Why shouldn’t adaptations of Great Expectations take issue with Dickens’s text? I did

Miss Havisham (Olivia Colman) with Pip (Fionn Whitehead) in the BBC's Great Expectations - Miya Mizuno
Miss Havisham (Olivia Colman) with Pip (Fionn Whitehead) in the BBC's Great Expectations - Miya Mizuno

Some years ago, I was asked by an educational publisher to write a guide to Dickens’ Great Expectations aimed at A-level students. It’s a novel I must have read three or four times – and despite my scant academic expertise, I signed up, excited by the challenge of excavating a masterpiece. But what I found wasn’t what I anticipated: a work of genius, no question, but something more flawed, contradictory and mysterious than is widely acknowledged.

The typescript came back from the publisher with a thumbs-down. Sorry, this isn’t what we hoped for; we don’t want questions, we want answers. You say that there are pages when Dickens was tired and faked it (the quality of the prose slumps, becoming relentlessly polysyllabic); that secondary characters such as Mr Wopsle are fuzzily defined; that the sub-plot around Orlick should have been excised altogether. Your view is that Pip isn’t a snob, but simply someone like Dickens who needed to better himself. That’s not what the literary critics are saying…

I was honourably discharged, and the commission was transferred. In my defence, I can only say, as a former A-level examiner, that I would readily mark up any paper that moved beyond black or white to show sensitivity to nuance, uncertainty or miscalculation.

Great Expectations blazes with white-hot genius, but it is all the more richly fascinating for its confusions and ambiguities. It currently ranks as Dickens’s global bestseller, with a reputation for being what his biographer Edgar Johnson called “the most perfectly constructed and perfectly written of all Dickens’s works”. It has been filmed many times, and is now reappearing in its umpteenth BBC version, adapted by Steven Knight of Peaky Blinders fame. Knight has made free with the text. He has cut out the Orlick sub-plot (good move) and the comic highlight of Trabb’s boy (bad move). Pompous Mr Pumblechook will next week be shown enjoying S&M as Mrs Joe turns Miss Whiplash. Poor Miss Havisham has become an opium addict.

I don’t like the sound of these changes, but we shouldn’t get too precious about them. If you want a “faithful” adaptation, there are plenty of those around – or you can just read the original. After all, Steven Knight is only doing what Dickens did: giving his public what they wanted. Great Expectations was written in 1860–1 with a keen eye to pleasing the mass market. Dickens had just published a historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), with mixed success, and now he would try his hand at a thriller – a genre that had become sensationally popular through his friend Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859).

Nuptial bliss? Even Dickens was uncertain if Estella and Pip should marry - Miya Mizuno/BBC
Nuptial bliss? Even Dickens was uncertain if Estella and Pip should marry - Miya Mizuno/BBC

There was an urgent commercial imperative behind Great Expectations: it had to be sensational enough to restore the falling circulation of All the Year Round, the tabloid magazine that Dickens edited, where it was initially published in short weekly instalments. This format required a tight plot and high tension – shocking revelations, explosions of violence, tantalising teasers and cliff-hangers.

All this Dickens managed with aplomb. Yet its mechanics rely on a chain of melodramatic coincidences that no thriller writer today would countenance. I counted at least seven wild improbabilities. Here are two: is it plausible that Magwitch and Miss Havisham should have the same lawyer? And can anyone credit that Pip should be on the same stagecoach as the anonymous convict who for no reason suddenly relates to his mate how, a decade previously, Magwitch gave him pound notes to pass to Pip? The inclusion of a couple of such extreme twists might have been thrilling and chilling, but cumulatively they weaken the novel’s narrative thread, especially as there are other holes in the fabric: for instance, why aren’t Pip and Herbert Pocket prosecuted as accessories to Magwitch’s escape?

Dickens created characters in profligate abundance, and sometimes he can be detected trying them out on the page only to discover that he doesn’t know what to do with them: in Great Expectations, Miss Coiler and The Avenger are two such aborted figures, briefly introduced and swiftly dumped. His manuscripts reveal him compulsively playing with possibilities from first jottings to final proofs. Because he was in a race against deadlines, inconsistencies also creep in. At one moment, Bentley Drummle hails from Somerset; later, it’s Shropshire.

These are mere glitches, and most readers will be swept along by the white heat of Dickens’s imagination. The narrator Pip is melancholic, conscience-stricken and solitary. He has clearly been wounded by his traumatic early experiences, and suffers a nervous collapse, described in almost clinical detail towards the novel’s end. In Pip there appears to be much of Dickens himself, reflecting ruefully on the value of his achievements at a moment when his marriage had broken up and several of his children were proving worrisome.

It has also been suggested that his unconsummated passion for the actress Ellen Ternan is encoded in Pip’s infatuation with Estella (a partially anagrammatic name that Dickens coined). This might explain why Dickens couldn’t make his mind up about how to end the novel: its final page exists in four different versions, three of them prevaricating over whether Pip and Estella end up together. Broadly speaking, Dickens knew that his readers craved wedding bells, but his heart told him otherwise. His first thought was to have the two of them encounter each other by chance, both alone and sad; the revisions reunite them – simultaneously and improbably – in the ruins of Miss Havisham’s Satis House. But what happens next remains unspecified. This isn’t a novel where anything is clear-cut – and that’s why Steven Knight should be allowed his liberties.

Great Expectations continues on Sunday on BBC One at 9pm