The sign reading “Cinema 8” switches from “Cleaning” to “Open.” I hand my ticket to the bored-looking young man and walk down the hall to the smallish theatre. I’m the first person here and for a bleak moment I imagine I’ll be the only one in the audience. It is, after all, 8:45 on a Sunday night. But my fears are allayed as a few others file in, mostly in pairs. I don’t often go to the movies alone, but tonight my dates are a box of popcorn and the fresh memory of Lloyd Jones’ Man Booker Shortlisted novel, Mister Pip, which I have just finished reading and upon which this film is based. I’m here for two reasons really, Hugh Laurie (whom I remember more fondly from the Regency series of Blackadder than from House) and to see how Andrew Adamson‘s adaptation compares to the narrative elegance of Jones’ original work. The lights dim, we sit through a few commercials and trailers and suddenly, we’re in Bougainville, 1989.
Lloyd Jones’ novel is narrated in the first person by Matilda, a young teenager living in a village near Bougainville’s copper mine, now closed by civil war. Her father, having worked for the mining company, left for Australia to continue working when the mine was shut down. Matilda remains in Bougainville with her mother. While both dream of the family being reunited, it’s clear that the dream differs for each of them, with Matilda hoping for escape to Australia, while her mother dreams of reunion in Bougainville. As the civil war escalates, Europeans living in Matilda’s village flee on boats to the Solomon Islands and Australia, all except Mr. Watts. Married to one of the villagers, Grace, Mr. Watts takes it upon himself to volunteer as teacher for the village’s children. Watts decides to read to the children from Great Expectations, a story which quickly captures their imaginations. Mister Pip is predominantly about Matilda’s unfolding relationship with Great Expectations and with the man who helps her encounter Dickens for the first time, Mr. Watts.
I’ve always found it interesting to see how film adaptations handle first person narratives. This is partly because I’ve never been a fan of voice-overs (those in The Piano being a notable exception), but without these, it’s difficult for an audience to connect to the character; to know what the character is thinking. In the film Mr. Pip a more elegant device is utilized. As Matilda becomes wrapped up in the story of Great Expectations, she daydreams about Pip constantly, feeling that he is a friend, as real and present as those actually around her. In the film, these thoughts are portrayed as actual scenes between Matilda and an actor playing Pip. In these daydream scenes Matilda, as well as the actors portraying characters from Great Expectations, wears distinct clothes that are a sort of Dickensian-era-style/modern-Pacific-colour-and-pattern hybrid, helping the audience avoid confusion regarding which scenes are daydream and which reality. The way these daydream scenes meld Matilda’s real Bougainville surroundings and experiences with those she encounters in Dickens’ book is both extremely clever and incredibly immersive; in my opinion far more moving than a voice-over would have been.
One of the film’s great successes is the way it highlights how the same book can mean different things to different people. For Mr. Watts, Pip’s escape from the marshes and from blacksmithing serves as some sort of permission for Watts’ own escapes, first from his original marriage and, later still, to Bougainville from London. For Matilda, on the other hand, while there is a strong appeal to Pip’s change of fortune, she is, from the outset, wary of how Pip’s social elevation changes him, this wariness emphasized by the film’s use of Dickens’ phrase “It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home.” In Lloyd Jones’ original novel, the frustration Matilda demonstrates with Pip’s change of attitude also mirrors her fear that her father’s life in Australia will have fundamentally changed him, made him more like her perception of the white men from the mining company and less like the man she remembers. In fact, this tension between black identity and white identity as perceived by Matilda is perhaps the most prominent theme of the novel to suffer from being underplayed in the film.
One odd choice (particularly for a New Zealand film) is the near excision of the book’s New Zealand element, a choice most likely made for narrative convenience. In the novel, Matilda visits Mr. Watts’ wife in Wellington, NZ. In the film, Matilda finds her in Gravesend, England, the setting of a prominent scene in Great Expectations. While this choice allows several key scenes of the novel to be melded into one longer visual sojourn, I did feel that something was lost, perhaps the sense that Mr. Watts, having lived in Wellington, came to Bougainville with a piece of the Pacific already in his soul.
As one would expect, there are many other differences between the new film and Lloyd Jones’ novel and, as someone who has just read the novel, these differences certainly stood out. However, I still found the film compelling and felt that it stayed true, if not to all the details or even all the themes of the novel, certainly to the essence of Jones’ work (despite what I would call a small Hollywood-ization of the ending). I would strongly recommend seeing this film and while I’m generally an advocate of reading the novel first, in this case, I believe it’s less important to read Mister Pip before booking your cinema tickets than it is to read or at least have a passing familiarity with the plot of Great Expectations. Without some knowledge of Pip’s story (which I had, having read Dickens’ book a few years ago), the audience might struggle to understand many of Mr. Watts and Matilda’s conversations, as well as the parallels between these characters lives and that of Pip. Without an understanding of these connections, I fear the film would lose much of its meaning and its interest.