The ongoing “Dickens on Screen” season at the British Film Institute celebrates over a hundred years of screen adaptations of Dickens’s novels, to mark the author’s bicentenary year. Daniel Tyler looks back at four striking adaptations of Great Expectations and asks, why have filmmakers swapped Dickens’s equivocal ending for a happy reunion?
Although Dickens revised his novel so that it ends less dismally than originally intended, his final version is not the “happy ending” that some critics mistakenly suppose it to be. Estella’s final words to Pip are “we shall continue friends apart.” Pip’s response—“I saw the shadow of no future parting from her”—may contain a glimmer of hope amid the oblique wording, but it hardly constitutes an entirely upbeat conclusion.
David Aylott (dir.), The Boy and the Convict (1909)
Dickens proved attractive to the very earliest filmmakers, perhaps because of his inherently visual writing style. One of the first cinematic reworkings of Great Expectations was a 12-minute silent film, directed by David Aylott, called The Boy and the Convict. Partly due to the difficulties of presenting an intricate story through silent film, it offered a plotline stripped down to the barest details of the Pip and Magwitch story. This was the first adaptation to confer a decidedly happy ending on Pip as, although the Miss Havisham/Estella storyline is entirely absent, at the end of the film the former-convict blesses the hero’s love for his daughter, who was conveniently introduced just a scene earlier.