Great Expectations (1946) was the first of David Lean's two adaptations of Dickens classics (Oliver Twist followed in 1948). Lean realised the cinematic potential of the novel more skilfully than his predecessors and most of those that followed him. The result is one of the finest British literary adaptations, and one of the most acclaimed of all British films.
Lean brings Dickens' words to life in a series of memorable set-pieces: Pip's encounter with the convict Magwitch in the churchyard, beautifully foreshadowed by the grim and desolate establishing shots of the Kentish marshes; Pip's first meeting with the eccentric Miss Havisham, and the macabre atmosphere in the offices of Mr. Jaggers, the lawyer whose walls are decorated with the death masks of clients he has lost to the gallows.
John Mills, at 38 surprisingly old for the role, is excellent as Pip, although Martita Hunt steals the early scenes, playing Miss Havisham as an imposing if shabby figure, bedecked in crumbling lace and linen. Francis L. Sullivan as Jaggers gives a similarly powerful performance: his voice rolls and booms, and physically he towers over his servile assistant Wemmick (Ivor Barnard).
Talking of the adaptation process, Lean said, "choose what you want to do in the novel and do it proud. If necessary cut characters. Don't keep every character, just take a sniff of each one." This somewhat cavalier attitude to classic literature is perhaps a wiser one than that of filmmakers who lack the courage to cut out marginal material. In Lean's case it certainly didn't detract from the audience's enjoyment of what has come to be seen as quintessential 'Dickensian' cinema.
Typical of Lean's careful choices is the retention of Wemmick's Aged Parent: the character serves no real narrative purpose, but the very visual humour of the repeated nodding to the elderly, increasingly deaf 'Aged P' provides an amusing distraction, and preserves a piece of very Dickensian characterisation.
Lean successfully distils a long and complex novel, written in the first person, into a compelling visual narrative covering no more than two hours. In this film, perhaps more than in any other, he makes us care about the characters, and casts the kind of cinematic spell very few directors are capable of, bringing into play a powerful visual narrative that hints at big themes and elemental forces. Great Expectations offers a near perfect balance of human sentiment and visual grandeur.