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Communal Connections in Cinematic Adaptations of Great Expectations

Marty GOULD

Twentieth-century cinematic transfers of Great Expectations have tended to turn Dickens’s bildungsroman to larger nationalist purposes. My paper looks at the representation of the individual’s relationship to community in two twentieth-century film adaptations of Great Expectations: An Orphan’s Tragedy (1955) and Mr. Pip (2012), the latter film being adapted from the Lloyd Jones novel of the same title. 

Filmed in Hong Kong and starring Bruce Lee as young Frank (the Pip figure), An Orphan’s Tragedy offers a reading of its source text as a critical commentary on social inequality under Western capitalism. As a Western writer, Dickens was regarded with suspicion in post-revolutionary China, but An Orphan’s Tragedy recuperates Great Expectations as a realist text that endorses communal service over individual self-interest, an anti-capitalist message in line with China’s communist ideology.

New Zealand novelist Lloyd Jones’s novel Mr. Pip is an object lesson in adaptation—how active readerly engagement transforms static texts into portable cultural property. Adamson’s film adaptation, also entitled Mr. Pip, refines that message, exploring how adaptations make literary texts available for individual and communal appropriation. The film demonstrates an active form of literacy that gives readers access to literary texts as structures with which they can frame their own life experiences and understand their cultural histories. In the process Matilda finds herself torn between different communities, the community of Dickens readers and the community in which she has been raised. Where Jones ends his novel ambiguously, Adamson offers more concrete evidence that Matilda ultimately manages to reconnect her adopted readerly community with the community of her birth.

Keywords: Dickens, cinema, adaptation, Mr. Pip, An Orphan’s Tragedy.

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