Steven Knight & the Cast Talk What to Expect When You're Expecting FX's 'Great Expectations'

Picture Shows: Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham and Fionn Whitehead as Pip in 'Great Expectations'

Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham and Fionn Whitehead as Pip in 'Great Expectations'


If Shakespeare defined the pop culture of the first Elizabethan era, then Charles Dickens did the same for the Victorian one. From A Christmas Carol, which synthesized Victoria and Albert's push to popularize a secularist Germanic tradition for the industrial age, to David Copperfield, a bildungsroman detailing Victorian manhood, his works help define 19th century England in the popular imagination. One of his last works, Great Expectations, is the sort of novel still assigned in school, filled with classic Dickensian scenes and characters, like the protagonist, the kindly orphan Pip, the cold-hearted Estella, and the famous wedding dress-wearing Miss Havisham.

The story has been adapted for the screen since the black-and-white silent film era, with the first movie version released in 1917. However, it's been a decade since the last one, the 2012 feature film directed and adapted by Mike Newell, starring Jeremy IrvineHolliday Grainger, and Helena Bonham Carter as Pip, Estella, and Miss Havisham, respectively. This new one is a six-part TV series from the BBC and FX by Peaky Binders' Steven Knight, who also adapted the very controversial retelling of A Christmas Carol in 2019 for both networks.

Unsurprisingly, Knight leans into the misandry and misanthropy threaded throughout, playing up themes from the nearly 200-year-old story that speak to modern audiences. "I'm attracted to the way Dickens writes because it's meant to be episodic," Knight says when asked about his attraction to Dickens projects. "If he [Dickens] were around at the moment, I'm sure he'd be writing movies and streaming television because he has this rhythm to the work where there are these cliffhangers, and things keep happening, so then you have to follow it on, and he does it so beautifully."

As for Miss Havisham's rage at being jilted at the altar has curdled into a hatred of men, one she teaches Estella to share from birth. Olivia Colman, who takes on the role of the famous never-married bride, says her character has spent her life teaching Estella,  "In a marriage, you're the winner if you're not the one that loves." Coleman also says, "In a way, she was ahead of her time, determined not to need men; she's pretty forceful and scary.

However, she doesn't see Havisham as a feminist icon and pushes back at those who would turn the character into some kind of proto-independent woman. "My idea of feminism is equality, not hatred. I'm not sure any of those things are flattering toward feminists," she says. "She does teach Estella to be a weapon to pay back men and to hate men. But she also allows men to hurt her, so it's not how I see feminism."

"We really explored the idea you've been raised a certain way, made to believe a certain thing, but then when you experience the world for yourself, you see it's not all these things that you've been told, and so you're incredibly confused, " Shalom Brune-Franklin, who plays Estella, says of her story. "I don't think she has the ability to understand and navigate her way through that world because Miss Havisham hasn't given her the best toolkit. There's always an internal battle of what she is feeling versus what she is thinking she has to feel."

Picture shows: Pip (Fionn Whitehead) and Estella (Shalom Brune-Franklin) walk together in the garden

Pip (Fionn Whitehead) and Estella (Shalom Brune-Franklin).

Courtesy of FX Networks

Despite his controversial takes on Dickens, Knight says his aim is always to stay true to the story's heart. As he sees it, "The story's endured this long because it works, and the characters work." However, Dickens was writing at a time when certain subjects were unimaginable to write about. "When Dickens was writing, he wasn't able to write about certain things because you just couldn't... they were considered to be not territory for fiction," he explains. "I wonder what Dickens would do if he had the liberty to write about the realities of what London was really like. He alludes to it in all of his novels, but he can never go into those dark places. So that's what I tried to do." 

Fionn Whitehead, who plays Pip, agrees it's essential to make these adaptations accessible to audiences who might never have read the books. "The reason they've stood the test of time is because of the stories. Some of them can be a little bit inaccessible for some younger people now, just because of the language and the way that it's written. When you can actually get to the meat of the story, your eyes are opened to this whole new world, and I think that is really important. And particularly important to open up to the generation of young people who might never have had the chance to read this kind of work or had the interest."

"I watched a couple of different versions, Whitehead continues. "It probably put the fear into me more than anything to try and get it right," he laughs. "But one thing I was quite keen on carrying through was to make sure his background came through throughout the whole piece rather than it dropping the minute that he gets to London," he explains. "For me, it felt more important to have the refined gentleman speak and that way of behaving to be more of an act he is putting on when he's in London, almost trying to convince himself. [But] he can't really change who he is."

Speaking of class and code-switching, Knight points out that Dickens' letting the working class speak realistically was an essential part of the story. "With his characters, it was quite revolutionary to have working-class characters speaking phonetically. They're speaking in their own voice," he says. "He {Dickens] was, in his own controlled way, furious about what was happening in the world and the way that people who were self-evidently capable were unable to make any impression in the world because of where they were born," Knight points out.

"I personally have a problem getting furious," he admits. "[But] I think one of the reasons he's endured is that he either likes or forgives all of his characters, even the worst. He actually forgives them; he's got a great affection for all of his characters."

"In the preface to David Copperfield, he talks about when he finished it; he was bereft because he was losing these people that he really loved, who were the characters," Knight says. "But rather like an actor has to find something in that character that they can live with themselves, as a writer creating or interpreting these characters, you have to find [why] that character is doing a bad thing for a sort of obscurely good reason."

Great Expectations debuts on FX on Sunday, March 26, 2023, with two episodes on both BBC One and FX, streaming on Hulu. The limited series will continue airing on a one-episode-a-week format, concluding on April 23, 2023.


Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. A DC native, Hufflepuff, and Keyboard Khaleesi, she spends all her non-writing time taking pictures of her cats. Regular bylines also found on MSNBC, Paste, Primetimer, and others. 

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