Dickens Goes Hollywood

Deepsouth v.4 n.1 (Autumn 1998)
Copyright (c) 1998 by
Jon Michael Varese
  All rights reserved.
"In Victorian novels like Great Expectations, the overt sex so characteristic of our fin-de-siecle is nearly effaced, reduced to a whisper or an ambiguous word at the end of a sentence."


The following article first appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday 25 January 1998. The editors of Deep South are extremely grateful to the author for allowing permisssion to reprint his review in this journal.


Scholars say author's words will speak to Great Expectations moviegoers

The tantalizing poster for Alfonso Cuaron's new film adaptation of Charles Dickens's immortal classic Great Expectations depicts a scraggly Robert DeNiro as Magwitch, an Estee-Lauder-gone-awry Anne Bancroft as Miss Havisham, a brooding Ethan Hawke as Pip, and a sultry Gwyneth Paltrow as Estella -- naked.

"Estella, naked?" the purists chime. "Never!"

Never? Not so. She's naked now...and more than that, she has sex. The icy breaker of hearts has mutated a bit since she first appeared on the literary scene in 1861. This is an Estella for the 1990's, an Estella that some might say Mr. Dickens would not recognize.

Or would he? Too often we subscribe to a limited view of Dickens as the Literary Lion of the 19th century, a writer whose treatments of poverty, the working-class, and the London city are so unparalleled that to talk about him with reference to any other century might seem out of place. But there's more to Dickens than the 19th century, says Mitch Glazer, the screenwriter who reeled Great Expectations from one century into another: "The treat in adapting Charles Dickens is that you begin to see the universality in his tales."

The folks at the Dickens Project, an international research consortium devoted to the study of Charles Dickens, couldn't agree more. "Dickens is not just a writer for the 19th century, but for our own times as well," says UCSC Literature Professor John Jordan, Director of the Project. "Dickens is a social analyst who ranks with Marx as a critic of industrial society and the modern age."

In Victorian novels like Great Expectations, the overt sex so characteristic of our fin-de-siecle is nearly effaced, reduced to a whisper or an ambiguous word at the end of a sentence. That is not to say, however, that the romance, the passion, even the lust, that we recognize as commonplace in our society isn't there. It is. "The unqualified truth is," writes Pip in the novel, "that when I loved Estella with the love of a man, I loved her simply because I found her irresistible." Pip's obsession with Estella is "against reason...against hope" -- desire, pure and simple. That's why Cuaron's sexy adaptation of Dickens's masterpiece can appeal to a modern audience.

In an age of rampant drug abuse, promiscuous sex, dysfunctional family relationships, and a host of other social problems, Gen-X-ers, the main target audience for this film, continually search for sustainable, idealized love. When Pip in the novel tells Estella, "You are part of my existence, part of myself...in every line I have ever read...in every prospect I have ever seen," he is not just tolling the rusty bells of his repressed Victorian emotions. He is resonating what would later become the demonstrative hallmark of the X-Generation, and consequently the Hollywood scripts that would feed them through their teens and early adulthood. Now Great Expectations attempts to add itself to a list of films that deal on a grand scale with love at its most hopeless.

But Dickens an X-Generation icon? It's doubtful. If his stature does increase for the devotees of the new adaptation, it will be because of Ethan and Gwyneth, and not because of his writing. (One fan noted on her Ethan Hawke website: "the book was boring, hopefully the movie isn't...but since Ethan is in it, I'm sure it won't be.) For many, Ethan and Gwyneth will become Pip and Estella, just as a few years ago, Leonardo and Claire became the X-Generation's definitive Romeo and Juliet. Like Amy Heckerling's Jane Austen spoof Clueless, Cuaron's Great Expectations promises to change literary history the moment it hits the theaters.

Dickens's original ending to Great Expectations consigned Pip and Estella to a sad and hopeless separation. But at the last minute Dickens altered his conclusion to something more optimistic: "I took her hand in mine...and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light...I saw the shadow of no parting from her." Though ambiguously stated, the hero and heroine are united at last, and the sun can finally set upon the story. Dickens developed the Hollywood ending to satisfy his audience long before Hollywood ever existed.

Movies like Cuaron's Great Expectations are successful today because they unabashedly deliver what we crave: the possibility of a happy ending that is all the more precious for having surmounted insurmountable circumstances. The ultimate triumph of love over denial in the Generation-X cinema satisfies not just the rebellious impulses and sexual desires of the protagonists, but also quenches, if only vicariously, the viewers' thirst for romance and ecstasy. The twenty-somethings of today,fed up with the disillusionment and abusive relationships that have informed their youth and adolescence, seek to change their situations for the better. Dickens (here via Hollywood) offers an inspiration for that change as generously as he inspires Hollywood.