#190. Great Expectations (1946)

Still haven’t read Great Expectations at this point (I’m 27) and, as with Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of Henry V a few weeks back, this adaptations’ kinda prompting me to resent myself. The movie’s perfectly fine and warrants its own scroll of discourse but it’s also one of these titles that feels fraught with personal stuff — like for example the fact that I started reading Oliver Twist, another major Charles Dickens novel, when I was in high school, found it totally accessible and enjoyable and loved how my friends would see the heft of the paperback and think I was some kinda genius for being able to read an old book — and then, for some reason, I never finished it. I’m like the Orson Welles of readers — I often wander off from perfectly good books without ever making it through the last fifty pages. No idea why. Maybe it’s something about that kind of book?

Not Oliver Twist, necessarily, but the kindsa books I normally read — what Steve Donoghue stereotypes as “books about upper-middle-class Connecticut divorce.” I used to read lots of that. Books about marriage, about financially comfortable people who feel stifled in the trappings of their success and where one of the partners is usually a professor, books where, apart from the occasional infidelity, nothing really happens. SO I guess there’s nothing to really compel a reader toward a conclusion when you’re reading a book like that. You know, after reading a certain number of them, that the ending will be as uneventful as teh whole book, that it’s probably just gonna hint at the characters going forward with a similar kind of life, or shifting their course by a tenth of a degree so that maybe, somewhere down the line, things will change for the better. And if that’s what you’re gonna get in the way of a wrap-up, why bother?

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The photography really is gorgeous, though.

Anyway. I’m tryna be better about that now. Especially with nonfiction. Follow through to the end, get the whole picture, the analysis, etc.

But yeah: Great Expectations. This movie’s terrific. I never knew the plot or any details fo the story — unlike A Tale of Two Cities, where I at least know the opening passage (“besta times, worsta times”), or Oliver Twist, where everybody knows about the porridge scene and the fact that its hero is an orphan. Christmas Carol is its own thing.

Great Expectations, though, always struck me in high school as a literary monument on par with Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead — books that were huge and old and daunting, apparently full of ideas, but not so big and monstrous that you didn’t sometimes see them tucked under the arm of a precocious peer. And now that I watch the movie — a story that follows a young man from poverty to affluence with lots of sordid interesting characters and dramatic subplots along the way — and see how much the movie appears to’ve been specially crafted for an Academy Award, I’m remembering that it was based on a novel, and wondering if the novel was maybe aiming for the same thing — like was it crafted with an eye toward seducing the widest possible audience.

Cuz when you look at something like Titanic or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Forest Gump and you consider the sweep of the story, the number of characters and different/difficult settings to establish, you can see that certain stories are trying to be grand, to hit every emotional cue, and, understandably, the sheer cost of creating a grand movie means that you have to earn all of that money back, and double or triple it, which means the story has to be somewhat…generic. Or at least archetypal.

They’re also kind of exhausting.

I’ve mentioned it a few times now, so I wont’ get too much into it, but Neil Gaiman wrote an essay about Bride of Frankenstein, his favorite movie, where he talks about his bizarre and charming the movie is and how, despite having seen it dozens of times in his life, he can never seem to remember where the story is going until he gets there. Every frame of it is etched in his head, but he can never remember their exact sequence because the movie is so strange, so distinct and personal, it seems to push familiarity away. It’s forever a mystery.

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His run-in with a prisoner at the start of the movie is pretty dark, but also weirdly tender, and their reunion toward the end gives the same vibe tenfold.

So I like those Oscar-baiting movies mentioned above, but I tend to leave the theater feeling like I’ve eaten too much. Like I’ve just gone for a many-mile walk on a beautiful day — too many miles. And also like I don’t have anything to show for the experience except exhaustion. Martin Amis — as I’ve also mentioned a buncha times by now — says that a real masterpiece, no matter how morbid or depressing it might be, is always uplifting, galvanizing, gets you thinking hard and wanting to go out and live life in a hard way. Also, with these big Oscar movies, I remember the scenes of each one not as compelling episodes in a larger story with escalating stakes but more as, like, rungs of a ladder with distinct emotional cues and narrative functions.

This is what sets us up for heartbreak.

This is what sets us up for betrayal.

It strikes me as a very delicate, skillful, by-the-numbers kinda filmmaking. Creative, sure, and difficult and admirable and worthwhile. But it’s never hit me as all that artful.

I liked Great Expectations, it’s a big movie in terms of runtime and scope and themes and whatever, and it’s got real style. Feels stately, like Wuthering Heights or The Man in Grey. Feels English. Dignified. And, from what I understand of the wholesome austerity accorded Dickens’s work, this feels like the most tonally loyal adaptation the novel could enjoy.

But I’m thinking back on the memorable scenes and I’m remembering the old widow in her ancient dusty wedding dress, and the genuine shock  felt when that dress brushed the fireplace and launched into flames, burning her alive. I’m remembering how beautiful it looked in the beginning when young Pip comes across an escaped fugitive and gives him some cake (the photography here reminiscent of Gregg Toland’s in Grapes of Wrath).

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This lady’s crazy, and her death scene steals the show, and also she resembles a handfulla people I know pretty well. Living in the past, the self-aggrandizement, clinging to a time somebody did her wrong and letting it define her.

But I seem to’ve forgotten almost everything else. Like Gaiman watching Bride of Frankenstein, I’d remember it if I sat through it again, but right now it eludes me, and I have no real interest in giving it another turn.

I’m learning as I go through the List that I seem to prefer smaller, more intimate, more personal movies. Stories of a handfulla people in a tough and risky situation, emotionally or existentially, like Captains Courageous or Little Caesar or Mildred Pierce.

I wanna keep my mind open to stuff that’s gonna challenge me, open my eyes to new things — but Great Expectations, as old and foreign as it may be — just feels like an early model of something I see every year, at Oscar season.

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