Studying 'Great Expectations'? Then don't expect Hollywood's latest version of the Dickens classic to be of much help when you're revising, says Robin Buss.
There is a select body of literary works that are so familiar to so many people that they can be adapted for other media with almost complete freedom. Shakespeare is the prime example: in the cinema, there has been a science-fiction version of The Tempest (Forbidden Planet, 1956), gangster movies of Macbeth, musicals of Romeo and Juliet and versions of the history plays merrily relocated in history. Shakespeare lends himself particularly well to this kind of treatment, Dickens less so; his plots tend to be complex and too intimately associated with a specific place and time. Moreover, the first illustrators of the novels exercise a peculiar tyranny over the way in which we visualise Dickens's characters and locations.
Alberto Cuar"n's Great Expectations is an attempt to ignore all this and transpose the bare outlines of the novel from the Thames Estuary and London to Florida and New York. Robert De Niro has a cameo role as the convict who surprises young "Finn" (Pip) in the Everglades and will eventually reward the boy for his kindness. The adult Finn, played by Ethan Hawke, becomes a painter whose unexpected legacy allows him to get a foothold in the New York art world and to impress his friend Estella (who has had the rather spectacular good fortune to grow up and become Gwyneth Paltrow). Add a couple of juicy character roles for Anne Bancroft and Chris Cooper (as Estella's aunt and Finn's uncle), and you have virtually the whole cast and plot of the film.
Of course, it is not only the "classic" status of the novel that makes it possible to interfere with the story in this way, while retaining the link to Dickens and exploiting the audience's alternative sense of familiarity and novelty. In this sense, Cuar"n owes a good deal to David Lean's powerful 1946 version, which performed one of the main functions of such adaptations - that of reinforcing public acquaintance with great works of literature and ensuring their place in the common culture. On the other hand, the comparison is inevitable and not to Cuar"n's advantage. Like Cuar"n, Lean realised that the plot would have to be reduced to its most dramatic elements, but he did leave us with some sense of its original complexity, and stressed the Gothic horror of the story. Cuar"n retains none of this: the first encounter with the convict takes place in broad sunlight and Miss Havisham's mansion is a picturesque old ruin surrounded by a lush tropical garden. Finn recounts the events of his childhood in a pretentious narrative which owes little to the original, and he suffers only a mild fright to pay for his great expectations.
Nor is there much sense of the social climbing needed to realise them. The scene in which Finn spurns the vulgar Uncle Joe is one of the least successful in the film. Instead, as one would expect from a film-maker of the 1990s, Cuar"n and his adaptor (Mitch Glazer) have chosen to concentrate on the love story and to make explicit the sexual element in Estella's treatment of her adoring young slave. Since he is an artist, she slowly strips off her clothes, then allows him to make some rapid charcoal sketches before stalking out and leaving him artistically satisfied, but otherwise unfulfilled. This and other unDickensian material have earned the film its "15" certificate, but add nothing to one's understanding of the characters. And, unlike Lean's version, the film will be useless to anyone revising the novel for an exam.
Gwyneth Paltrow turns up again in Peter Howitt's romance Sliding Doors, a film based on the same premise as Alan Ayckbourn's Smoking and No Smoking (filmed by Alain Resnais three years ago), in which an apparently trivial decision or incident leads to widely divergent outcomes for the characters. In this case, Helen (Paltrow) either just catches or just misses a tube train, and this determines both when she meets the man of her life (John Hannah), and whether or not she arrives home in time to find her boyfriend in bed with another woman. The two plots continue in parallel, interlocking with considerable ingenuity. Something tells me that Howitt would like this to amount to more than a pleasant, neatly constructed romance; a comment on life, chance and destiny, perhaps; but anything it has to say on that subject hardly needs restating.
The best film of the season is Agnieszka Holland's Washington Square, adapted by Carol Doyle from the novel by Henry James, with a brilliant performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh as the ill-favoured, timid, browbeaten heiress who falls in love with the first man to come in search of her fortune. Pulled between a bullying, embittered father (Albert Finney) and a hopelessly romantic aunt (Maggie Smith), Catherine eventually discovers herself despite both of them, and without her inconstant suitor (Ben Chaplin).
This is another novel that has already been successfully filmed: Olivia de Havilland won an Oscar for her performance in William Wyler's The Heiress in 1947. Holland's film is truer to James and makes Catherine a more plausible heroine, who (as in the novel) eventually achieves fulfilment in a fate that Hollywood would not even now consider a happy ending. Instead of trying to make us feel good, Holland offers a significant reinterpretation of a literary work, in the light of altered perceptions - though nothing has been updated or relocated, and Jennifer Jason Leigh manages to get through the full 115 minutes with her clothes on. Perhaps you don't, after all, need to put the sex scenes into a 19th-century novel to make it relevant to the 1990s.