Film review: Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations is part of the criterion DVD collection. I thought the overall atmosphere worked very well in black-and-white. Guy Green winning an Oscar for best cinematography, and the film also winning an academy award for best art direction-set decoration I guess says it all! I felt transported back in times to the 1800s. This is probably the most faithful adaptation you are likely to find, the 1998 version was a re-imagining in comparison.

To be honest I liked the film more than Charles Dickens’ book from 1860, the novel being 500 pages was very long, and full of details I didn’t think drove the story forward. The language was also pretty heavy going and dated, while David Lean’s adaptation in my opinion made the dialogue more relatable for our generation. The ending of the film probably was a little rushed and too simplistic, and could have been better.

The rest of my review below contains spoilers. You have been warned!

The young boy Pip lives with his guardians Mrs Joe and Joe the blacksmith, Pip helps a convict at the beginning of the story giving him some bread. He later visits Miss Havisham’s gated house several times and befriends her daughter Estella. Miss Havisham was abandoned by her husband years ago on her wedding day, she now lives behind drawn curtains, and has adopted Estella to take revenge on all men.
As a 14-year-old, Pip goes into the blacksmith trade. Pip would like to be a gentleman and not common and poor. His wish is granted, at one point, Pip inherits some money, but he doesn’t know the benefactor. A lawyer says that he has money coming or "great expectations". Pip changes his lifestyle and goes to live in London. Great Expectations is a tale of self-discovery, a boy's journey in life from childhood to adulthood.

The title is interesting, the reader/watcher obviously has great expectations of what will happen in the story, this is one aspect of the title. I guess we all, like Pip, have great expectations as children of living a meaningful life in the future, which is a reason why the story is timeless.

Pip’s guardian Mrs Joe was in her refusal to see anything at all in Pip, an obstacle to great expectations. Pip had potential. There is an expectation about the re-emergence of the past in the future, Pip feels guilty he has suddenly got all the inherited money, does he deserve it? He hasn’t earned the money, so doesn’t feel exactly comfortable with it. He is a poor man in a rich mans clothes. Pip has great expectations of becoming a gentleman and then being able to marry the wealthy Estella. Will she only want him, if he is wealthy? I guess you could say the upper class also have great expectations for him to follow a certain path now he has come into money.

His inheritance is like the lottery, surprising, and his secret benefactor is in a way controlling his path in life. Pip is not in control. Pip becomes selfish in London and is ashamed of his family. So, you see, it’s also about how access to money can corrupt the soul. Dickens tried to study the effect of inheritance on a human being. Due to the inheritance, there are great expectations, instead of moderate expectations. This added pressure can’t be easy to handle for Pip.

I’ve read one of the messages might be that we sometimes try hard to impress people who don't care about us rather than treasure those who really do. And it’s not the contents of your wallet that counts, but your strength of character that defines you. Pip's biggest fault is probably that he counts too much on what he does not already have (expectations), and values too little that which he does have. Perhaps there is a little bit of Wizard of Oz psychology mixed in there, Pip is probably searching for things that he already has.

Wealth doesn’t necessarily imply high moral virtue is another message. As in most of Dickens body of work, there is a plea for the less privileged members of society, and a critical look at the upper class.

I think the story is about the unpredictability of life, how we let ourselves be influenced by other people. Others make you who you are, and words can destroy a person, as in the case of Miss. Havisham and her marriage, or restore someone’s belief in the goodness of human beings, as in the case of Pip’s good deed towards Magwitch the convict at the start of the story. How goodness can rub off and lead to more kindness. And how cruelty encourages more cruelty.

It was hard for me to like the book, easy for me to enjoy the 1946 movie. According to Roger Ebert, it has been called the greatest of all the Dickens films.

Readers, any thoughts?





  1. I actually want to see this movie. I hope I could find it somewhere. I know what you mean to be influenced of one's failure doesn't mean it will happen to us.Have you watch the Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke version?

  2. @Andina : Yes, I did see the 1998 version, long time ago, it had a great soundtrack I remember.

    I prefer the 1946 movie, because it feels more authentic to the vision of the book.

  3. I like the 2011version better then the 1998 one, mainly because I think a classic should not be too much re-invented, to say so, for the actual era we live in. The 1998 version changed so many aspects of it and ruined great scenes.
    I like your interpretation of the title, and you are right in all of those ideas. Pip is a great character, a strong one, but still, with no clear idea of what he wants to become- his drive comes, mainly, from the love he has for Estella.
    Thanks for the post, I will search for this version and I hope to see it soon!

  4. @Aziza: Thanks for liking my review. Excellent point you make about how Pip's drive comes from his love for Estella, a timeless emotion I guess, we all need others to push us.
    Very few people are an island and have the "will to self-motivate" as MJ sings in the song History.


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