FX’s Great Expectations Is a Dreary and Hollow Adaptation That Favors Edge Over Faithfulness

TV Reviews Great Expectations
FX’s Great Expectations Is a Dreary and Hollow Adaptation That Favors Edge Over Faithfulness

With Dickens adaptations always comes great expectations. Those expectations are not unfounded—one of the most popular writers of the Victorian era, Charles Dickens is responsible for a number of culture-defining stories, each with their own attempts at being brought to both the big and small screens. This time, FX and BBC have taken their swing at Dickens’ 1861 coming of age novel Great Expectations (which will stream on Hulu), and sadly, this series simply cannot live up to the, well, expectations*. 

(*For any and all annoyed by my frequent use of “expectations” in this opening paragraph alone, be prepared for Episode 2 of this series, which could inspire a game of “Take a shot every time someone says ‘expectations’” —but only if you wish to die of alcohol poisoning.) 

FX’s Great Expectations, created by Peaky Blinders’ Steven Knight, follows Pip (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to become a gentleman and move far away from the impoverished life he leads as an orphan in the care of his sister. On the whims of an eccentric and cruel Miss Havisham (Olivia Colman), he is swept into the world of polite society in exchange for spending time with her adopted daughter Estella (Shalom Brune-Franklin). As Pip shoulders the weight of the expectations placed upon him, becoming entrenched in the seedy world of London’s infamous lawyer Jaggers (Ashley Thomas), he wonders if becoming a gentleman is truly worth the price he will have to pay to get there. 

This limited series, composed of six episodes (of which I soldiered through five), is Great Expectations, but only in theory. The central players are there, and the story feels vaguely familiar, but so many changes were made when bringing this series to the small screen that it is nigh unrecognizable. Pip is vaguely the same, but the series opts to skim over much of his youth (a portion of the story that takes up 20 chapters of the original novel) in favor of focusing on his life as a young adult much swifter than was necessary. Unfortunately, the lack of centering of Pip’s youth leaves him much less endearing to the audience, especially in the later episodes. His desire for status and wealth is the sole focus of his time as a young boy, and especially his relationship with Estella. The heartless nature of this series is a running theme, with both Jaggers and Miss Havisham also suffering the same fate; these two characters become evil in a laughably cartoonish sense, only elevated from that state through outstanding performances by Thomas and Colman. 

The heartlessness of FX’s attempt at this story not only affects the characters, but the general storytelling of the series as well. In every single way, it’s entirely too edgy for its own good. Bolstered by frequent drug montages, brothel and bar visits, and a dreary tone that sucks any sense of levity from each scene, even Mrs. Joe (given the first name of Sara in this adaptation, played by Hayley Squires) dodges her fate as an invalid to instead become a sort of BDSM mistress to Matt Berry’s Mr. Pumblechook. This series is Dickens, sure, but by way of Euphoria, and worst of all, seemingly for no reason. 

It is not a crime to make an adaptation and swing far and away from faithfulness to the source material. In fact, changes are often necessary and improve the story in the transfer from one medium to another, but Great Expectations doesn’t really do much with all that edge. The messages Dickens originally implanted in the story about class divide and polite society are present in this series, but any sense of heart is missing, which ultimately allows the bottom to fall out from underneath the grander messages the series is trying to send. Why should the audience care for Pip’s ambition and love for Estella if we hardly get to see it bloom? How can the audience understand Jaggers’ reluctant place within the system if he is instead cartoonishly evil just for the sake of it? Even Miss Havisham, a stand-out character from the original novel, is hardly utilized to her fullest potential—Colman offers up a creepy and cruel performance in this series, but ultimately, she’s hardly anything more than that. 

With that being said, there are some interesting and welcome changes made for this series, and most of them have to do with Brune-Franklin’s Estella. Her presence is much more consistent within this Great Expectations, and her altered storyline gives her much more agency and depth than was offered at times within the original novel. Her role, both as a Black woman under the thumb of Miss Havisham and as a peg in the wheel of polite society, is endlessly interesting, and Brune-Franklin (along with the actress that played young Estella, Chloe Lea) shines as this melancholy and resigned woman on the brink. The costume and set design of this series is also a highlight; the hauntingly decrepit and strangely beautiful manor that houses Miss Havisham alongside the wedding dress she has donned for nearly two decades elevates the setting and the story to heights unfortunately not matched by the rest of the series. Great Expectations really isn’t all bad, but the elements that do work end up overshadowed by the inefficiency of this otherwise cruel and sometimes boring series. 

Great Expectations has been done many times, and despite its valiant effort with the cinematic nature of the series, the elaborate and creative costumes and sets, and the stark changes made to set itself apart, FX’s version remains just another unsuccessful Dickens adaptation at best, and a lackluster period drama at worst. Great Expectations touts a talented cast and a broken and bent version of a classic, that, unfortunately, does not equal a better shape. 

Great Expectations premieres with two episodes Sunday, March 26th, with subsequent episodes streaming weekly  on Hulu. 

Anna Govert is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Indiana. For any and all thoughts about TV, film, and the wonderful insanity of Riverdale, you can follow her @annagovert.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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