David Nicholls On Adapting Books, Personal Responses And Great Expectations

David Nicholls has adapted several novels for the screen before, including his own Starter For Ten and One Day. His latest adaptation is yet another pass at Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, in collaboration with director Mike Newell.

This adaptation isn’t trying to be the same film as all of the previous ones, mind. Nicholls and Newell had their own goal in mind…

I spoke to Nicholls last week about adapting literature into cinema, and about some of the specifics of this particular translation. Here is some of what he told me.

The hardest thing about adapting a book like Great Expectations is what you lose. I lost the older Pip, the man who is looking back and regretting his life [the novel’s first person narrator]. You lose that voice so you have to get some of the regret and the sadness onto the screen, into the story’s present day.

One key thing was the relationship with Joe Gargery, his brother in law who isn’t in the novel a huge amount. I didn’t want to cut any of his stuff from the film, I think that stuff is essential. Pip is looking for a father figure and this wonderful warm man offers himself and Pip rejects him.

In the novel you really feel the shame and the embarrassment of the older Pip when he looks back at how he treated this man who loved him and protected him. I hope that it’s in the film. I think Jeremy [Irvine, playing Pip] really ‘gets it’ in the scene, and it’s one of the best things in the movie, I think.

I read Dickens’ book when I was about fourteen or fifteen and I felt exactly like that younger Pip. I didn’t know what I wanted to be or wanted to do, I just had that kind of vague dissatisfaction. And that’s what I held on to, what effected me most about the book. Even though Pip is a terrible person, I saw all of my failings and flaws in him. That’s what I identified with.

I think the film is pretty faithful. You have to make changes in all adaptations because that’s what it means. A book can’t be a film and a film can’t be a book read aloud, it needs to be dramatic and it’s got to fit into two hours.

I always think of an adaptation as responding to the book, drawing out themes and drawing out certain ideas, elaborating on certain aspects of character… but having said that, there’s very little in this movie that doesn’t take place in the book and most of the dialogue is adapted from dialogue that’s in the book.

I think this is the closest a screen version has come to keeping the intricacies and the complexities of the plot. That’s my hope – that it’s both distinctive and hopefully as faithful as we could achieve in the time allowed.

The film is a personal response to the book and I find the book very, very moving. I don’t think that’s necessarily the response that other people have to Dickens in particular. I think people find Dickens quite cold and stuffy and primarily a comic writer and satirist. But I don’t think that that’s the case. I wanted to make a case for Dickens as a much more human, much more sophisticated and much more emotional writer than he’s sometimes portrayed. I feel quite strongly that this is a quite different screen vision of Dickens.

Adaptations can take people back to the book, if they know the book, and if they don’t, it could send them to the book for the first time. The book is always there, it will always be loved, and hopefully the film adds to that rather than sets itself up as an alternative.

Mike Newell and I turned the pages of the script really carefully and went through each scene and made sure that we were on the same page. We had a really happy working relationship, very harmonious as he loves Dickens as well and we were equally passionate about the material. He’s fantastically experienced and competent on set and it’s great to work with a director who has all of that behind him.

We did go through the script page-by-page but we didn’t change very much. The script that he used was pretty much my draft that he first read.

I love the cast. I love the youth of Holliday [Grainger, playing Estella] and Jeremy. You really get a sense that these are eighteen and nineteen year olds, they’re not twenty eight year olds pretending to be young.

I love the way that Helena’s Miss Havisham isn’t this mean old crone, she has some vulnerability, some mischief and some humour, and a twisted affection for Estella. It isn’t just spite.

I love the dignity that Ralph brings to Magwitch and I really, really love Jason Flemyng’s Joe Gargery. I think that character could potentially be played just as a kind of village idiot and Jason doesn’t do that at all. He plays him as a wonderful, warm, complicated man, and that’s exactly that I mean by what an adaptation can bring. It can bring qualities that are in the novel but aren’t necessarily apparent on first reading.

 Great Expectations is in UK cinemas now. Jason Flemyng very well may be man of the match – and not for the first time.

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