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New adaptations of 'Great Expectations' are breaking some hearts

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

How far should scriptwriters go when they're adapting literary classics? Should writers, for example, introduce sex scenes or culture war politics? Those questions are being asked right now in Britain where there's a flurry of new productions based on one of Charles Dickens' best loved novels. Philip Reeves reports.

GERALD DICKENS: (As Miss Havisham) Who is it?

(As Pip) Pip, ma'am.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: We're in a hall in a community center in Frodsham, a small market town in northwest England. The play is "Great Expectations."

DICKENS: (As Miss Havisham) Come near. Let me see you. Come close.

REEVES: The actor is a great-great-grandson of Dickens himself.

DICKENS: (As Miss Havisham) Do you know what I touch here?

(As Pip) Your heart.

(As Miss Havisham) Broken.

REEVES: Gerald Dickens is playing all the parts - from the central character, Pip, to one of English literature's most mesmerizing creations, Miss Havisham, the recluse seeking vengeance against men after being jilted at the altar.

DICKENS: (As Miss Havisham) Love her. Love her. Love her.

REEVES: Gerald has been staging adaptations of his great-great-grandfather Charles' works around the world for 30 years in theaters and libraries, in schools and on ships. Today, the hall's almost full.

DICKENS: Well, what's wonderful from a family member's point of view is that people still want to soak up Dickens' work in whatever medium, whatever format it's offered in.

(As Magwitch) (Laughter) It was me what done it. It was me what made you a gentleman, Pip (laughter).

There is still that love for his stories, his characters, his moral messages, and that's just so exciting for me.

REEVES: Turning a chunky Victorian novel into a 90-minute one-man show isn't easy. Gerald Dickens had to leave out a lot, yet he's faithful to the story. All the dialogue was written by his ancestor.

DICKENS: I think if people come to see me, they come to see a relation of Charles Dickens performing the works of Charles Dickens. They're going to expect the works of Charles Dickens.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REEVES: "Great Expectations" has been adapted for stage and screen dozens of times.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GREAT EXPECTATIONS")

MARTITA HUNT: (As Miss Havisham) I sometimes have sick fancies. And I have a fancy I should like to see someone play.

REEVES: A 1946 movie by David Lean stuck closely to the text and won Oscars. A 1998 version was set in New York instead of England. Even South Park has had a crack at the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUTH PARK")

MATT STONE: (As Pip) What?

TREY PARKER: (As Magwitch) What are you doing here, you little wiversham (ph)?

STONE: (As Pip) Oh, hello. Why, you look like an escaped convict. Did we breakie-wakies (ph) out of prison?

REEVES: Now there's an addition to that list - a TV series from Britain's BBC that's bleak and gritty and unlike any previous adaptation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GREAT EXPECTATIONS")

ASHLEY THOMAS: (As Jaggers) Because I will teach you to be a vulture.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHIP CRACKING)

THOMAS: (As Jaggers) And then with blood dripping from your beak, I will teach you how to be a gentleman.

PAUL GRAHAM: I hate it. In my opinion, virtually nothing about it was laudable.

REEVES: Paul Graham is honorary general secretary of the Dickens Fellowship, the worldwide association of Dickens enthusiasts. He acknowledges adapting Dickens means making changes, but...

GRAHAM: It was taking the title "Great Expectations" and producing something completely different. I mean, it just changes everything.

REEVES: The script is by Stephen Knight, creator of the hit series "Peaky Blinders." Graham objects to Knight's treatment of Dickens' characters.

GRAHAM: Changing the way they behave, changing the way they speak, getting rid of any humor, making everyone, every character unsympathetic.

REEVES: Pip, the central character, attempts suicide. He swears like a trooper. He smokes opium - so, by the way, does Miss Havisham. Dickens didn't write much about sex, let alone sadomasochism. In Knight's version, Pip's sister lashes a naked Uncle Pumblechook with a whip. Viewers were stunned, including Paul Baldwin, head of comment at Britain's Daily Express.

PAUL BALDWIN: My jaw was on the floor because it was just insane. It's not true to the book, and it kind of insults the characters and the author.

REEVES: Stephen Knight has said Dickens couldn't write about sex because of the prevailing moral climate, so he's imagining what Dickens might have written. Humbug, says Paul Graham of the Dickens Fellowship.

GRAHAM: Just to say that if Dickens had had the freedom to write sex scenes that he would have written sex scenes, I just don't buy it.

REEVES: The other day, the BBC broadcast the final episode of the series. In the novel, Miss Havisham dies after the wedding dress that she constantly wore finally catches fire. When Paul Baldwin saw Knight's version, his jaw hit the floor again.

BALDWIN: In this version, she pulls out a flintlock and shoots dead the lover who spurned her. It felt a bit like she should have been in "Die Hard 5" or something rather than "Great Expectations."

REEVES: The series triggered fury on social media. Yet Knight's production, which has a diverse cast, is winning some plaudits for empowering female characters and introducing new storylines damning slavery and colonialism.

RYAN MCBRYDE: That's what's exciting about adapting literature - is that everyone has their own take on it.

REEVES: Ryan McBryde is creative director at the Mercury Theatre in the English town of Colchester. It's staging a version of "Great Expectations" this month. So is the actor Eddie Izzard whose one-woman show opens in London's West End. McBryde thinks Knight's series may have gone a little too far, but he liked it overall. Adaptations need to move beyond the original, he says.

MCBRYDE: I genuinely believe that in this day and age, it's our job as artists to reinvent and keep it fresh. And if that's the way that Steven Knight's doing and bringing that story to a whole new generation, then great.

LUCINDA HAWKSLEY: I'm all for adaptations. I think it's great to make things relevant. And I think that absolutely, you know, when social conditions such as slavery was around at the time, it's really good, I think, to put it in.

REEVES: Author Lucinda Hawksley is an expert on Dickens. She's also his great-great-great-granddaughter.

HAWKSLEY: But I find it a bit gratuitous when they've got to put something that's so counter to what the characters would have done 'cause that's just titillating a modern audience, really, isn't it?

REEVES: Hawksley thinks that when an adaptation differs greatly from the book, there's a case for changing the label on the tin. The opening titles maybe shouldn't state, as Knight's does, that it's based on the novel.

HAWKSLEY: Inspired by would be better. You know, if you're not sticking to it, then why pretend that you are?

REEVES: Charles Dickens would not have been surprised by any of this. He published novels in installments. Emily Bell is editor of the journal The Dickensian. She says people were adapting Dickens' stories for the Victorian stage even before he'd finished writing them.

EMILY BELL: So they would make up an ending, and Dickens was appalled. And there's a wonderful anecdote of him going to see a performance of "Oliver Twist" and lying down on the floor of his box and refusing to get up until it's over because he really dislikes it that much.

(APPLAUSE)

REEVES: Back in Frodsham Community Centre, Dickens' great-great-grandson Gerald winds up his show. At a question-and-answer session afterwards, he raises Stephen Knight's BBC series because he knows it's on everyone's mind.

DICKENS: The question I thought you were going to ask is what do you think of the current adaptation of "Great Expectations?"

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Not a lot. Not a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Not a lot.

REEVES: Gerald Dickens didn't think a lot of it either.

DICKENS: I don't particularly like it because it doesn't work for me as a piece of art or a piece of theater.

REEVES: Even so, he has no problem with seemingly outrageous adaptations of his great-great-grandfather's magnificent stories - shootout, whips, opium and all.

DICKENS: Whatever you do to Dickens, it's never going to damage Dickens. It's never going to taint the original.

REEVES: He's bigger.

DICKENS: He's bigger. He's bigger than that.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.