There’s a palpable darkness in Steven Knight’s adaptation of “Great Expectations.” It’s figurative, embedded in the characters and the storyline, but also literal, with dirt and rot caking everything.
This retelling of Charles Dickens’ coming-of-age novel is not the romanticized version viewers have seen before.
“At the time, London was pretty horrendous, it was pretty dark,” says Knight, who wrote the limited series and was one of the executive producers. “Great Expectations” was published in 1861 after being released serially in a weekly periodical. Knight explained that, at that time, fiction writers like Dickens weren’t allowed to write about drug use or sex outside of marriage.
“It’s not that those issues didn’t exist — it’s not that people weren’t taking drugs or whatever else was going on,” he says. “I tried to think, if Dickens had the liberty, as he would now, to write about that stuff, which dark alleys would he have gone down?”
The series, which premieres on Sunday on FX on Hulu, was the ideal follow-up to “A Christmas Carol,” which Knight adapted in 2019, because it’s a “monolith,” he says. The story, about a young man named Pip (Fionn Whitehead) trying to ascend the class ranks in England, offered an opportunity to revisit iconic characters. There was a personal connection too.
“Pip is the son of a blacksmith; I’m the son of a blacksmith and farrier,” Knight says. “And Pip doesn’t want to do it. This book is about someone who decides to do something else, so it had a bit of a resonance for me.”
To adapt “Great Expectations,” Knight read the novel several times, but he decided not to go through it page by page. He didn’t outline or plan. Instead, he just started writing.
“The way I would describe it is, I read a book and then have a dream about it,” Knight says. “You read the book and then all these things are there. And these themes and these characters are there. And then you have this journey of your own where you plot the course through all of that stuff that you’ve absorbed.”
Although the episodes are generally faithful to the original text in plot and tone, they feature very few lines of dialogue from the novel, which Knight did purposely.
“Dickens’ dialogue is incomparable,” he says. “So you could either do that again — and I don’t see why you would do that — or you can take the spirit of the thing and the journey of the thing and do it your own way. It’s an adaptation, but it’s not a replica.”
Whitehead, who spent six months filming the series last year, says he felt it made the characters and the story more relatable, which may resonate with younger audiences.
“Sometimes people can struggle to relate to period dramas because it feels so disconnected from the way we live now, and it’s hard to empathize with the characters,” he says. “It was a relief for me to be able to make [Pip] feel closer to home and not feel too stilted by the language.”
Along with Whitehead, the cast includes Shalom Brune-Franklin as Estella, Johnny Harris as Magwitch and Owen McDonnell as Joe Gargery. But also of note is Olivia Colman, who joined the series as the reclusive, vengeful Miss Havisham, a character previously played by Helena Bonham Carter, Gillian Anderson and Anne Bancroft in other adaptations. Because of her schedule, Colman shot all of her scenes in only a few weeks.
“I came on quite late because I kept saying, ‘I don’t think I should do it. I don’t think I should do it,’” says Colman, who was nervous about the role, particularly after seeing her friends Anderson and Bonham Carter do it. “[She’s] a character that so many people can visualize and so many people think they know. After a certain amount of time, you’ve just got to go, ‘Well, it’s my opportunity to do it, and I want to do it.’”
Miss Havisham, a wealthy spinster who is raising Estella as she conspires to meddle in Pip’s life, famously wears a wedding dress she hasn’t taken off since being left at the altar years before. Instead of the dress being dusty and covered in cobwebs like in past versions, the show’s costume designer conceived a look where Colman’s Miss Havisham appears to be decaying from the inside out.
“The costume — you can’t see it close enough — is covered in opium ash, and from the bottom, it’s going green and it’s rotting,” Colman says. “For me, that was a great way in. Her heartache was rotting her heart and mind.”
Visually, the series is enveloped in darkness. Many of the scenes take place at night, and Whitehead recalls being covered in dirt for much of the production. Sex and drug use are presented unabashedly, and London is chaotic and loud.
“My mum once said, ‘The younger generation thinks they’ve invented sex,’” Colman says, laughing. “And, of course, it’s been going on forever.”
Retelling a classic novel can sometimes mean imbuing it with modern-day issues. But Knight thinks the work is more timeless. He says the novel endures because it continues to connect to its readers, regardless of the era.
“I don’t think to adapt it you have to start inserting contemporary concerns,” he says. “They’re there already.”
Colman found the story “shocking” in its relevance because of the deeply embedded British class system that persists today. American audiences may not have firsthand experience with the restrictive class system, which can impact someone’s life trajectory via schooling and career opportunities, in the same way as British viewers. But Colman and Whitehead feel it’s important to showcase the way it can hold people back, regardless of who is watching.
“Dickens found it distasteful,” Colman says. “His heroes come from the lowest class. Sadly, depending on where you’re born, class still dictates so much of what might happen to you as you get older. And it’s disgusting. And it’s still there.”
“Dickens was one of the first writers to really talk about working-class characters in a nonpatronizing way and to actually give them agency as full, rounded characters,” Whitehead added. “That was a really important thing to do — and to keep doing.”
Knight remains busy with numerous other projects, including a forthcoming adaptation for Netflix of Anthony Doerr’s World War II novel, “All the Light We Cannot See.” He also recently opened Digbeth Loc. Studios in Birmingham, England, where his forthcoming BBC series “This Town” and the much-anticipated “Peaky Blinders” film will shoot. But Dickens remains at the forefront of his mind. Next, he’s considering taking on “A Tale of Two Cities.”
“[I love] the way he writes and the way he writes dialogue and the fact that what he’s done has given you a kit for streaming television,” Knight says of his fascination with the author. “He wrote in episodes. It’s very contemporary, in that sense. There are so many possibilities.”
Where: FX on Hulu
When: Anytime, starting Sunday
Rating: Not rated
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