Great Expectations’ Ending Proves This Big Bad Adaptation Is Just a Widdle Softy At Heart

A happy ending? The BBC/FX series gives us a dewy-eyed fan-fiction rewrite of Dickens' conclusion that softens all its hard edges.

Photo: FX Networks,Miya Mizuno/BBC

Warning: contains spoilers for the Great Expectations finale.

The pearl-clutching outrage that met the newest Great Expectations TV series did a lot for its reputation as a snarling, macho beast of an adaptation. The inclusion of spanking, swearing, sex work, suicide, self-harm and opium in Charles Dickens’ story led to headlines so appalled that they practically needed their own fainting couch. To some, Steven Knight’s six-part was less a retelling than a desecration, all of which fed into the series’ bad boy allure.

The truth is that, for all its adult content, this has been perhaps the dullest version of Great Expectations yet. It’s humourless, repetitive, almost entirely free of charm and feels much longer than its six-hour runtime. Wherever a spark of energy threatens to emerge, as with Olivia Colman‘s Miss Havisham, Rudi Dharmalingam’s legal clerk Wemmick, or Shalom Brune-Franklin’s intriguing Estella, it’s hammered out by the script. The story’s creativity and quirk has been beaten as flat as one of Joe Gargery’s horseshoes, in favour of monotonous dour aggression.

Dour aggression… until the ending, which is the series at its most revisionist and most genuinely surprising. Had you tried to predict how this not-your-grandmother’s-Great-Expectations would end, you might have imagined a bloodbath, a suicide pact, a mass drowning off an illegal slaving ship… anything that took Dickens’ original, dialled the bummer of it all it up to eleven and turned Pip into an action hero walking away from an explosion without looking back. 

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Not so. Underneath this adaptation’s tough guy act, it turns out, beats the heart of an absolute sweetie-pie. The finale waved a magic wand over the original story’s pain and complexity, and delivered up a conclusion straight out of wish fulfilment fan-fiction.

Dickens Already Rewrote His Original Ending

Great Expectations’ first published ending, before Dickens was prevailed upon to rewrite it, was bleak. On a visit to Satis House, Miss Havisham repents for her cruelty to Pip and Estella before her wedding dress catches on fire and Pip is unable to rescue her before she and the house are consumed by flames. Compeyson drowns in the Thames after a fight with Magwitch, who then dies of his injuries with Pip at his side. 

Pip ends the novel unmarried and alone, having lost Biddy in marriage to Joe Gargery (a widower since Pip’s sister was bludgeoned to death by the villainous Orlick – absent from this TV version). Pip parts ways with Estella, who’s remarried after the death of her abusive first husband Bentley Drummle.

Dickens’ second ending – the one that’s attached to most modern versions of the novel – kept almost all of the above but lost Estella’s second husband and instead suggests that she and Pip will get married. It’s the happier version, considered by some readers and critics the rightful conclusion and by others a cop-out bowing to commercial pressure that undermines the novel’s themes. Well, wait ‘til anyone of that opinion hears about this new version…

The BBC/FX Adaptation Waves a Magic Wand

In the BBC/FX series finale, everybody gets a treat. Miss Havisham doesn’t just repent for her sins and then die, she starts to recover from her morbid fixations, gets revenge, and lives to tell the tale. Magwitch and Estella – father and daughter temporarily united – force her to change her wedding dress for normal clothes, and she burns the possessions that remind her of her past life. When Compeyson comes to her for gold, he fakes an apology, she kisses him, shoots him, and deliberately sets the house on fire to escape him. Compeyson and Magwitch fight in the burning building and die side by side in the flames, while Miss Havisham watches Satis House burn, standing safely outside. That’s the last we’re shown of her.

In this new version, Pip doesn’t marry Estella, despite her asking him to propose to her using Miss Havisham’s ring. Pip won’t accept Estella’s terms of needing to marry somebody who loves her but whom she doesn’t love, and so he returns the ring and tells Estella that what she needs is her equal, a fellow exile from the human race. Pip then marries his childhood friend Biddy, a schoolteacher who’s become a Chartist and seeks to change the world through political activism. And so a million readers’ wishes through the centuries for Pip and Biddy to get together are granted.

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Uniting Pip with Biddy does make for a neater conclusion and a straightforward moral to the story. In the show, Pip’s final words to Biddy in episode six are in Latin, and translate to “more than enough”, meaning that his great expectations have been quashed and he’s now satisfied not living the life of a gentleman. By accepting Biddy and the simple life of a blacksmith, Pip has turned his back on London and learned his lesson about the folly of aspiring to another class and being ashamed of your working class roots. As Chartists, he and Biddy will now try to reform society together to end inequality and class privilege. There’s a parable-like, warm-hearted simplicity to it, which lacks any of Dickens’ jagged edges.

Miss Havisham, Pip and Biddy aren’t the only ones gifted happier endings in this TV retelling. Joe and Mrs Gargery (Sara here) remain together (what with her not getting murdered). Estella isn’t forced to marry the odious and abusive Drummle, and we last see her dancing with the usually morose/violent Jaggers at Pip and Biddy’s wedding. Could Jaggers be her “fellow exile”? Platonically, perhaps.

It’s all rather sweet and not unlike the sanitised version of The Three Little Pigs that my mum lovingly told us as kids, in which no little pigs were eaten, and each ran to the safety of the next when the wolf came to blow their house down. After all its huffing and puffing and spanking and swearing, who could have predicted that this Great Expectations would turn out to be nothing but an old romantic?

Great Expectations is available to stream in full on BBC iPlayer and Hulu.