An off-label adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectation, this British short film fits as much of the story as can be expected in a single reel. The pared down plot focuses entirely on Pip and Magwitch with a combination of real scenery and painted sets.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
“We took 500 pages of Dickens and squashed them down to twelve minutes.”
As one of the most popular novelists of his day, Charles Dickens had his share of headaches related to piracy. There was the unauthorized reprinting of his books to deal with and then there were wildcat stage productions. The latter particularly irked Dickens because he released his novels in serialized form over the course of months and years, so the stage adapters would take it upon themselves to craft their own endings for the unfinished stories.
With this background in mind, it is ironic that one of the earliest surviving screen versions of Great Expectations is an off-brand adaptation that throws out much of Dickens’ novel and creates its own ending out of whole cloth as a result. Dickens name and Great Expectations are not mentioned in the titles either. The 1909 production was from brilliant Scottish pioneer James Williamson’s film company, which was then in its twilight years.
Summarizing a Dickens novel is never a small task. His books were mammoth in size and featured casts of characters with dozens of major roles. Twisting plots and coincidences galore were his trademark. (Nowadays, we are much too sophisticated for the unveiling of coincidences within the main story—we put them all in the prequels!) It seems easier to sum up The Boy and the Convict and then talk about how it diverges from its source material. The characters are not given names in the title cards, so I will just use their names from the novel for clarity.
The film opens with Pip, an orphan, coming upon Magwitch, an escaped convict, in a graveyard. The boy gives the convict a file to remove his shackles and some food and he makes good his escape. Magwitch strikes it rich in the colonies, sends a small fortune back to Pip in gratitude for his help and then returns to England. He is arrested by a deathbed confession clears his name and he is reunited with his wife and daughter, whose hand he offers to Pip. Happy endings all around!
That noise you hear is Dickens spinning in his grave.
(Spoilers ahead for a 100+ year old film and a 150 year old book.)
The adaptation is interesting in that it completely cuts the most memorable character of Great Expectations, the bitter Miss Havisham. Jilted, cheated and left at the altar, she spends her days in a decaying house with her wedding cake still rotting on the table and wearing her wedding dress. She has raised Estella, the daughter of Magwitch, as a living tool of revenge, lovely and heartless, out to break hearts as Havisham’s had been broken. Dickens had planned a melancholy ending for Estella and Pip before being persuaded to embrace an ambiguous one.
With no Havisham, there is no reason for Estella to be heartless and she is therefore merely the daughter of Magwitch and living in a very nice, ungothic house with a minimum of madness. In other words, boring. Who looks at Great Expectations and thinks, “Hmm, a less emotionally complicated Estella, that’s the ticket!”
That being said, I don’t actually dislike the way the film is plotted overall. Many adaptations of the time went for a vignette structure with the most famous scenes of the adapted work being strung together with barely any connective tissue to hold the thing together. The Boy and the Convict shows some attempt at a cohesive narrative and even someone unfamiliar with Great Expectations would get the gist. (The film wasn’t even listed as a Dickens adaptation in many sources.)
Of course, the context of this review must also be considered. At present, film adaptations seem terrified to leave a single incident or scrap of information behind in the transition from page to screen. In fact, more details are added to pad out the time, as shown by the three-film (each clocking in at over two hours a pop) adaptation of the slim and zippy 300-pager, The Hobbit.
So, to modern eyes, attempting to cover 500 pages of Dickens in about ten minutes may seem like madness but it does show a certain amount of trust in the audience, something that is severely lacking in modern filmmaking.
During this era of filmmaking, it was common for stage works to be brought to the screen as-is and the whole thing filmed with minimal cinematography. The Boy and the Convict reflects the split personality of 1900s filmmaking: relying on extremely artificial painted sets for the interiors while simultaneously making full use of the outdoor scenery available to the studio. (The Williamson Kinematograph Company was based in Hove, a resort town in the southeast of England. If you recognize a location, do let me know.)
The contrast between the exterior and interior scenes is quite pronounced in this picture. In addition to the obvious sets and the visible edge of the stage, the interiors have no depth of composition or blocking. The exterior scenes, on the other hand, do not feature any cuts within the scene or closeups but they do achieve some medium shots simply through the actors approaching the camera as they move from Point A to Point B. David Aylott is the credited director but if I didn’t know better, I would almost think that the exterior and interior scenes were shot by two completely different people.
The acting, while not terrible, definitely is of the stage rather than the screen with the cast gesticulating with abandon and generally playing to the cheap seats. A 1909 review in the Dramatic Mirror confirmed my suspicions stating “The acting is of the cheap melodramatic kind that is being abandoned by the better class of producers.” I’m not sure I would be quite that hard on the performances but they definitely feel creaky in comparison to other productions of 1909.
The Boy and the Convict is extremely interesting for what it is: an early example of Dickens on the silent screen. I wouldn’t say it was the best example of filmmaking from 1909 but it’s not bad and watching it with an eye for the shifts between exterior and interior makes for an interesting experience. Worth your time.
Where can I see it?
Released by the BFI as part of their Dickens Before Sound set with a very nice score by Neil Brand.
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We were assigned Great Expectations in high school. I was bored by it then and have never warmed to it. Had it been edited down, I might have enjoyed it, who knows?
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