I was interested to see how Charles Dickens has fared in cinema
the years. But the problem is, over 180 film and television adaptations
have been made from his writings. Where do we start?
Oliver Twist was one of
author's first novels, and it includes many features and themes that
were lifelong interests of his--including features that simply beg for
Great attention to scene and atmospherics, especially
An abundance of conflicts, among his characters and
Powerful story arcs that require resolution--tragic
characters, victorious for others, redemptive for still others.
All of these features and characters develop on a foundation
fierce moral conviction laced with humor--sometimes broad slapstick,
sometimes biting satire. So my decision was clear: let's simply take a look at how
this specific novel has been treated by directors and actors over the
George Cruikshank's illustrations for the original
novel have been very influential in filmmakers' staging of Oliver
Twist. Keep these illustrations in mind as you see how the movies have
evolved in their depictions of inner-city London and the lives of poor
people and criminals.
every episode of the serialized novel.
Oliver asks for more.
The Dodger introduces Oliver
Twist to Fagin.
Oliver "plucks up a spirit."
The silent film era.
The first film based on Oliver
may have been released as
as 1907 according to the Silent Era Web site, but the first full-length
feature film dates back a hundred years ago, to 1912. A complete print
of this film does not exist. The first film that is still regarded as a
classic is the 1922 film directed by Frank Lloyd and starring Jackie
Coogan and Lon Chaney. Silent films were dependent on visual titles to
convey text and partial dialogue. (And students of English don't get
any listening comprehension practice--but you'll have to read fairly
quickly!) Note how closely the title texts in this
film reflect the style of Charles Dickens:
David Lean, one of Britain's
film directors (perhaps best
known in the USA for his version of Doctor
Zhivago), scored a huge success with his adaptation of Great Expectations in 1946. Two
years later, he and his team tackled Oliver
Twist, creating a version that remains on the British Film
Institute's Top 100 British Films list, and continues to be regarded by
some as the best Oliver Twist
movie adaptation ever.
However, at the time it was released, there were
storms of protests over what some believed was an emphasis on
anti-Semitic stereotypes in Alec Guinness's portrayal of Fagin. This
controversy echoed the protests made to Dickens himself a century
earlier, when critics questioned why he seemed to emphasize the Jewish
identity of Fagin when none of the other evildoers received similar
treatment. Interestingly, Dickens took the criticism to heart and toned
down the ethnic emphasis in those parts of the novel that had yet to
be printed. (He also pointed out that all the other baddies were
Christians!) In any case, you can judge for yourself whether Guinness's
portrayal is suitable within the context of the overall story:
Twenty years later,
novel became an Oscar-winning musical, Oliver!--based on a successful
British stage play but with several major changes that bring the film
somewhat closer to the original novel. You might find it hard to
believe that a musical could serve as a vehicle for such a serious
story and grim settings, but I think it succeeded very well. You'll
have to make up your own mind. (Was it right to make Fagin even
slightly likeable?) Of course, every film version has had to reduce or
cut some aspects of the original story; among the cuts made in the
musical is the sad story of the death of Oliver's mother at the
workhouse, and Oliver's evil stepbrother is gone entirely.
Our final Oliver
Twist was made seven years ago by the famous (some would say
controversial) director Roman Polański, who brings quite a different
mood to the story. The relationship between Fagin and Oliver was always
complex, but Polański's Fagin clearly ends up wanting to see Oliver die.
Rose Maylie doesn't appear in this film at all; Monks and his designs
on Oliver's inheritance is also gone.
Many critics praised Polański and screenwriter Ronald Harwood for a
film that, while economizing on certain details of plot, is faithful to
the moral world and deliberate pacing of the original author. What do
Questions (send your answers to me or post them on my blog--the NGI student with the best answers will win an award)
Charles Dickens believed that good can survive even
surrounded by evil, and that even criminals may find redemption. In
Oliver Twist, which of his characters are thoroughly good, which seem
thoroughly evil, and in which can we see the struggle between good and
evil resolving in favor of redemption?
Oliver's most famous line might be "Please, sir, I
want some more." Why does he make this request? Why is the reaction so
What is Dickens's attitude toward social classes and
those in high society? (This is a complex issue: notice that he does
not romanticize all poor people!)
Dickens's novels are remarkable for their balance between the qualities of moral commentary and realism. Which film version of Oliver Twist best achieves this balance?
Does the justice system work properly in the England
portrayed in these films? (Give examples.)
In the novel, Dickens uses dialect as well as
vocabulary to convey social identity. Do the films use dialect
effectively? (The Artful Dodger may be one of the better examples.)
Which of the films does the best job of conveying
Dickens's sense of humor?
Did any of the actors and actresses make a special
impression on you? Which of these actors and actresses seem to have
done the best job of understanding Charles Dickens?
Dickens wrote his novel as a series of episodes for
the magazine he edited. Each episode, of course, had to leave the
reader wanting more, so that he or she would buy the next issue.
Moviemakers, on the other hand, have to present their story all at
once. But television producers have made several series out of Oliver Twist
and other Dickens works. Do you prefer single films or multiple-episode
series? Do you think the serialization of Dickens's novels made them
unnecessarily complex? (Recommended reading: "When Is a Book Not a Book?")
What do I mean by "the best answers"?
I don't mean the answers that agree with my opinions! I'm referring to
those answers that, in the judgment of my colleagues in the linguistics
faculty and me, are the most well-reasoned and show the most careful
examination of the films. Send your answers to me by e-mail or by using the comment section of the related blog post. It is not necessary to answer all the questions to enter this contest.
One of the few well-regarded animations (in this case, a 3D
performance-capture) of the works of Charles Dickens was the relatively
recent Disney production of A
Christmas Carol. The original story was one of Dickens's most
universally praised works, widely credited with restoring the
importance of the family Christmas celebration all over the
English-speaking Christian world--and, perhaps less positively, making
it arguably a more secular occasion. The story's role as a stern moral
instructor for rich people still has relevance in view of the
recent near-breakdown of global financial structures; perhaps the 2009 timing
of this Jim Carrey film might have been providential?