Pitch: a new look at “Great Expectations”

24 November 2012

I watched the BBC’s recent 3-hour version of Great Expectations (2011) last night and was left with one thought: why hasn’t anyone told Estella’s story? She’s waaayyyy more interesting than Pip.

Nota bene: while this version is fine — and Gillian Anderson does indeed make an eery Miss Havisham — who can take seriously the notion that this Pip (Douglas Booth) hasn’t been kidnapped for use as a male prostitute?

Pip is a nice kid, to be sure, but he’s also self-pitying, predictable, and somewhat delusional re: Estella. In contrast, Estella is riveting. Adopted as a tiny child by Miss Havisham, the only life she has ever known has been within the weird world of Satis House, where her benefactress teaches her to destroy the hearts of men.

The “great expectations” people have for Pip consist of the notion that he might become something other than a blacksmith. Yawn. Whereas Miss Havisham expects Estella to enact revenge on men. Now that’s interesting.

The BBC’s most recent Estella (Vanessa Kirby, above) is very beautiful and conflicted indeed, but I liked the child version (Izzy Meikle-Small, left) even better — she’s got a set to her jaw and a cock to her eyebrow that indicate a relish for the lessons she receives from her adopted mother. It appears quite realistic that a 12 yr-old girl would enact such a persona con gusto, particularly if she has allowed herself to believe that she is beautiful and that there is no reality outside Satis House.

But she doesn’t, does she?

And thus begins their complicated relationship.

Jean Simmons in the 1946 film adaptation

Seen from Pip’s point of view, Satis House and its awful, decades-old decaying wedding decorations constitute a bizarre, topsy-turvy world, and he mixes his growing love for Estella with his fascination with this world of books and wealth and objects … as well as with his interest in saving her from its corruptions. Seen purely through his eyes, Estella has been led astray by Miss Havisham’s madness but retains an essential goodness in her soul.

Or so he believes. But then, these are the beliefs of an essentially boring person. What might it look like through her eyes?

Claire Redcliffe in a 2008 theater production in Manchester, Eng.

Estella is both better educated and smarter than Pip is, and has a strong sense of irony. When he asks about the house’s odd name, she explains that it means enough. “It meant, when it was given, that whoever had this house, could want nothing else. They must have been easily satisfied in those days, I should think,” she adds with a lovely bit of acidic implied commentary on how things have changed since it was named. Pip just stands there with his mouth open.

How might the story look if she were fleshed out, if we explored that odd life she lives inside Miss Havisham’s mausoleum? Rather than merely see her through Pip’s eyes — Pip, who loves her stupidly and believes she is truly good inside that heartless exterior (yawn, again) — how might she describe her own life?

Gwyneth Paltrow, of course, in the 1998 Alfonso Cuarón film that placed the whole thing in modern times

Such a tale could say a very great deal about the prisons inhabited by 19th-century women, in which their sole purpose as young, lovely things is to prepare themselves for marriage. Miss Havisham has sought to undermine this only insofar as she wants Estella to make herself as cold as ice, impervious to love and capable of destroying the hearts of that sex who ruined her all those years earlier.

Of course, we know Estella has a mind of her own. When Pip punches the pompous little Herbert Pocket in the eye, she lets him kiss her. She’s smart enough to know that Miss Havisham is not all wrong. What does love gain a woman? The deployment of her heart is the only way she might have a degree of power in society. It should not be seen as merely a “natural” sign of woman’s weakness.

And yet, what does her lovelessness get her? She marries the cruel Drummle — for what? He has no heart, either, so in exchange for her coldness she gets abused. All those years of building a heart of ice, simply to learn that it has achieved nothing. The book tells us virtually nothing about their marriage, which is precisely why we need a retelling of this tale.

Such a tale would also have something to say about relationships between mothers and daughters. Later in life, when Estella returns from gaining her European education, Miss Havisham learns that she has done far too good a job with her adopted daughter, who lacks love so utterly that she can barely stand to be in her mother’s presence. We are supposed to receive this news as yet more irony for the bitter old woman — but how different might that scene appear if we knew that Estella was exacting revenge on Miss Havisham even more than on the entire male sex?

Even better, it would illuminate that divide between a woman’s exterior appearance — and all the baggage piled on top of the question of a woman’s beauty — and her inner life, a life and intellect she learns to conceal from view.

And finally there’s the rich vein of subject matter concerning Estella’s mysterious parentage. Considering Dickens’ near-obsession with lineage and family, Estella’s story could be far more interesting if one of her major goals in life is to find her true parents and the story of her adoption, rather than have them hidden from her forever.

I’m telling you, there’s meat on these here bones. Estella beats out every other character in the book for great character potential; in any reasonable person’s retelling, Pip would be reduced to a secondary or tertiary character. C’mon, creative friends: who’s going to take on this job of giving us The Girl of Satis House?

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4 Responses to “Pitch: a new look at “Great Expectations””

  1. Dark Iris Says:

    Not sure if you’ve heard about this project, but Reese Witherspoon is producing a contemporary Great Expectations with a female Pip for the CW. http://screenrant.com/expectations-cw-reese-witherspoon/ Hmmm. I’m ambivalent about the project’s success, considering the star and the network. I am with you about Estella. Perhaps The Girl of Satis House could be a project for your next sabbatical?

    • Didion Says:

      Ugh, this sounds terrible, and I find myself baffled about how this very 19th-c. story can be translated to modern-day San Francisco. How depressing.

      On the other hand, a Reese Witherspoon-produced story about Estella — now that’s something I could get down with.

      I’m better at pitches than I am at creative follow-through, aren’t I? It peeves me to no end that I can’t make actual money with my endless supply of good film/ miniseries ideas. (My idea for a female-oriented stoner comedy about librarians, for example, still gives me a charge.) Oh, to be a Hollywood mogul instead of a middle-career college professor who gets cranky when her students misplace their apostrophes.

  2. Servetus Says:

    If you say so … I haven’t been able to make myself even consider seeing this. Too many bad memories from English 9.

    • Didion Says:

      It’s not one of Dickens’ better productions. Not quite sure why it seems so perennially appealing to filmmakers. But just wait till someone produces the Estella story.


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