In its first hour, at least, the structure of the newest version of Great Expectations owes as much to Wuthering Heights as it does to Dickens. As in Bronte's novel, the claustrophobic action of this first act moves back and forth from the Forge to Satis House, with only the ugly stretches of marshland (and cemetery) in-between. Both spaces are characterized by physical and psychological brutality: Mrs. Joe's shrieking and slapping, Miss Havisham's twisted "nurturing," Estella's youthful fascination with pain, Orlick's sadism. Characters are likelier to slap each other than they are to hug. Even though the episode contrasts the heat of the forge to the chill of Satis House ("I'm always cold," says Miss Havisham), it's a pretty flickering heat--not least because Joe Gargery is, while a decent fellow, not the gentle, innocent saint of the novel, as much a boy as Pip. Nor is there a warmhearted Biddy to counteract Estella's coldness. The cinematography reinforces this overall wintriness: everything is in shades ranging from muddy black to blue-gray, with Miss Havisham dressed in increasingly decrepit whites. (She wanders through her house like a ghost.) Even Estella walks about in pale shades of pink and blue. The production designer describes the intended effect as a world of "frozen dead love," supposedly mitigated only by the forge's flames. The only relief from the overarching gloom comes from the oranges of the forge fire, on the one hand, and the fading colors of the pinned butterflies at Satis House, on the other. Under the circumstances, the former does little to counteract the call of the latter.
The chill extends to the adaptation's humor. By which I mean that there isn't any. No Wopsle, no Trabb's Boy, no nothing. The closest we get to comic relief is Pumblechook, and he's still rather nasty. In other words, this is Drama, sort of a Portrait of the Artist as a Glum Man. Between the humorlessness and the overall coldness, the adaptation does such a brilliant job of painting Pip's young life as one endless run of misery that it becomes harder and harder to figure out why, exactly, he should have had any loyalty to Joe at the forge. (Book Joe has a good psychological explanation for why he puts up with Mrs. Joe's abusiveness; adaptation Joe has no such excuse.)
Of the adaptation's innovations, the most successful derives from--ironically enough--being more faithful to the book than usual when it comes to Miss Havisham's age. Dickens intended Miss Havisham to be about thirty-three years Pip's senior, so in the initial phases of the plot, at least, Gillian Anderson is actually about right, chronology-wise. With her corpse-white skin, cracked lips, and self-mutilated hands, Anderson's Miss Havisham is a woman whose middle age has been stretched out and warped; appropriately enough, her attempts to stop time merely distort it. Although Anderson's performance is by far the most memorable thing about the adaptation, Miss Havisham has also been scripted to be far more manipulative of Pip's self-awareness than in the novel: Dickens makes it quite clear that Miss Havisham encourages none of Pip's illusions about going up in the world ("on the contrary, she seemed to prefer my being ignorant" [ch. 12]), but Phelps has her actively encouraging Pip to read, to aspire to higher things--to be, as she suggests, "special." When she turns around and pays his premium to Joe, then, she manages to outdo her fictional counterpart in active cruelty. As a result, Pip's self-delusions in the novel are here less the product of his own runaway imagination, and more of adult interference; he has perfectly good reasons for believing that Miss Havisham has changed her mind and become his benefactor, and not just because Jaggers is her lawyer.
What the adaptation has also muddied, I think, is the novel's belief in the power of charity and forgiveness. On the one hand, Pip becomes more charitable than his novel self, because Magwitch only asks for a file; it's Pip who voluntarily steals him some food. Is this a sign of a burgeoning moral sense, or just burgeoning criminality? On the other, Mrs. Joe has no redemption arc. Represented as a selfish harpy primarily interested in riding Pip's Havisham-inflated coattails to the top, she is struck down at the moment that Miss Havisham pays Pip's premium: her would-be social climbing comes in for providential punishment. But the head injury has so far left her merely catatonic, instead of forgiving. Similarly, there's no endlessly compassionate Biddy listening to a thoroughly clueless Pip drone on about his miseries, and even Joe Gargery makes it clear in passing that he expects a premium for Pip to come from somewhere (whereas novel Joe intended to apprentice him for free). In a way, Pip seems more "special" because he freely offered the food--which is precisely the opposite of the novel's point about him.