doesn’t want anyone to know they’re related and tells Joe to get out. It’s the difference between subtle characterization and a blunt instrument. It’s a shame that this isn’t better, because it has a solid cast and is very atmospheric. But I can’t help comparing it to other recent adaptations, including the spectacular two-hour film from a few years ago, and seeing it fall far short of my expectations.


Sexual Content:

Pip’s sister earns extra money by being a dominatrix and beating a man with a poker – we see his bare butt from behind; Jaggers tells a judge to sign a document or he’ll make sure everyone knows about his deviant homosexual practices; Miss Havisham buys Pip a sexual encounter with a local woman and shuts the door on them; we follow him into a brothel several times, where we overhear loud moaning and glimpse sexual acts in darkened corners; a man wakes up naked in a tent in Australia (we see his bare backside).
26 f-words, 6 uses of s**t, one GD, several references to “balls,” and one “piss.”
The story opens with Pip about to commit suicide by hanging himself off a bridge; Estella also tries to commit suicide by slitting her wrist (we see similar scars); a man is mercilessly beaten in prison; Pip walks through a butcher’s street where blood is everywhere, we see close-ups of slicing meat, hear screaming pigs, etc; he and Jaggers find a corpse hanging from a ceiling; they find another corpse in a brothel tied between two bed posts; people are knifed, kicked, punched, stabbed; a man has the back of his head blown off (blood spatters the wall). A man talks about how if his wife doesn’t obey him, he intends to beat her black and blue with a stick.



Many characters smoke opium and are shown drugged. Everyone is a hypocrite; his sister won’t let him swear and hates him being late for church, but is a dominatrix; the local whore meets “most of my clients” in church. Pip passes a man peeing on a wall.  

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