Great Expectations

Great Expectations (1946 UK 118mins)

Source: CAC Prod Co: Cineguild Prod: Ronald Neame Dir: David Lean Scr: Lean, Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan Phot: Guy Green Ed: Jack Harris Art Dir: John Bryan Mus: Walther Goehr

Cast: John Mills, Valerie Hobson, Francis L. Sullivan, Alec Guiness, Jean Simmons, Martita Hunt.

Great Expectations (1946) is the first adaptation of the novels of Charles Dickens in David Lean’s opus. Lean, who worked as a film editor during the 1930s, co-directed his war-time cinematic debut, In Which We Serve (1942), with the British playwright, actor and producer, Noel Coward. This film was followed by a series of adaptations of Coward’s work, This Happy Breed (1944), Blithe Spirit (1945) and a romantic film, Brief Encounter (1946) that marked the end of their co-operation.

It is commonly said that Lean did for Dickens what Olivier did for Shakespeare (1). Yet, it is less known that, prior to his work on Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, Lean knew very little about Dickens. His adaptation is the second screen version of Great Expectations, following the 1934 Universal film directed by Stuart Walker. Lean was inspired by Alec Guiness’ theatrical play, which he saw, and without which he claimed he would never have made the film (2). Five scriptwriters who worked on the adaptation, producers Ronald Neame and Anthony Havellock-Allan, Cecil McGivern (then Head of Drama at the BBC), actress Kay Walsh and Lean, converted the richness and intricacy of Dickens’ novel into a condensed cinematic narrative and transformed his protagonists into potent screen characters. As Pauline Kael points out, “[T]he film is emotional, exciting, full of action; sequences are planned in terms of heightened dramatic contrasts and scary tensions.” (3)

Lean’s decision to depart into literary history, at the time when filmmakers frequently focused on the dilemmas and disappointments of the postwar era, continues to puzzle critics and reviewers. Gerald Pratley notes that “[G]reat Expectations was Lean’s first postwar film. That it had nothing to do with the postwar problems which beset Britain after peace had arrived was deliberate.” (4) Pratley reveals that this choice influenced Lean’s career, pointing out that only three of his ten ensuing films deal with contemporary events, characters and situations (5). On the other hand, Silver and James Ursini claim that in adapting one of Dickens’ most pessimistic novels, about “tumultuous years of Victorian era which witnessed the emergence of the middle class of monied professionals […] and the displacement of the landed aristocracy as the governing class,” the director translates some of its mood to the Britain of the postwar period (6). The cinematic visions of the “inflexible social orders and a suffocating caste structure,” characteristic of Dickens’ work inspired the critics and the audience to interpret Lean’s adaptation through the prism of social critique (7). Stephen Silverman, for example, notes that, “[S]ome social historians view the climactic scene of Pip’s tearing the curtains of darkness on Satis House as a shedding of light British life after the abysmal gloom of the war years.” (8) The story about a young boy, Pip (Anthony Wager), and his accidental encounter with escaped convict Magwitch (Finlay Currie) that will forever change his life, departs from the established narrative conventions of a period drama. Kevin Brownlow points out that Great Expectations combines stylisation with savage realism, uncharacteristic for British literary adaptations of the era (9). This is evident in the confrontation between the young Pip and Magwitch in the opening sequence that sets the mood of the cinematic narrative, a starkly realistic moment in which the objectives, motivations, voices and movements of the two characters complement the stylisation of the ominous setting in which they meet. Magwitch, who suddenly appears in the hostile surroundings of the marshland graveyard, heralds the fears, nightmares and insecurities that will besiege Pip throughout his childhood and adult years. As Lean later said: “What we wanted to create all the time was the world as it seemed to Pip when his imagination was distorted with fear. That after all was what Dickens himself did.” (10)

The film was shot in six weeks in Rochester, a town and a region with historic links to Dickens. Lean’s interpretation demanded a particular kind of camera work, visual composition and set design. The director was inspired by the well lit close ups and well focused lenses of 1940s (11) American cinema, and in particular by the work of cinematographer Arthur Edeson, the director-of-photography on Casablanca. Edeson used long focuses, creating an emphatic sense of intimacy and keeping the faces sharp while softening the setting around them (12). Insisting on a corresponding visual style, Lean was forced to make changes in the crew. He replaced the camera operator Robert Krasker, who filmed Brief Encounter and later worked with Orson Welles on The Third Man, with his old collaborator, Guy Green. He wanted to substitute the ‘polite’ (13) look of his previous films with a more dynamic photography, long black shadows and great highlights, more appropriate for the Victorian era. He also advised Green to shoot the children using 24mm and 35mm lenses, the widest in those days, so the set would look big, and to use longer, 50mm and 75mm lenses, shooting the adults (14). The specific demands on camera work provided a difficult task for production designer, John Bryan. Bryan decided to bring the ceilings down and save the settings from disappearing in the soft focus. The forced perspective (characteristic of German silent cinema) created a sense of stylisation, contrasting the stark reality of Dickens’s novel with the ominous exteriors and gothic interiors in which his characters are situated. As Lean later pointed out, Bryan “was not afraid to exaggerate, to depart from reality.” (15) Critics and reviewers praised the staggering gallery of British performing talent assembled by David Lean. Antony Wagner and John Mills produced an impressive map of hero’s childhood and youth in the roles of Pip. Jean Simmons as the young and Valerie Hobtson as the adult Estella, created an equally powerful, yet albeit somewhat dissonant portrait of a female character in the Victorian era. In his cinematic debut, Alec Guiness effectively transformed his stage role of Herbert Pockett. He continued to work on five of Lean’s films: Oliver Twist (1948), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and A Passage to India (1987). The stage veteran Finlay Currie performed the role of “grizzling and forbidding” (16) Magwitch with attention to facial expression and physical action, Martita Hunt played Miss Havisham with great sensibility for detail, voice and mannerism of an old recluse, and Francis L. Sullivan reprised the role of an “alarming upholder of the law,” (17) Jaggers, from the 1934 screen adaptation. Great Expectations received five Academy Award nominations in 1947 and won Oscars for best cinematography and art direction/set decor. The film established David Lean, along with Carol Reed, as England’s leading director of the post-war era. Furthermore Lean’s masterly adaptation of Oliver Twist, which followed in 1948, set the standard for ensuing screen adaptations, responding to the demands of classical literature with the excitement, diversity and immediacy of cinematic language.


  1. James Agee quoted in Leslie Halliwell, Halliwell’s Film Guide, (Grafton, 1992), p. 464
  2. Stephen M. Silverman, David Lean. (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. Publishers, 1989), p. 170.
  3. Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies: A Guide From A to Z. (London: Elm Tree Books, 1982), p. 228
  4. Gerald Pratley, The Cinema of David Lean. (London: The Tantivy Press, 1974), pp. 66-67.
  5. ibid., p. 71
  6. Alain Silver and James Ursini, David Lean and His Films. (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1974, 1991), pp. 43-44
  7. ibid., p. 44
  8. Stephen M. Silverman, David Lean, p.73
  9. Kevin Brownlow, David Lean: A Biography, (London: Richard Cohen Books, 1996), p. 206; Roger Marvell and R.K. Nelson-Baxter, (eds.), The Cinema, (Pelican, 1952), p. 20
  10. Quoted in Kevin Brownlow, David Lean: A Biography, p. 211.
  11. Stephen M. Silverman, David Lean, p.72
  12. Kevin Brownlow, David Lean: A Biography, p. 209
  13. ibid., p. 214
  14. ibid., p. 214
  15. ibid., p. 209
  16. Alan Hunter (ed), Movie Classics. (Chambers, 1992), p. 99
  17. Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies: A Guide From A to Z, p. 228.

About The Author

Boris Trbic teaches Scriptwriting at Swinburne University of Technology (TAFE) and Screen Language at RMIT University (TAFE) in Melbourne. He is a reviewer on 3RRR’s Film Buffs’ Forecast, and writes screenplays, short fiction and occasional pieces about oriental carpets.

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