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.