Novelist and screenwriter David Nicholls brings the laughs we never knew existed in Charles Dickens to his adaption of Great Expectations, starring just about everybody in British cinema.
It doesn’t sound particularly exciting, another adaptation of Great Expectations. But with Helena Bonham Carter as the unexpectedly beautiful Miss Havisham, David Walliams as the vulgar Pumblechook and Ralph Fiennes as mucky Magwitch, you can forget your bleak midwinter, too much like hardwork memories of Dickens novels. This is British cinema at its best, and it’s largely down to David Nicholls’ witty adaptation. Having fallen in love with the book aged fifteen, Nicholls laboured over ten major drafts and thirty further production drafts for the film. Fans of his 2009 book One Day, which still gets on the tube at every stop with reading commuters, will find the complicated romance between Pip (Jeremy Irvine) and Estella (Holliday Grainger, the spit of a young Julianne Moore), as engaging as Emma and Dexter. Having adapted Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Much Ado About Nothing in recent years, plus several more of the great British classics, Nicholls is used to making hardcore prose accessible. He’s done it again with Great Expectations, breathing fresh air into old pages and making lazy London filmwatchers remember just how wonderful characters like Miss Havisham, Pip, Joe and Estella are. We met David right after he’d finished a skype interview with a 9 year old presenter, to talk about Dickens the comedian, Helena the charmer and his humble self.
When did you first read into Great Expectations? When I was about 14 or 15, people always show off about when they started reading Dickens. “I read all of Dickens when I was 9.” But no, I must have been about 14 or 15, and we used to have these leather bound Reader’s Digest editions in the house. I really responded to it, I found it greatly accessible, and moving and I identified with it hugely. It’s sort of been my favourite book ever since, on and off. It’s really daunting to adapt it because you don’t want to ruin all those fond feelings you have for it. Working on the film I must have re-read the book about 15 times, and I always had the same feeling towards it.
The film is really funny. I haven’t read the book for years, is it as funny as your film? It is! A lot of people who really love Dickens think of him as a comic novelist. I mean he does write these wonderful comic set pieces. When you try and put that on a screen, often it doesn’t come across in the same way, because you don’t have Dickens’ voice; you just have the actors goofing around. So often the comedy gets cut. The book is a lot funnier than the film.
How many drafts did you do? There comes a point where you sort of stop counting, as the drafts change so much, even if microscopically. With a script you expect to re-write everything 40 times, because there’s always someone saying “do we need this scene”, “the actor doesn’t like this”, “it’s too expensive to film”, “so and so doesn’t think this joke is funny”. And there’s all these other voices that you have to listen to and respond to. Because it’s not your money you can’t just go “I’m sorry, that’s the way I want it”, you have to collaborate. That’s what’s really exciting about film and maddening about it.
What’s your favourite scene in the film and is it the same as in the book? There was one scene that got to me in the book; this terrible scene where Pip’s brother in law comes to see him. The man who loves him most in the world, Joe Gundry, who’s always looked out for him and always cared for him, and always protected him. And Pip treats him appallingly, rejects him, and patronises him, and laughs at him. The dignity with which Joe responds to that is, I think, one of the most moving things in Dickens. Whenever I’ve read that scene it’s always chocked me up.
What was Helena Bonham-Carter like to work with? I think almost as soon as we started writing the script, we knew the part was for her. I love the humour and camaraderie, warmth and attitude of actors. And Helena is a perfect example of that. She’s really funny, really hard-working, she’s the best kind. I’m always a complete wreck around the actors, but she was really lovely to meet and to work with, and in fact it was a really happy production, often, film-sets are awful terrible stressful places.
Is it true that Dickens was paid per word when he was writing these novels? I don’t know. But sometimes it does feel like that, especially when your reading passages that you wish were a little shorter. He started as a parliamentary reporter and journalist- so he was absolutely able and trained to produce huge amount of prose to deadline- and because his books were produced in serial, you do get that feel that there is a deadline looming.
So you’ve collaborated, in a sense, with Dickens, Hardy and Shakespeare. How does that feel? Is it something you have to go at with lots of confidence? It is intimidating but it’s also lovely. The terrible truth of it is that it’s a luxury. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to adapt some of my favourite books.
You’re writing your fourth novel now, are characters your starting point? Yes, the characters are changing… I’m really weary of writing the same novel over and over again. Inevitably all writers return to their own ideas and repeat themselves to a degree. But I didn’t want to write another pure love story. I’m 46 now, and I wanted to write about other things, like family and parenthood… I’m just finding my way through it.
And what do you think makes a good screenwriter? A thick skin, which I don’t necessarily have. I think you have to be really determined, because there are so many disagreements, sometimes you really have to fight your corner.
Great Expectations is in cinemas now.
Text: Sarah Raphael