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KS4 English: Great Expectations (1946)

Comparing the film and novel's presentation of pathetic fallacy

Main image of KS4 English: Great Expectations (1946)
AuthorJessica Hardiman
TopicGreat Expectations
Key WordsDickens, Victorian, Lean, pathetic fallacy, atmosphere, adaptation
Show full lesson spec

Macabre music and threatening scenery create a dark atmosphere in David Lean's stylised opening sequence to Great Expectations.

A useful extract for teaching pathetic fallacy and the idea of narrator's perspective, comparing film and text.

This lesson idea uses the film to enable students to appreciate Dicken's use of pathetic fallacy to create a menacing atmosphere, and to heighten the students' awareness of the childlike reactions of the narrator. The lesson develops close textual reading of the film and the text, enabling students to discuss critically the implications of the setting and mood, as created in the novel, and in its adapted form.

Lesson Objective

  • To understand how Dickens uses the setting of his novel to create atmosphere for the reader
  • To understand how the child-narrator's thoughts and feelings are conveyed via the language of the novel, and David Lean's direction.


Give students an A4 sheet, in pairs, with landscape stills from films (not only Lean's Great Expectations). There should ideally be a mixture of colour and black and white stills and also a variety of settings, e.g. urban and rural landscape, stormy weather and clear skys etc.

Ask the students to annotate the pictures on the sheet, with the following focus questions in mind:

  • What adjectives would you use to describe this scene? Annotate everything that you can see in each picture.
  • What mood do you think the director is trying to create at this point in the film? Record the adjectives you think would best describe the mood, and record reasons that support your ideas.

This simple exercise should highlight that the reader immediately makes assumptions of the mood based on what their impressions of the scenery are. When the students feed back they should also be aware of alternative interpretations, and that there is sometimes no definite 'right' answer when recording their ideas, so long as they can persuade with evidence and sufficient evaluation.


Main Attraction

Ideally, students should be split into two groups (and isolated from one another - perhaps in two separate classrooms/parts of the library etc). The teacher might introduce this by explaining that both directors and authors make deliberate selections of detail to achieve certain purposes (e.g., to create a particular atmosphere). The opening sequence of the film deals both with pathetic fallacy and with the threatening scene between Magwitch and Pip. Students should identify primarily the actual landscape, but may want to think about what the character of Magwitch adds to the scene (perhaps as an extension task).

  • One group should watch the opening sequence of the film, and should record everything that they can see/hear/infer about the setting and atmosphere of the story. This could be done using a simple table (see Appendix One). The teacher might introduce this by explaining that both directors and authors make deliberate selections of detail to achieve certain purposes (e.g., to create a particular atmosphere).
  • The second group should read and annotate the first chapter of the book for details of the setting and any visual aspect of the scene, inferring the atmosphere created by these details, and their reasons for such inferences. The students should select key quotations which they will cite and explain to the first group once both groups reunite. (Again, for students who complete this faster, Magwitch's character should also be analysed in tandem with the setting.)

The students should reunite and take turns to feedback their findings and thoughts to one another. Students should take notes in their copies of the novel/their books, ideally enhancing the class's overall interpretation of the use of pathetic fallacy. If time permits students should refer to specific extracts from the film clip to enable them better to explain their ideas.


End Credits

  • How effectively did David Lean translate Dickens' setting/first scene into film? Students from either group should now reflect on the additions that Lean's film have made to their understanding of the first chapter.
  • How does the film help the reader to appreciate Pip's perspective in this sequence?

External Links

Video Clips
Great Expectations 1. Opening Sequence (4:03)
Downloadable Teaching Resources
Worksheet One

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Great Expectations (1946)Great Expectations (1946)

Read more about this film

See also

Thumbnail image of KS4 English: Great Expectations 2 (1946)KS4 English: Great Expectations 2 (1946)

Exploring how Pip's imagination is brought to life on film

Thumbnail image of KS4 English: Great Expectations 3 (1946)KS4 English: Great Expectations 3 (1946)

Exploring the use of imagery to create dramatic tension

Thumbnail image of KS4 English: Great Expectations 4 (1946)KS4 English: Great Expectations 4 (1946)

Exploring Victorian class distinctions and Pip's snobbery in the film and novel

Thumbnail image of KS4 English: Great Expectations 5 (1946)KS4 English: Great Expectations 5 (1946)

Imagining subtitles and special effects using the film without sound

Thumbnail image of Dickens on FilmDickens on Film

The 19th Century literary giant has long been a favourite of filmmakers