Friday, July 12, 2013

"Great Expectations": Dickens novel (and many movies) makes Pip and everyman in "class struggle"

I recall an episode of “Twilight Zone” in the 1960s where a character named “Pip” appeared, and I didn’t recall who that was until I mentioned it to a “boyfriend” (a doctor) when I was living in Dallas in the 1980s.
I guess Charles Dickens’s thirteenth novel “Great Expectations” makes good reading for high school, and the relevance becomes apparent when you watch any of the several films.  I wasn’t aware of the 2012 version, but I rented the 1946 version by David Lean (“Dr. Zhivago”) from Janus Films and, originally, the J. Arthur Rank organization in Britain.
The plot does indeed involve moral ideas of karma.  Pip (John Mills, but Tony Wager as a boy) is training as a blacksmith’s apprentice when one day a lawyer (Francis J. Sullivan) appears and offers him a permanent income and a chance to become a “gentleman” in 19th century Britain, from whom there will be “great expactations”.  (The University of Virginia, back in the 1960’s, insisted that its undergraduates wear coat and tie and act like southern “gentlemen”.)  He is not to reveal his suspicions about the identity of the anonymous benefactor. 
Looking back, the movie begins when the boy Pip helps an escaped convict Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie) steal food and cut his chains.  In time, Pip will suspect that the convict somehow got rich (in Australia).  In the meantime, there are other subplots, such as his childhood love with Estella (Jean Simmons).   Teen love was perhaps more acceptable, even legally, in the 19th century than it is today in our world. 

Payback (for unearned wealth) comes when Magwitch contacts Pip, and the denouement of the movie and novel involve the Pip’s helping a botched escape at sea, and the consequences (including the death of Magwitch).  At this point, the films often simplify the ending in the book.  Pip will lose his income, and he is already in debt for profligate spending and threatened with debtor’s prison himself.  But Magwitch has a mystery daughter (so often the plot twist of Victorian novels)  and Pip’s way to wealth again may be heterosexual marriage.  That was so often the way "inherited" wealth was controlled.

The novel and movie really are a commentary on a "class" system of society. 

The music score, by Walter Goehr, is quite postromantic and familiar.  

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