Great Expectations was Charles Dickens’ 13th novel, but many critics consider it to be one of his best. It’s a coming-of-age story that continues to resonate with audiences, which might be one of the reasons the book has been the source for a number of movies and television films over the years. Despite having been written more than 150 years ago, it remains a literary classic and is included in the curriculum of many English studies classes.
A new version of the story hits movie theaters November 8 with a blockbuster cast that includes Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane and Sally Hawkins. It’s difficult to imagine a better group of actors for the ensemble and that’s part of the reason the film is garnering such buzz before it opens.
The basic story of Great Expectations is a complex one, but here are the overall highlights. Around Christmas Eve in 1812, Pip, an orphan who is about six years old, meets an escaped convict while visiting the graves of his parents and brother. The convict forces him to steal some food and a file so he can cut away his shackles. The convict is captured the next day, but he will return again and again into Pip’s life.
Not long after, Pip meets the daughter of a wealthy family and he falls in love with her. Those two people become central figures in Pip’s life, as he moves to London, makes and loses fortunes and eventually leaves for Egypt, where he toils for 11 years before returning to England to meet the love of his life.
Many of the aspects of this story will seem unfamiliar to modern-day audiences, including the idea that someone could be arrested and imprisoned for being in debt. But the overall ideas of eternal love, sacrifice and an overriding ambition continue to make this story current and fresh.
As for this new take on the story, the film is directed by Mike Newell, whose last film was the pricey and visually complex box-office disaster Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Jeremy Irvine plays the grown-up Pip, the orphan who rises to high society thanks to an anonymous benefactor. Ralph Fiennes plays Magwitch, the convict who befriends Pip and ultimately becomes his mentor. Helena Bonham Carter plays Miss Havisham and Robbie Coltrane plays Mr. Jaggers. In some ways it’s a dream cast and if the early buzz is to be believed, it may be one of the best adaptations of the iconic book ever.
It would be nice to think that this story about the yearning to be wealthy and the challenges of growing up broke and unwanted would seem like the artifact of a previous generation. But despite all of the changes in society since the 1800s, what hasn’t changed is that millions of people yearn for a better life and many of them never get the opportunity to live their dream. Many of us know a Pip and that’s what continues to make Great Expectations such a vibrant story.