By Robert Sirabian, University of Wisconsin Stevens Point
In a central scene in South Park’s “Pip” episode (2000), when Pip asks Miss Havisham why she makes Estella “hurt people,” she tells Pip, “Wuh-hy? Well that’s simple. Because I need the tears of broken-hearted men to use in my Genesis device. You see, my foolish child, I am growing very old. But tonight, I will fuse my soul into Estella’s once and for all. And then I can go on breaking men’s hearts for another generation.”
Miss Havisham plans, in essence, to adapt herself. She will exist in Estella, even though she will not be recognizable in her original form, while Estella will look the same but house Miss Havisham, who will ostensibly motivate Estella’s impulses, thoughts, and feelings. Miss Havisham’s Genesis device denotes both origin and generation, signaling that adaptations do not focus on a final product.
In parallel fashion, “Pip” houses Charles’s Dickens’s Great Expectations but in a provocative twist becomes a metatextual commentary on adaptation as it highlights the interdependency of multiple adapted texts and the novel. As Phyllis Frus and Christy Williams explain, “An adaptation is a text that has been changed to suit a new purpose or environment.” They add that “the new text is recognizable as a relation of the earlier text” (3; my emphasis). As a relation of Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-61), South Park’s “Pip” reveals an astute understanding of Great Expectation’s structure and content as well as the intellectual and commercial stakes when adapting great books.
Created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park is an animated sitcom that follows the shenanigans of four fourth-grade boys: Stan Marsh, Eric Cartman, Kyle Broflovski, and Kenny McCormick. Like The Simpsons, it is fueled by adolescent humor and social satire, often addressing contemporary issues. Pip is a character who makes brief appearances in South Park, relating the Great Expectations adaptation to other South Park episodes. Yet “Pip” is far from being a simplistic, crude parody of classic literature aimed at adolescent boys who do not like to read long, boring books. What makes this episode an engaging adaptation is that it lampoons itself and the process of adaptation. This metatextual commentary effectively makes references to contemporary and popular culture, satirizing Great Expectations along with a highbrow culture that idolizes classic literature. In fact, the episode’s intertexuality creates its humor. Yet as a relation of Great Expectations, it acknowledges universal themes in its creative, streamlined, humorous retelling of the story.
While poking fun at itself, “Pip” lampoons the process of adaptation, particularly literary adaptations that aim for fidelity and authenticity. The narrator (Malcolm McDowell) announces, against a background of classical music, à la Masterpiece Theater’s Alistair Cooke, “Hello, I’m a British person,” and then he claims, “Indeed, after watching this show, you’ll know the timeless classic as if you’d . . . read the Cliff Notes themselves.” In addition, the narrator’s jibes at Britishness, Dickens, and the literati signify the problem with adaptation as a form of commercial reproduction promoted, the current Masterpiece advertising campaign reminds us, as food for the mind.
Rather than aiming for fidelity to Great Expectations, “Pip” self-consciously plays with its differences from Dickens’s novel, for example its narrative, plot structure, tone, and characterization, creating an “original” show that twenty-first century viewers can relate to while they remain cognizant of the novel and its historical and cultural context. Its anachronistic and ill-informed references (e.g., Tony Blair is the king of England) as well as its bathroom humor comment on and spoof Victorian propriety and manners as well as our own cultural crassness. The use of animation, which makes London look like a Dickens village found on mantle pieces during Christmas, and recognizable cartoon characters freed from realism suggest that we should think of adaptation as biological mutation in a cultural context.
Sounding like an impromptu book report given by a high school student who never finished Great Expectations, “Pip” returns viewers to other texts it references as well as to the novel. Jeffrey Scone notes that “[s]trangely, beneath the satire, sarcasm, calculated anachronisms, and random potshots at the Brits, there is in ‘Pip’ a rather sincere attempt to come to terms with the ‘spirit’ of the novel” (185). In a pivotal, early scene from “Pip,” which introduces the themes of play, class consciousness, and romantic desire and love, Pip first visits the jilted Miss Havisham, who seeks revenge by raising Estella to break men’s hearts. She states, almost verbatim from the novel, “I sometimes have sick fancies. And I have a fancy I should like to see someone play. So, play. Play.” In Great Expectations, Pip’s confusion results because he is not given any structure for play, which he also desires in his life and finds more readily in a competitive Victorian sports culture as well as through social codes and conventions that falsely define what it means to be a gentleman. Self-conscious and disoriented by Estella, Miss Havisham’s strange appearance, and his strange surroundings, Pip plays poorly.
The South Park episode recreates this play scene as a source of humor through intertextual references that reinforce Pip as a clueless sap abused by Estella and Miss Havisham, but it also reveals important, universal themes: abuse of various kinds, social class, childhood innocence, and relationships and love. Estella suggests that she and Pip play smack-the-blond-boy-in-the-head-with-a-large-log, which he plays with his sister, a humorous substitute for the novel’s more sedate, symbolically class-based game beggar-thy-neighbor, the only card game Pip knows. The recipient of physical and verbal abuse, South Park’s Pip plays too readily, particularly evident from the looks of disbelief from Miss Havisham and Estella. Rather than acknowledging shame and guilt in a retrospective narrative, the cartoon Pip, invoking MTV’s Jackass series (2000-2002), receives physical pain without injury in a reckless attempt to achieve identity and control. Because he is used to abuse and wants what he cannot have, he is still attracted to a girl who dislikes him, a phenomenon teen viewers will understand. This phenomenon, however, also presents the novel’s linkage of abuse, pain, and love. Miss Havisham, explaining her own pain and humiliation, tells Pip, again verbatim from the novel, that true love is “blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world.” This scene, through ironic distance, reflects Victorian and contemporary sensibilities.
As Miss Havisham tells South Park’s Pip, “Things are not always what they seem,” whether they concern love or one’s great expectations, but she also gives readers a key insight into adaptation as “(re)interpretation and then (re)creation” (Hutcheon 8). In the episode’s penultimate scene, which viewers familiar with the novel will particularly appreciate since it relies on numerous intertextual connections, Pip wakes up at the forge after barely escaping Miss Havisham’s robot monkeys. He finally realizes Miss Havisham is not his benefactor and that Estella does not love him. From Joe’s example he learns a basic lesson removed from novel’s more complexly interconnected issues—that being a gentleman means being a gentle man. But determined to stop Miss Havisham, contemporary movie action hero Pip then announces, “Let’s go KICK HER ARSE!” Pip, Joe, Pocket, and Magwitch (who is killed) defeat the diabolical Miss Havisham and her robot monkeys before she can complete her transformation, a leveling of classic literature invoking The Wizard of Oz and Frankenstein as well as other Gothic, horror, action-adventure, and sci-fi films, reminding us Dickens too was aware of readers’ cultural knowledge and expectations.
Even though it was the lowest-rated South Park episode, “Pip’s” success results not only because it prevents a Victorian novel from aging but also because it showcases the genesis of adaptation. We can laugh at Miss Havisham’s plan to adapt herself—what the episode does to the novel—while appreciating that adaptation’s intertextual features are “about understanding relationships and their effects—how they work together and why they differ when they do” (Frus and Williams 12).
If you had to write a twenty-two-minute adaptation of Great Expectations (or of another Dickens novel), what scenes would you choose to adapt? Explain your choices, including the similarities to and differences from scenes in Dickens’s Great Expectations as well as in South Park’s “Pip.”
Discuss the narrator’s roles in “Pip” of telling the story while poking fun at British culture, classic literature, and the process of adaptation. How does this change the first-person narration of the novel?
South Park’s “Pip” highlights two key themes or issues that are central in Great Expectations: Miss Havisham’s pain and desire for revenge after being jilted and Pip’s class consciousness. How are gender and social class represented in the nineteenth century and today?
Discuss the role of humor in “Pip” and Great Expectations.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. 1860-61. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996.
Bluestone, George. Novels into Film: The Metamorphosis of Fiction into Cinema. 1957. Berkeley: U of California P, 1971. Print.
Frus, Phyllis, and Christy Williams, eds. Beyond Adaptation: Essays on Radical Transformations of Original Works. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. Print.
Hutcheon, Linda (with Siobhan O’Flynn). A Theory of Adaptation. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.
Parker, Trey. “Pip.” South Park. Season 4, Episode 14. Television.
Sconce, Jeffrey. “Dickens, Selznick, and Southpark.” Dickens on Screen. Ed. John Glavin. Cambridge, 2003. 171-87. Print.
 I would like to thank my colleagues who participated in the 2007 NEH Summer Seminar: “Adaptation and Revision: The Example of Great Expectations” (Directors Paul K. Saint-Amour and Hilary Schor) for the wonderful discussions that helped shaped my thinking about adaptation.