“All Those Thieves and Pickpockets Lurking in Dark Alleyways”: Oliver Twist Onscreen

by Boze

We’ve talked before on this blog about the visual nature of Oliver Twist. In terms of cinematic images per page it’s rivaled only by A Tale of Two Cities. The workhouse, Fagin’s den, the death of Bill Sikes have become part of our shared cultural inheritance.

This cinematic quality has made the story irresistible for filmmakers. It was both the first Dickens novel to be adapted for film and the first Dickens novel to be adapted for sound film. Most notable among the half-dozen or so early attempts is Frank Lloyd’s Oliver Twist (1922), a silent film thought to be lost for over fifty years until a print was discovered in Yugoslavia in 1973. In the restored film (freely available on YouTube), the crispness of the black-and-white cinematography is remarkable. Physically the cherub-cheeked Jackie Coogan (The Kid) is a bad fit for the titular waif, but his large eyes and look of perpetual surprise help sell the character. Lon Chaney plays Fagin as a feral creature, more monster than man, who seems to have been birthed fully formed from the London fog. As a relic of early cinema it holds up surprisingly well. Its major weakness is the location shooting; one never forgets for a moment that Oliver is walking on American roads beneath American skies.

British director David Lean has some claim to being the definitive director of Dickens. His Great Expectations (1946) remains the best adaptation of that story. Slightly less successful, though still a minor masterpiece of cinema, is Oliver Twist (1948). Visually this version has no equal; Lean’s innovative compositions and chiaroscuro cinematography turn Oliver’s travails into an expressionistic nightmare. Sir Alec Guinness (a Lean regular; he had played Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations) finds the whimsy and humanity in Fagin’s malevolence. With his stooped shoulders, comically large beard and twinkly eyes, he draws laughs with his slightest gesture. Lean’s decision to give Fagin an offensively large prosthetic nose (against the advice of both Sir Alec Guinness and the film’s Jewish makeup artist) can make for uncomfortable viewing. Yet the warmth of Guinness’s portrayal somewhat mitigated the accusations of antisemitism. The new state of Israel banned the film, but so did the state of Egypt—for portraying Fagin sympathetically.

Lean’s pragmatic distillation of the novel would prove hugely influential; Sir Carol Reed cited the 1948 Oliver as an inspiration for his 1968 musical retelling, Oliver! Reed goes much further than any previous version, in fact, in excising from the narrative any extraneous characters or subplots. Rose is barely seen; Monks is omitted entirely. What remains is a story of growing tension between Oliver and Bill Sikes and Nancy, who seeks to rescue Oliver and return him to the kindly Mr. Brownlow. And because this plot by itself could barely fill a two-hour movie, there is a lot of singing. Everyone sings in this movie: the orphans sing as they sit down to their gruel; the paupers sing as they sell their wares. Every few minutes the story is interrupted by a spontaneous crowd song, the best of which—“You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” and Nancy’s “It’s a Fine Life”—serve to introduce important characters. Other songs, however, seem to exist solely to pad out the film’s runtime, with fruit-sellers and acrobats somersaulting improbably through London streets for what feels like forever. Because the movie musical has fallen out of fashion, this element of the film has not aged well. But in its day Oliver! was a massive critical and commercial success, nominated for eleven Academy Awards and winning six, including Best Picture and Best Director, and inspiring one of the best-ever A Christmas Carol adaptations, the musical Scrooge (1970) with Albert Finney and Sir Alec Guinness.

Now we come to what is probably my favorite Oliver adaptation, the 1985 twelve-part serial for BBC television. Produced by Terrance Dicks (Doctor Who, the 1986 David Copperfield), this version more than any other presents Dickens’ original tale in its full glory. The generous six-hour runtime allows for the re-insertion of moments and characters that had been omitted from all previous adaptations, such as the chimney sweep who unsuccessfully lobbies to apprentice Oliver before he’s purchased by Mr. Sowerberry. Pip Donaghy (Job Trotter from The Pickwick Papers ’85) proves what an asset Monks can be to the story when given proper space to rant and fume and clutch his throat. David Garlick’s Artful Dodger might be the best-ever iteration of that character, making a meal out of Dickens’ dialogue during the courtroom scene in the antepenultimate episode (“you’ll pay for this, my fine feller! I won’t go free now even if you was to beg me!”). Amanda Harris plays Nancy as a sort of proto-Rose Tyler, lending the character a fire and pathos that were missing in most previous versions, and which renders her death all the more tragic. Michael Attwell is absolutely perfect as Bill Sikes, bringing never-before-seen layers of amusement and warmth and frustration and terror to what had previously been a rather one-dimensional role. The additional time spent with these characters allows us to fall in love with them, to see the story as Dickens no doubt intended, a story of broken people either giving in to their worst impulses or choosing the good at the risk of their lives. There is no better adaptation than this, my friends; those final episodes build to a crescendo of emotion that is unmatched in the canon of Olivers.

The late eighties saw multiple less conventional takes on the Oliver Twist mythos, among them the Steven Spielberg epic Empire of the Sun (1987), based on a memoir by novelist J. G. Ballard but loosely following the plot structure of Oliver, with a wee Christian Bale playing an American boy named Jim who gets separated from his mother in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion and is forced to spend the rest of the war living in an internment camp. John Malkovich plays a recognizably American version of Fagin (named Basie) in aviators and baseball cap who enlists Jim in selling the belongings of internees who have died. Basie becomes a sort of father figure to the boy, both mentoring and manipulating him. Still further removed from Dickens’ original is 1988’s Oliver and Company, a Disney animated film set in present-day New York in which Oliver is an orphaned kitten who joins a gang of dogs (one of whom, Dodger, is voiced by Billy Joel). Though somewhat forgotten today, Oliver and Company was a pivotal movie for Disney, employing many of the same elements that would make the next year’s The Little Mermaid an era-defining success.

The 1999 six-hour adaptation of Oliver for ITV (available here) made the somewhat controversial decision to preface Oliver’s story with nearly two hours of back story, thereby removing much of the mystery of the boy’s origins. The lengthy explanation given jointly by Monks and Brownlow in the book’s final chapters is here dramatized and embellished, showing the devastation of a young Agnes Fleming (Sophia Myles) when she learns that the gentleman with whom she’s just conceived a child is already married. Said gentleman is then poisoned with prussic acid by his estranged wife, Elizabeth, who’s revealed to be the guiding hand behind Monks, her son, and thus the story’s central villain. Part two of the four-part series picks up with the events of the book, introducing us to Bill Sikes (a pre-Lord of the Rings Andy Serkis) and a Fagin (Robert Lindsay) who’s more street magician than malefactor; he dresses like Albus Dumbledore and introduces himself by producing a number of silk scarves and some pigeons out of thin air, to the amazement of an easily-wowed Oliver.

The 2007 BBC Oliver, written by Sarah Phelps—who’s made something of a career out of gritty, unpleasant retellings of classic stories—manages to wring some sympathy out of Fagin, played here, in a case of annoyingly obvious casting, by Timothy Spall. As if hoping to make up for decades of antisemitic portrayals of Fagin, Phelps writes and Spall portrays him as a tragic figure, driven to thieving and pick-pocketing by Christian persecution. As the six-part adaptation goes on, Fagin becomes increasingly heroic, attempting to protect Oliver from the murderous Sikes and—in a curious inversion of the end of The Merchant of Venice—holding fast to his faith even at the cost of his life. During his trial in the final episode, the judge—invoking the Blood Libel—accuses him of “abduction and conspiracy to murder a Christian child,” but allows him an opportunity to save himself: “Fall to your knees before this assembly and take Christ as your savior … renounce your faith, your God.” Fagin considers for only a moment before saying, “I cannot.” In the jeers and taunts of the crowd as he stands on the scaffold, one hears an echo of the crowd clamoring for the death of Christ.

16 Comments

  1. Boze, a truly masterful review of the cinematic renderings of OT.

    Thanks so much.

    Like Rach, I’m eager to view the 1985 version, based on your careful review.

    Much gratitude!

    Daniel

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the book but, for whatever reason, I usually don’t like adaptations of Oliver Twist. (I don’t mean that to sound like I’m criticizing Boze or the blog for doing this post! Far from it.) I never seem to like the changes they make and it’s not like I demand everything to be exactly the same as the book. There are plenty of adaptations of Dickens that make changes to their source material and which I appreciate. They just never seem to be called Oliver Twist.

    I’d like to check the 1985 miniseries because of this post’s recommendation, but I have to say I tend to find a lot of BBC miniseries from the 80s and even the 90s aesthetically unappealing. Of the Oliver Twist miniseries I’ve seen, I enjoy the 1999 one the most, though I also have a number of criticisms of it.

    I hesitate to say this because it’ll alienate readers, but my favorite adaptation of Oliver Twist is a radio adaptation from 2012 made by Focus on the Family. I’m sorry that some people are going to have a harder time enjoying my comments now that I’ve outed myself as either rightwing or someone who isn’t adamantly not rightwing, but it really is a great adaptation. My only major criticisms of it are that it doesn’t include the scene of Mr. Bumble’s wife beating him up and that the voice actor for Oliver himself is not that good. Most of the voice actors are awesome or at least OK. And if there’s an extent to which it highjacks the book for a rightwing agenda, well, there are probably adaptations that highjack for a leftwing one to the same extent.

    I do have a fondness for the Oliver Twist-inspired episode of Wishbone. It may not be a very…complete adaptation but it was one of the things got me interested in Dickens as a kid.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My brother and I started the ’85 adaptation, and my parents want to start it soon too!

    Sooo good so far, everyone is perfectly cast in this early portion, from the magistrate to Oliver. Bumble is great! I love the fidelity and all the little details like the coffin-shaped snuffbox of Mr Sowerberry. Love all the stones and the bricks…!

    I am definitely up for the group watch…just comment here?

    Like

    1. It’s a perfect adaptation! There were little moments, like the boys’ heads being dipped in cold water, or the child-sized coffins, that I can’t remember seeing in any other adaptation. This miniseries had the good sense to let the story breathe. Almost every line and beat of the original novel makes it onto the screen.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Love it!!! Looking forward to more. There are a few of **those** special miniseries, so faithful and perfect, like the 1995 Pride & Prejudice or the 1981 Brideshead Revisited. Hard to top them 🖤

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      1. Right now we’re watching it streaming free through Amazon prime…hmm, not sure if a BritBox subscription has to be added on? (I will ask my brother!)

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  4. Boze, this is terrific! Thanks for the information and the work of putting it all together. One of my earliest memories of Dickens adaptations was the 1966 (yikes!) episode of Perry Mason called “The Case of the Twice-Told Twist” about a gang of car thieves. They steal Perry’s car and in his investigation he discovers a Fagin-like ringleader, played by the great Victor Buono, who enlists teenage boys to steal cars. Of course, there is one newbie – an innocent named Lennie – who he saves from a life of crime. Of course, there is a bad guy Bill Sikes and a moll, Robin, who is a singer in a night club. All very seedy but also very Dickens! Here’s a link to the IMDB blurb about it:
    https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0673417/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_74

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Just finished ep 3–Dodger and Fagin are so good! It’s weird the sort of affection one kinda feels for them…they’ve probably shown poor Oliver more kindness (however self-interested) that he’s seen in a long time, maybe his whole life. Barely got to see Sikes as he passes by on the stairs like a shadow.

    I love the way they show Nancy’s first reaction to Oliver: there is something *different* about him, and it calls out to something long buried within her, and it disturbs her. Well done 👍

    Like

  6. This is turning out to be a running commentary 😂

    My brother and I are about to start Ep 7…but yesterday! Oh my, Bumble wooing Mrs Corney, and making love to the furniture and cutlery! “Cherry ripe, cherry ripe…”! 😂 This Bumble is absolutely perfect. Beyond perfect. I wish I had some of these lines down pat…something like, “what a union of hearts and housekeepings”! “Coals, candles, & house-rent free! Mrs Corney, what an angel you are!” “Porochial [sic] perfection!” 😂

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