Book vs. Movie: Oliver Twist
By Kim Hollis
February 18, 2006

On second thought, I don't think I really want any more.

If movies like Freddy vs. Jason, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Alien vs. Predator, Godzilla vs. Mothra, Kramer vs. Kramer, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Ecks vs. Sever, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and King Kong vs. Godzilla have taught us nothing else, it's that everything is somehow better in battle format. We here at BOP recognize this fact, but at the same time realize that our breed of super-smart readers sometimes yearns for a touch of the intellectual at the same time. And since Hollywood has a certain obsession with turning literature of all types into big screen features, we're afforded the perfect opportunity to set up grudge matches galore.

And so, whenever the Tinsel Town hotshots decide that it's a great idea to turn the little-known Herman Melville classic Redburn into a theatrical event film, we'll be there. Whether the results are triumphant (see: The Lord of the Rings trilogy) or tragic (i.e. The Scarlett Letter), we'll take it upon ourselves to give you the verdict and spark the discussion.

Oliver Twist

One of the earliest books of Charles Dickens' distinguished career, Oliver Twist shows all the hallmarks that would ultimately come to represent the traditional "Dickensian" novel. There's the requisite obsession with iniquity, the vitriol against government-enforced poverty laws, and the ever-present finale full of coincidences. The story has been retold in several formats, from the Academy Award-winning musical Oliver! to the animated Oliver and Co. to a pair of different mini-series. Most recently, though, the tale was tackled by Academy Award-winner Roman Polanski, with Ben Kingsley in the critical role of Fagin.

The Book

Most people are familiar with the general trajectory of this Victorian novel. Young Oliver is born in a government-operated workhouse, and his mother dies in the process of giving birth. The boy is therefore transferred to an orphanage, where he spends nine years before returning to the workhouse. In his first week there, Oliver immediately commits the egregious faux pas of asking for more gruel (he is put up to it by some of the other boys), at which point the gentlemen who have the responsibility of running the place determine that the boy is a bad seed, and plan to apprentice him, preferably to the worst sort of master possible.

After a series of mishaps, Oliver finally finds himself working for an undertaker, but things go badly when the charity boy who is also employed there gets under our young hero's skin. Oliver is locked in a cellar, and the local beadle promises that he will return in the morning to return the lad to the workhouse. Unwilling to go through more torment, Oliver runs away to London.

When he arrives in the big city, Oliver falls under the thumb of a gang of thugs, whose leaders are an older man named Fagin and a brute known as Bill Sykes. Despite a brief escape where Oliver happily lives with an older gentleman who rescues him from jail time, he is soon captured by Fagin and Co., and is soon assigned to accompany Sykes on a burglary. Things go terribly wrong while they are perpetrating their crime, though, and Oliver is shot. Fagin leaves him behind, and the boy is rescued by the owners of the home, a kindly woman and her sweet niece. From this point, we see plenty of machinations by Fagin to get the boy back amongst his charges, but since it's a Dickens story you simply know that the innocent and impossibly kind Oliver will have a happy life at last.

Something that is particularly noteworthy about the book is that Oliver is not really the main character of the story. He moves around its edges and the actions of the other characters revolve around him, but he's really just there to demonstrate what horrors can happen to someone so angelic. The book has several different characters who are the focus of the story at various times, from the parochial beadle to Fagin to Oliver's benefactor, Mr. Brownlow. As the book goes into its second half, the reader is introduced to the Maylies, the kind women who rescue Oliver and the servants and friends who surround them. And of course, the exploration of crime and evil is made fascinating thanks to characters like Fagin, Sykes, the prostitute Nancy and the Artful Dodger.

The book is perhaps best remembered as an indictment of the poverty laws that were the cause of such societal unrest in England during the Victorian era. Oliver, a boy who has done nothing wrong ever in his entire life, is persecuted and believed a low person simply because he had the misfortune to be born a ward of the government. Equally piercing is Dickens' treatment of officials such as the parochial beadle and the workhouse manager. Oliver Twist is a novel with a grim feel, but it does provide a spark of hope for the future. I wonder how Dickens would react to the Britain of today.

The Movie

Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist is an atmospheric recapturing of precisely the bleak reality that Dickens tried to impart in his novel. In that aspect, the movie succeeds fully. Unfortunately, due to the excision of a number of characters, the plot becomes contrived and even nonsensical.

The film starts out well enough, showing Oliver's move from the country to London and his early days with Fagin's gang. What the movie does terribly wrong is to eliminate the Maylies and a side story that goes a long way toward explaining why both Fagin and Sykes remain in pursuit of Oliver even after the bungled robbery. As a result, Polanski's movie has criminals whose motivation toward evil makes no sense (they hate Oliver because they do. And they want him back, dammit!) and while I suppose that the notion that wickedness has no rhyme or reason is something to be explored, when one is aware of the depth of the book, it's just infuriating.

Frankly, there's not much else to say about the film beyond that. Barney Clark acquits himself admirably as Oliver, Harry Eden makes a fun Artful Dodger, and Ben Kingsley is all but unrecognizable as Fagin. Other than my slight admiration of these performances, the only thing I can say really pleased me about the film was that one minor detail was changed that bothered me in the book. Sykes dog meets a better end in the movie than it deserved in Dickens' version.

The Verdict

I think it's pretty clear that I recommend skipping Polanski's version of the film altogether and to read Dickens' far more fleshed out and detailed story instead. If you really must watch a watered-down adaptation of the story, just rent Oliver and Co. and enjoy the cute, animated puppies and kitties instead.