Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Books on Film

Mr. Pip (2012)

Film and tv adaptations of classic novels never fail to disappoint. Well, that's not entirely true. The 2007 ITV production of 'Mansfield Park,' for example, starring Billie Piper was not good. But, for those who love period dramas, even poorly made/ written/ shot/ acted film/tv adaptation merit at least one viewing. And, the Brits (BBC and ITV) seem to have a monopoly on adapting classics and fiction for television and the big screen. For this reason, we will now be writing feature posts, from time to time, that discuss the best (and blindingly boring) books by British authors made into TV and film!

The source material for these types of productions is endless and, yet, the industry tends to gravitate towards Jane Austen* or Charles Dickens^. The Brontë sisters, of course, have had various versions of their most famous works made into film as well. A rite of passage for every leading man, we know, is to play the broody, grumpy, emotionally manipulative Mr. Rochester/ Heathcliff

This year at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), there were two new creations of note: Great Expectations (Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Feinnes) and Mr. Pip (Hugh Laurie). In the year of Mr. Dickens' 200th birthday, his work seems to resonate still and be gaining in popular appeal. 

Great Expectations opened to great fanfare in Toronto. Not only do cinephiles love "posh old Brits," they flock to the theatre to see Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Feinnes. Sadly, the reviews were lukewarm. The stellar cast has been described as boring and HBC's Miss Havesham was "not batty enough." The 2011 BBC version (Gillian Anderson, Ray Winstone) of the same title garnered better reviews in the UK than US. Disappointing to some, I'm sure, but it's probably difficult to approach this novel in an entirely original way that will satisfy both lovers of Dickens as well as a general audience.

Mr. Pip, based on the novel by Lloyd Jones (shortlisted for the Man Booker 2007 and winner of the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for best book in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific), effectively revisits Dickens' material in a refreshing and touching way. It follows the friendship between Matilda, a young girl on the island of Bougainville, (in the throes of civil war) and her teacher Mr. Watts. Through a shared love of Great Expectations, the two weather the most traumatic episodes in their lives and, in the process, learn about themselves. The movie lulls you into a false sense of security (the breathtaking scenes of the island and heartwarming images of children lapping up Dickens' wordy prose) only to shock you with brutal scenes of war atrocities. Hugh Laurie gives a subtle and restrained performance while demonstrating his flair for zaniness has not diminished (after years of playing the broody Dr. House) when he acts out scenes from the novel for his students.

The best part about this film (and the book) is that the story is told from Matilda's perspective. The characters of Great Expectations, in her imagination, look like her people of her island. They wear colourful Victorian costumes. The characters walk through not the dirty crowded streets of London but the sunny sandy paths of an island metropolis. It's beautiful to see Dickens re-imagined in this way.

If I were in charge of a Canadian version of Great Expectations, I would cast Ryan Gosling (Pip), Rachel McAdams (Estella), Kim Catrall (Miss Havasham ... also considered Neve Campbell because of her wispy/ shaky voice) and the entire novel would be set on a ranch in Alberta. Instant classic. 

* Since 1938, there have been a grand total of 60 different film/ tv adaptations of Jane Austen's novels. There has been one Bollywood version. (See:
^ According to, Charles Dickens' work has been the source of over 329 film/ tv adaptations since 1897!


Alas, I am unable to comment on either of these films, though Mr. Pip really does sound like a brilliantly reconceived version. I must say that the recent BBC version of Great Expectations with Gillian Anderson was very well done - I did not know that UK audiences preferred it more than American ones. This followed on the heels of another Anderson tour-de-force as Lady Dedlock in Bleak House. One must admit a weakness for long, multi-part adaptations of both Dickens (Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend spring instantly to mind) and other classic authors... anon...

Wives & Daughters, BBC (1999)
I have previously blogged about the underappreciated works of Elizabeth Gaskell. Richard Armitage has smoldered in North and South, poor little Molly Gibson suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in village England in Wives and Daughters. And, finally of course, Dame Judi Dench leads a stellar cast in Cranford. Some may have thought it "twee," but it was a hugely successful BBC series, inspiring a less successful sequel (and what sequel is not?) Cranford Returns.

The next 19th century author to make it big, one hopes, is Anthony Trollope. Yes, there is He Knew He was Right, The Way we Live Now, and The Barchester Chronicles (with a pre-Harry Potter-fame Alan Rickman as the devilishly odious "Obadiah Slope"). But, there is so much more for future BBC scriptwriters and aspiring young period-piece actors to sink their teeth into.

I have not mentioned any of the Austen adaptations, not only because they really require no reiteration here, but because I think, quite frankly, we could all do with a slight rest from Austen (no slight suggested against her fine works).

Many apologies if my contribution to this discussion is rather like a laundry list. And I've not even delved into George Eliot. The listings are now at an end. But, the fact remains that if you have not had the pleasure of viewing any of the above, the remedy lies directly in your hands!



  1. @SloaneScholar1: I now also wish for the Canadian version of Great Expectation, Alberta Ranch!
    Harper could move the manure in the stables.

  2. Other world leaders appear on late night talk shows to pander to the electorate. Our PM makes cameos in period dramas!


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