Spare us another conventional take on Dickens

Ditch the costumes, says Arifa Akbar: it's time Great Expectations was updated
  • @arifa_akbar

Two new screen versions of Great Expectations are currently underway, which is a fitting nod to Charles Dickens's most adapted novel in his bicentenary year. The credentials of the film version are impressive: David Nicholls (of One Day fame) has written the screenplay; Ralph Fiennes plays Magwitch, Helena Bonham Carter is Miss Havisham. A three-part TV series, meanwhile, has Gillian Anderson and Ray Winstone leading its cast.

Yet when Bonham Carter trips up to the stage to accept a Bafta or whatever gong she will inevitably receive, some of us will throw our hands in the air and exclaim 'Not again!'

Film-makers talk ever more despairingly about raising funding, yet there seems to be bottomless coffers for certain period-dress narratives. Since Dickens wrote his serialised orphan story of Pip and Estella in 1860, there has been extraordinary follow-up. At least 250 stage and screen adaptations have come before these latest ones, from the silent film starring Jack Pickford in 1917 to the BBC's 1981 serial starring Patsy Kensit, the one with Anthony Hopkins as Magwitch (1989) to Charlotte Rampling's turn as Miss Havisham in 1999.

Great Expectations is among those novels (Sense and Sensibility, Sherlock Holmes, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights) that have acquired their own cultural legacy, as much known for their repeated adaptations as the ink-and-paper originals.

Many, especially the younger generation, will come fresh to Pip's rags-to-riches tale, with its tortured love story and its exploration of good and evil. Those who have not seen David Lean's 1946 film version, starring John Mills, will even be able to see the story unfold without unfair comparison to his seminal production. But for those who have read the book, seen the film, and the TV series after that, something new needs to happen.

It is not the rate at which producers return to Great Expectations that goes against the spirit of creativity. What is hackneyed about costume drama adaptations, rather, is that they conform to the same old template, with its liking for imperiously stately Miss Havishams, top-hatted Pips and dusty chandeliers swinging amid the tattered Victorian splendour of Satis House. It is these versions that reflect a dearth of creativity.

New ideas can emanate from old stories. The edgiest adaptations are arguably those that seek contemporary relevance by resituating themselves out of twee, costume drama-land, and into the present day. Alfonso Cuarón's 1998 version, for example, recast the class divisions of Victorian England to modern-day New York, with Gwyneth Paltrow's Estella as a socialite to Ethan Hawke's impoverished artist, Pip (renamed Finn), an outsider to her world of privilege. Pip and Estella's thwarted love story acquires greater emotional freight when it is updated in this way. Similarly, Tanika Gupta's stage play, which set the scene in 19th-century India, teased out colonial parallels and made the story freshly subversive.

Adaptations hold a childlike thrill for us – they offer the same elemental comfort as a children's story read over and over by the bedside. We know the plot and characters yet we become emotionally engaged in spite – or because of – that familiarity. This offers some satisfaction, but the best kind of adaptation must also give us something new.