Welcome to our Oliver Twist Film Festival online! Answer the questions and compete for an award.

Oliver Twist (1922)
Oliver Twist (1948)
Oliver! (1968)
Oliver Twist (2005)
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I was interested to see how Charles Dickens has fared in cinema over 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 the author's first novels, and it includes many features and themes that were lifelong interests of his--including features that simply beg for cinematic treatment:
  • Great attention to scene and atmospherics, especially in urban settings
  • Vivid characters
  • An abundance of conflicts, among his characters and within them
  • Powerful story arcs that require resolution--tragic for some characters, victorious for others, redemptive for still others.
All of these features and characters develop on a foundation of 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 years.

George Cruikshank's illustrations for the original serialized 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.

Cruikshank provided an engraving for
every episode of the serialized novel.
From left: 

  1. Oliver asks for more.
  2. The Dodger introduces Oliver Twist to Fagin.
  3. Oliver "plucks up a spirit."

The silent film era.

The first film based on Oliver Twist may have been released as long ago 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:

Oliver Twist (1922)

Postwar films.

David Lean, one of Britain's greatest 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:

Oliver Twist (1948)

Twenty years later, Dickens' 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.

Oliver! (1968)

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 you think?

Oliver Twist (2005)

Questions (send your answers to me or post them on my blog--the NGI student with the best answers will win an award)

  1. Charles Dickens believed that good can survive even when 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?
  2. Oliver's most famous line might be "Please, sir, I want some more." Why does he make this request? Why is the reaction so negative?
  3. What is Dickens's attitude toward social classes and toward those in high society? (This is a complex issue: notice that he does not romanticize all poor people!)
  4. 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?
  5. Does the justice system work properly in the England portrayed in these films? (Give examples.)
  6. 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.)
  7. Which of the films does the best job of conveying Charles Dickens's sense of humor?
  8. 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?
  9. 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?

In any case, enjoy!

A Christmas Carol (2009)

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