Most recent movies based on classic literature, from "Sense and Sensibility" to "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," have stayed true to the time of the original story.
But there's another tradition that runs in the opposite direction: the Hollywood Update, moving a tale from bygone times to the present. Recent examples include "Clueless," based on "Emma" by Jane Austen, and "Romeo & Juliet," in which the star-crossed lovers are undone by a late Fedex delivery.
The first three versions of "Great Expectations," made between 1934 and 1974, fall into the first category, taking Charles Dickens's novel on its own terms. The new edition, starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, is an Update with a vengeance.
Once a poor English marsh-dweller, Pip is now Finn, a would-be artist who travels from Florida to Manhattan in search of fame and fortune. Estella is still a strong-minded young woman, but a modern American context makes her seem more willful and whimsical than ever. The mysterious Magwitch becomes a death-row convict with a knack for jailbreaking, and Miss Havisham develops a taste for music and campy outfits.
What's going on here? Nothing but Hollywood's perennial search for a sensational story to showcase its loveliest young talents. Hawke and Paltrow are as lovely as they come, and director Alfonso Cuarn loses no chance to fill the screen with their charms.
This gives stargazers ample opportunity to savor the images of two current Hollywood favorites. It also indulges the season's most rapidly aging clich: the nude sketching scene, already overdone in "Titanic" and "As Good as It Gets."
Cuarn is a gifted director, as he showed in "A Little Princess," one of the most undervalued family films of the '90s. The visual style of "Great Expectations" doesn't have as much magical impact, but it has enough energy and inventiveness to give the picture a fair amount of cinematic flair.
What it doesn't have is a literate screenplay. Dickens's novel is a continual feast of imaginative storytelling, compassionate character-building, and hugely entertaining dialogue. Mitch Glazer's script is a pale shadow by comparison, with limply written scenes - an art-gallery confrontation between the Pip character and his uncle is almost embarrassing to watch - and little indication of why the filmmakers chose the Update treatment to begin with.
In the leading roles, Hawke and Paltrow look so nice that demands for excellent acting seem beside the point. In the supporting cast, Robert De Niro shows little involvement with the shadowy character he plays, and Chris Cooper is defeated by the weak dialogue he has to deliver. Anne Bancroft's over-the-top acting has nothing to do with any Miss Havisham you've ever seen, but she gives needed momentum to the picture.
The best technical credits are Emmanuel Lubezki's colorful camera work and the tuneful music by Patrick Doyle. Like others connected with this "Great Expectations," he'd do well to stay with period pieces for a while. It's safer and sounder all around.
* Rated R; contains violence, eroticism, and vulgar language.