Masterpiece’s “Great Expectations” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”

April 25, 2012

120410GreatExpKidLeft: Failed sketch of an actor in the new PBS version of "Great Expectations." (Pencil and gouache on Nideggen.)

Not every sketch works, just like not every dramatization of a literary masterpiece works.

Here I was trying to do something with the blues and the shadows. The great thing about this is that I can immediately go on to the next sketch.

When you don't get it right in a dramatization the audience has to suffer through or leave the room! 

Recently, like probably millions of others I tuned in to watch "Great Expectations" on PBS.

The first week I thought I was going to pass out from joy. They started with a one hour episode covering Pip's childhood up to the meeting with Miss Havisham.

(Look if you don't know what I'm talking about READ A BOOK!)

Here's something that EVERY casting agent on the planet should have tattooed on to his or her forearm (for easy reading when they have a moment of hesitation and doubt):

There are two roles in Western Literature that cannot survive half-hearted, mediocre, or mis-directed acting: Pip (from GE) and Ralph (from Lord of the Flies).

Seriously, you don't know what I'm writing about? READ A BOOK.

Supporting actors of excellence can pretty much fill holes in anything else. They can act around poor casting choices in most other roles, but not these two essential creatures. If you don't have the right Pip (or the right Ralph) nothing else works. NOTHING. Because we couldn't careless.

Imagine then my complete dismay when young Pip morphed into "older Pip" and I realized I'd have to spend 2 more hours with "older Pip." 

Don't get me wrong—Douglas Booth is probably a fine actor (this is the first time I've seen him). Give him a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and pinch him and he'd make an excellent Steerforth. (Seriously? David Cooperfield.)

But he is not Pip. Nope, no way. And the entire production sags because of this essential fact. Part of this is a fault of the screenwriting—what to leave in, what to leave out when you have the vast amount of detail Dickens provides. Those choices do limit the actors. But Booth just doesn't make me care. Neither, for that matter does Vanessa Kirby as Estella. I kept wondering about her wardrobe and how it didn't seem to fit her.

If you haven't watched this version of GE go ahead and watch the first hour, because Ray Winstone gives an utterly raw performance of Magwitch that will grab you by the throat. And Shaun Dooley is very fine as Joe. Harry Lloyd does a lovely bit as Herbert Pocket in the 2-hour finale but then you have to live minute to minute waiting for his character, or Joe, or Magwitch to appear. (Strangely Lloyd was "Young Steerforth" in an adaptation of David Copperfield with Maggie Smith that I have not seen—I'll look for that, as well as other productions including him.) I'm still absorbing Gillian Anderson's performance as Miss Havisham.

When it came time to view "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," my expectations weren't great. I have trouble with how most writers "finish" the unfinished work. And we have so little of the book it's hard to like many of the characters yet.

Dickens kept notebooks on his novels and when you compare the notebooks to the number of pages generated of finished work there is consistency that allows us to extrapolate how long Drood would have been. It's been a long time since I read studies about this but I seem to recall that we barely have a quarter of what probably would have been written.

My problem with this production of "Drood" was the "cramped" nature. The approach the screenwriter took was plausible enough (within Dickensian plausibility) but it needed plumping. It has been so long since I've read this book that I would have to reread it to know if I'm liking adaptation or sheer innovation, but Rory Kinnear does a lovely bit as Reverend Septimus Crisparkle (nothing about it seems familiar—hence my need to re-read the book). Basically Ron Cook walks away with the whole thing as Durdles. Since that's a minor role, again we have the issue of the main actors not making me care about them.

With movies of great books (that are complete) we often go to the performance and superimpose our impressions and memories of the book onto the adaptation. The adaptation should stand alone. Since we don't have anything from Dickens after the early stages to impose on the story of Drood, however, it seems a little truncated (the issue of cramping Dickens into a small space) and it also seems a little hollow.

There are plenty of bad adaptations out there in which the actors make me care about their characters even though the writing is poor.

So here's hoping casting agents get a clue. 

  1. Reply

    Hmm…Please Roz don’t throw virtual rocks at me! I have to admit to never having read a single Dickens book through to the end! I am a reader however and so I searched my shelves and found a copy of both books. No tv to watch the current series, maybe my guy can find it on his computer. I always have to read the book before watching the movie anyway though, and most casting directors never live up to my imaginings either. GE and Drood are going on my beside stack, hope I don’t start an avalanche.

  2. Reply

    Margo, I won’t throw rocks, virtual or otherwise. If you haven’t read Dickens at all, however, I would recommend that you read “David Copperfield” or “Hard Times” (the latter is also very short) as a first read, and then “Great Expectations” if you’re so inclined. And that you skip “Drood” because it wasn’t finished by him and I personally don’t think it can be appreciated by anyone who hasn’t read all of Dickens. So save yourself the frustration and read some Trollope instead.

  3. Reply

    Caroline, well, thanks for weighing in about the latest GE experience. I’m sorry you too found it lacking. I’m glad however that you found a little something recognizable in the sketch, which I don’t. I wish I’d focused on Ray!!! I thought the opening scenes of the marshes, or whatever they are called in that part of England were just stunning. I’m not a big sketcher of backgrounds but I can understand how they would put you off. I hope you find some subjects about you that grab your attention!

  4. Reply

    I have a kind of fascination of adaptations of novels. In the case of Drood I was pleasantly surprised–yes, an awful lot of ground got covered very quickly and Dickens is never quick–but I thought the “mystery” part was well-handled. I agree–Durdles was especially marvelous. And the actor who played Bazzard–David Dawson–also outshone the rather dull Edwin. And I liked Rosa Bud — I think that actress may have played Georgiana Darcy in the most recent Pride and Prejudice.

    More on topic–I’ve started sketching from TV because of you. Not fully developed paintings, just gestures, but I find I’ve already learned so much. Thanks for starting me on that path.

  5. Reply

    Yep, that was the same actress in the recent movie version of P&P. I’m glad you’re sketching from TV and having fun with that. Don’t forget to get out to the zoo and places about town too! (I have to remind myself to do that today actually!)


  6. Reply

    The old movies based on Dickens were so much better than TV’s attempts. My pet peeve is that no director can get the right Jane and Rochester in the same movie of Jane Eyre.

  7. Reply

    Molly, you bring up a whole other problem for casting directors—couples. Essential couples. Jane and Rochester; Elizabeth and Darcy (though I think the 6 part TV version with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle is pretty near perfect); Thomas Crown and whatever her name was (neither work for me and I like pretty much everyone involved); Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson (which was done well in His Girl Friday, but done less well so many other times, especially with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner in Switching Channels); and don’t even get me started with people and animal buddies! It’s a good thing I haven’t had much sleep the past few days or I’d go on and on!

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