Alack! What the Dickens is this?
Scene: A pub, false Dickensian-style, in New York. In one corner, an imposing man in an ancient, moth-eaten frock-coat stands with his back to the (false) fire, rather self-consciously holding his two-for-one Budweiser, looking down with a mixture of coldness and irritation at an ultra-modern blonde woman seated with her thigh-booted legs slung provocatively over the arm of her chair, mini-skirt riding dangerously high, mobile phone hanging in one languid hand.
Mr Jaggers (frowning): Now, Miss Estella. I am a man of the law and as you are well aware, not to be trifled with. So please explain what in God's name has become of the marvellous work in which both you and I appear, one Great Expectations ? Estella (lighting a cigarette impatiently): Oh for Christ's sake, you old spook. Don't you understand this is the 20th century? That old story, with its frocks and its horses-and-carriages and its long-drawn-out conversations - - of course it had to be rewritten. And I think Deborah Chiel has done a marvellous job of it. Certainly she's given me a much more exciting time than I had in the original, by that old English codger, what's his name . . .? Mr Jaggers: The old codger was a Mr Charles Dickens.
Estella: Yeah, of course, I remember. He can't complain, he gets his tribute on the front of the book. And you're just jealous since you don't get much of a show.
Mr Jaggers: Hmmm, yes, I see Mr Dickens' name here. The same size as Ms Chiel's, under hers. Very egalitarian. And yes, I have noticed that in this American - how do you say, hip? - version, I am a shadow of my intimidating original: reduced to a mere lawyer with briefcase, colourless, hardly fleshed out at all. But I take comfort in the fact that very few of Mr Dickens' numerous original characters are fleshed out. The only flesh on show, it seems, is yours, my dear.
Estella (smirking): Well, you must admit that lines like 'the dress was cut low enough in front that he couldn't look at her without getting a hard-on' and 'emboldened, he reached up and stroked the inside of her thigh . . . she spread her legs, and he took that as permission to explore further' would never have got a run in that Dickens guy's version.
Mr Jaggers: On that point, I wholly agree.
Estella: And Jimmy - known to you, of course, as Pip - in our version a back-country fisherman who turns artist with the help of his unknown benefactor, would never get the chance to be held up at gunpoint in New York, or draw a naked Estella in his hotel room, or dodge thugs through the city's famous subway with the returned prisoner who turns out to be his patron. And I get to wear sexy clothes and tell Jimmy he 'smells like horseshit', and Jimmy gets to think things like 'he wanted her any way he could have her'. And Gwyneth Paltrow plays me in the movie version! Oh, we've had so much more fun this time! Heck, Jags, don't you know sex and cars sell books? Mr Jaggers: Dear girl, everyone has always known about the former, but in the 1860s it was bound up with something a little more profound. I humbly suggest that Mr Dickens had a richer, more poignant way of making the point. Take this from Pip, when the original Estella tells him she does not remember making him cry as a young boy: 'I verily believe that her not remembering and not minding in the least, made me cry again, inwardly - and that is the sharpest crying of all.' And Miss Havisham, the malevolent woman abandoned in her bridal dress who brought up Estella to break men's hearts, never needed to tell us that she had 'remained a virgin' for her lost love, as your Mrs Dinsmoor does. As for cars, we had the small problem of them not being invented.
Estella: There you are, Jags, my point exactly! Move the story to now and draw in a whole new crowd! Now, honestly, how many readers do you think Dickens had in his day? How many of what you would call the lower classes got close to his books, even though they were serialised? If the story made into a movie draws people back to it, aren't we getting his message across in a different way? Mr Jaggers: I think, Miss Estella, that if you wish to educate, then your moving images may be a fair method. I understand it has been done many times before, from the plays of our great William Shakespeare to the works of Jane Austen. But surely you do not need to have the book itself rewritten? Would it not have done both literature and readers a great service to have simply re-introduced people to the original great work? Estella: But, Mr J, you know we children of the TV generation aren't interested in all that long-winded stuff Dickens wrote. Why, it's 450 pages! All those extra characters and side-stories, so complicated. No, no, no, slice it to 200 pages and cut the crap.
Mr Jaggers: Hmmm. And the beauty, perhaps? Great Expectations by Deborah Chiel, copyright 1997, Hodder & Stoughton, $85. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, published 1860, no copyright in 1997, available much cheaper than $85.