Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations

By Chris Dickinson, Baylor University

Over shots of Florida’s Gulf Coast, an adult Finn (Alfonso Cuarón’s version of Pip, played by Ethan Hawke) tells us, “I won’t tell the story the way it happened. I’ll tell it the way I remember it” (Cuarón). Such a statement in the opening scene of Cuarón’s 1998 film lets viewers know that Mitch Glazer’s screenplay presents a fantasy about Great Expectations rather than a strict re-telling of Dickens’s novel. The changes to setting and narrative are immense: Florida’s impoverished pre-Katrina Gulf Coast (the opening shots of which are particularly striking) replaces England’s marshlands, New York replaces London, and a funded art exhibition by an unknown benefactor replaces Pip’s original “Expectations.” Despite all these “cosmetic” changes, the most profound changes in the film come in terms of character. For instance, Finn is an artist rather than a blacksmith’s apprentice, and Lustig (the Magwitch character, played by Robert DeNiro) is an Italian mobster.

Estella, played by the 26-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow, is particularly changed, though she retains the name. Cuarón believes that “it is impossible to make a contemporary film of a book about young people in love without sex” (Katz 97), and Estella is more sexualized in Cuarón’s film than in the Dickens original. Yet this focus on the sexualized body of Estella is not simply the result of setting the adaptation in 1990s America. To begin with, this focus is not just added to the narrative but replaces the original dynamic between Pip and Estella. As Pamela Katz states, “Glazer’s screenplay focused almost exclusively on the theme of unrequited love. Tugging quite forcefully on this single thematic thread, he transformed (or updated?) it into the very requited form of erotic obsession” (97). Pip’s unrequited yearning becomes, in Cuarón’s film, Finn’s psychological obsession to posses Estella’s body.

The focus on Estella’s physical body begins early in the film and continues throughout, from when the young Estella kisses Finn at the water-fountain in the decayed mansion belonging to Densmore (Cuarón’s Miss Havisham, played by Anne Bancroft), to when the teenaged Estella sexually teases Finn by allowing him to caress her leg after a formal dress dinner, to when their kiss is repeated once the two are in New York, to the afternoon in which Estella poses nude for Finn’s painting (a scene often mocked as campy), to the night in which the two finally experience sexual consummation.

The focus on Estella’s sexualized body comes at the cost of other narrative elements from Dickens’s original. Katz mentions that Cuarón wished to incorporate into the film the same class-consciousness that permeates Dickens’s novel. She is also surprised to find out that originally, Estella was meant to be a successful career-woman. Demands from the script and studio caused both of these elements to be removed from the final film.

Dickens is a product of the age in which he wrote. The attempt to bring Estella’s character into the 21st century is fraught with peril, and is the cause of much of the film’s disjointed feeling. Ultimately, the film brings the validity of “contemporizations” of classic texts as a whole into question, and because of this, challenges directors, screen-writers, and adaptation theorists to do the same.

Questions for Discussion:

Does this adaptation’s “sexualizing” of Estella harm the quality of the film as a whole, or does it help in situating the film in its contemporary setting and context? If the latter, how is this achieved?

Do you agree with Cuarón’s assertion that “it is impossible to make a contemporary film of a book about young people in love without sex”? If so, does this mean that any contemporization of a novel or play should sexualize its female characters as Cuarón’s film does? Why or why not?

Cuarón was unable to imbue this film with the same feeling of class-consciousness that is so powerfully evident in Dickens’s original novel. However, what are some ways in which a film set in 21st-century America might convey the same anxieties about class that were present in 19th-century England? What might a director do to illustrate these anxieties?

Further Reading:

Great Expectations. Dir. Alfonso Cuarón. Twentieth Century Fox, 1998. Film.

Katz, Pamela. “Directing Dickens: Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 Great Expectations.” Dickens on Screen. Ed. John Glavin. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 95-103. Print.

McFarlane, Brian. Screen Adaptations: Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations: The Relationship Between Text and Film. 2008. Ed. Imelda Whelehan. London: Methuen Drama, 2008. Print.