Adding '90s expectations to Dickens classic

There's no such thing as too much Charles Dickens on TV. It is virtually impossible for a film to capture all the varied subtleties that make his novels so compelling.

Remakes seem to shed more light on the original stories, illuminating various nooks and crannies one might not have noticed before.

"Great Expectations" has been produced several times, the best version being David Lean's brilliant 1946 film.

But not even Mr. Lean could capture the full depth and breadth of the novel. That's why Masterpiece Theatre's handsome new interpretation (PBS, May 9 and 10, 9-10:30 p.m.) is cause for popcorn.

Lean's gothic style - lots of deep shadows and twilight scenes, frightening faces leering up out of the dark, and a monstrous fairy-tale villainess - captured the power of the story's mythic dimension.

In the new version, director Julian Jarrold and producer David Snodin were looking for a more realistic approach to speak to a '90s audience. In this rendering, all the shadows are hidden in the human heart, rather than displayed on screen. But the monsters are all the more scary for being truly human.

This "Great Expectations" is no fairy tale. It's a harsh narrative of child abuse and the dysfunction such abuse can cause. And if the filmmakers take rather alarming liberties with the plot at times, they at least offer a legitimate promise of eventual healing, which was absent in earlier screen versions.

"We decided to be modern, but not self-consciously modern," Mr. Snodin says. "We are respectful of the spirit of the book. It is in no sense a radical departure - we wanted to take a book of timeless quality and visit it by a particular generation."

As the story opens, little Pip is running from escaped convict Magwich, who captures him, frightens him, and lets him go.

Pip rises in the middle of the night to steal food for the felon from the larder of his sister - a mean-spirited, spiteful woman who punishes the child at every turn.

The convict is apprehended and deported to Australia. Meanwhile, Pip is hired to play with the rich, bitter Miss Havisham's adopted daughter, the beautiful Estella.

Miss Havisham (Charlotte Rampling) wants Estella to break Pip's heart, as her own heart was broken 30 years earlier. Estella is her revenge on all men.

And so Estella is brought up to have no heart - a wicked upbringing indeed. And Miss Havisham ensures Pip's heartbreak by allowing him to believe that she will lift him out of his position as a blacksmith's apprentice to become a gentleman. But when he is lifted up, it is by another hand than hers - though he does not know it.

And so Pip becomes a gentleman after all - but class distinctions do not delineate worth in Dickens. Pip faces disillusionment about his benefactor before his humanity is reclaimed and he can renew his relationship with the one person who has loved him all his life - his blacksmith brother-in-law.

The search for identity is a powerful 20th-century theme, but it lies at the heart of Dickens's 19th-century story. So director Jarrold wanted his grown-up Pip to be a tad more pro-active than the book's hero.

Ioan Gruffud plays him with more spirit and more passion than others have: When he stands up to Miss Havisham, he is less hurt than outraged.

"Pip's journey is the moral side of the story," Jarrold says, "from someone who becomes a snob and irresponsible to someone who begins to value his own origins ...."

"A great book has many themes," producer Snodin adds. "One doesn't want to be reductive - to lessen its mythic form - the power of myth is part of it.

"But one of the most important themes is that we must live according to the way we are, not according to the expectations imposed on us."

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