Critical Analysis Of The Movie Adaptation Of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist
Oliver Twist, the 1948 movie adaptation for the 1839 Charles Dickens novel demonstrates a disconnect throughout the movie for the viewing audience, not utilizing all the main points within the novel, but still promoting a story that is easy to follow for the first-time viewer. Of course, the adaptation removes certain aspects and scenes from the original book, making the story shorter and more concise. While the film does incorporate major characters and scenes, it fails to include monumental events, crucial dialogue exchanges, and other important information, making it seem sloppy and poorly executed from its source.
The first thing about this movie that strikes me as being incredibly thoughtful is the introduction of Oliver’s mom. The movie starts with an establishing shot of a barren landscape, offset with a dead branch in the picture. This sets the tone for the rest of the scene (nearly 5 minutes) and provides the viewer with context on the situation his mom was in, and how poorly people viewed women becoming pregnant and not having a husband to claim the child as theirs. Oliver’s mom stands on a hill before the parish, her moonlit face shines against the dark night sky, revealing her emotions. One critique I have of this scene is the director including a shot of a thorn branch, almost making it seem like this was a crown of thorns for Oliver’s mom to wear – almost like she was being sacrificed for the greater good. When she arrives at the parish house, she is greeted hastily and welcomed inside, where she is escorted to a room to give birth to Oliver. Upon her death, the camera pans to the nurse carrying Oliver to a different part of the parish, but before the transition of the scene happens, the director has superimposed text from the novel over the shot, giving the viewing audience insight into Dickens’ message regarding this aspect of the story. “Oliver Twist cried lustily,” the movie says, “If he had known that he was to grow up under the tender mercies of the Beadle, and the Matron, he would have cried even louder” (Twist 1948), offering the first sympathetic reaction from the audience. Without this text, it’s hard for the audience to grasp the mood of the novel at this point, for if the director would have not put the text onscreen, I believe that it would not have created foreshadowing, nor would it have placed such a somber mood over the next few scenes.
The next thing that I feel like was excellent craftsmanship was the introduction of the magistrates and their words. We are first introduced to them sitting around a table, not feasting, but talking over business matters. They dress, talk, and act like upper-class businessmen, and when the camera addresses them, they demonstrate their significance and hypocrisy. While discussing the current state of the parish, the head magistrate states that it has become a “regular place of entertainment for the poorer class”, demonstrating the view of wealthy individuals that ran these parish houses. The shot immediately after juxtaposes this sentence with a shot of kids working tirelessly on dangerous machines in a loud, cramped factory. This choice by the director to have this juxtaposition between the two highlights the hypocrisy of the magistrates excellently and offers the viewers their first shot into the working conditions of the workhouse. The scene that follows makes me feel unsure about the director’s choice and the intended setting of Dickens. While learning of his job, picking oakum, Oliver is guided through a courtyard. The shot is an angled shot, with a barbed and hooked fence looming over the boys as they are guided to a different building. From Dicken’s perspective, I believe the workhouse was a place that was not likable or homey in any sense, but the shot is reminiscent of holocaust fences and boundaries, completely taking me out of the scene and forcing me to readjust my perception on both the subjects, making the movie seem a little far-fetched with its depiction of the workhouse – an unnecessary addition to the tone of the movie.
One of the biggest critiques that I have to offer about this movie is the removal of the process of Oliver becoming a chimney sweep. The movie skips over this scene and goes from Oliver’s beating in the meal hall into Mr. Bumble convincing Mr. Sowerberry to take Oliver, detracting from a large part of the first book. In Dickens’ original text, he states that Oliver “remained a close prisoner in the dark of the solitary room to which he had been consigned by the wisdom and mercy of the board” (Dickens 17), a crucial reason for Oliver’s looks and behavior before the judge when deciding his fate of being an apprentice. Aside from leaving this scene out, it is not clear why Oliver is offered to take with an award. From the movie audience’s perspective, it’s only because he asked for more food at dinner, then they put him up “for sale” the next day. By not including this scene, it’s difficult to grasp the Beadle’s true emotions towards Oliver, for the only scene we get with him is when he is escorting Oliver to the magistrates’ room, and even then, he is depicted as a lot better man then he is in the novel. Even the judge takes Oliver’s side, whether it is implied as sarcasm is up to the reader, when he states, “Take the boy back to the workhouse, and treat him kindly. He seems to want it” (Dickens 26). This shows that the people outside the parish feel a sort of pity or sorrow for the boys who live and work there and depriving the audience of that is a hindrance in understanding the contrast of the reversal of attitudes when in London.
Another weak part of the movie I think doesn’t do the book justice is when Oliver is introduced to the Sowerberry family. The welcoming scenes are spot on, but the scene where he meets Noah and how their fight occurs is not correct according to the novel, and it shows more sloppy directorial work. In the novel, Oliver first meets Noah when he is sleeping and Noah kicks on the shop door. Noah says, “open the door, will yer’” (Dickens 35), showing the assertive language that Noah uses, despite not knowing the person on the other side of the door. In the movie, however, Oliver is introduced to Noah over dinner, removing all the initial hostility and doubt from Oliver’s perspective. This doesn’t let the audience immediately put negative connotations with Noah. Within the movie, he still uses dialogue that implies he is an aggressor and brattish, but it doesn’t come across the same initially, creating the immediate disapproval of him. One thing that I did like about the scenes at the Sowerberry’s house that wasn’t as clear in the novel was Oliver’s sleeping chambers. Instead of him sleeping under a counter, the movie portrays him sleeping under a coffin – an interesting correlation between the Sowerberry’s life for him and how it’s perceived. By placing him under the coffin, I think it evokes more sympathetic reactions from the audience, forcing them to begin to root for him now.
One thing that the movie did get correct was the initial depiction of Fagin and the state of his living arrangement. In the novel, Fagin is introduced by Dickens, stating, “some sausages were cooking; and standing over them, with a toasting fork in one hand, was a very old shriveled Jew,” (Dickens 64) painting the picture that Fagin can be associated with the Devil, giving him a similar appearance and introduction. In the movie, this scene happens very fast, but the lighting that comes from the flame is enough to brighten Fagin’s face, highlighting the wrinkles, moles, and beard, all depicting a sort of old, lowly person. With this depiction of Fagin, the audience immediately associates him negatively, as he is also wearing a beat down robe and lives in a trash heap, big enough for him and a couple of boys.
Another important scene that the movie got right was the initial description of Sikes and the power relation between him and Fagin. In the book, the first introduction we get of Sikes is when he knocks on Fagin’s door, the book only addressing him as “the ruffian” (Dickens 98). When the ominous knock takes place in the movie, the panic immediately is depicted in all the boys’ faces, showing that there is no need to explain who is knocking, it’s a powerful figure – even over Fagin. The main symbol that is associated with Sikes is his dog. In the novel, the dog is first introduced by Sikes saying, “Come in, d’ye hear” (Dickens 98), showing that Sikes shows no affection or care for anything or anyone. When the dog appears in the movie, its tail is between its legs, it’s shaking, and the overall scene depicts the aggressive, alpha-male figure that is Sikes, very well. But the person that Sikes truly is remains hidden throughout the movie. The biggest problem that I have with the adaptation of this movie is the director’s choice to leave out the robbery scene in which Oliver gets shot. Leaving this scene out not only convolutes the audience’s perception of Sikes, it doesn’t show Oliver recovering and leaves the audience clueless about the locket in this scene. Instead, the locket, which should be introduced after this robbery attempt, is focused on in the opening shot when Oliver’s mom is laying on the bed in the parish house. A short take is made of it, alongside dramatic non-diegetic sound, shows that this locket is going to be important later, just not how. The director’s choice in leaving this out of the movie is careless and unacceptable.
Because of this scene that skips the robbery attempt of Oliver, Ms. Rose does not make her way into the cast. This, in my opinion, negates the entirety of the rest of the book. It is with Ms. Rose that the final scene takes place, and there’s even an illustration to accompany it. If a viewer were to pick up a physical copy of Oliver Twist, they would be baffled at her character and why she wasn’t included in the film as well. Her affection towards Oliver shows the readers that Oliver’s (unknown in the moment) aunt, depicting the love she gives to anyone, regardless of the scenario, as immense and undeniable. After this moment, the novel has a lighter tone, one that makes the audience hopeful that Oliver can get out of his situation, if for no other reason than to live with Rose.
The single biggest mistake that this film made, and I believe that this takes away from the suspense of the novel leading up until this point, are Sikes’ death and Fagin’s capture. In the novel, Fagin and Noah are captured before Sikes even gets a mention. The people hunt down Fagin, capture him, then the novel turns to Sikes. In the movie, since there is no robbery scene, there is no Toby Crackit or Tom Chitling, so the house that is occupied by both Fagin, Sikes, and the boys towards the end of the film is random, looking like it’s placed in downtown London. In Dickens’ words, “to reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of water-side people” (Dickens 416), showing that this place was not easily accessible, nor was it a place that elderly people, children, or anyone with any health problems could access. In the movie, the house they (Fagin and Sikes) are locked in is accessible by stone street. There is no remoteness like the book mentions, nor is Fagin there to help Sikes. In the movie, when the mob storms the front of the house, Fagin is standing on the stairs, waiting for them to break down the door. Once again, in the novel, Fagin was already placed in jail, making it impossible for him to be there. Regardless, Sikes escapes to the roof, but instead of doing it by himself, he takes Oliver with him. He has Oliver secure the rope to the chimney and make sure everything is secure. In the book, it is said a gentleman says, “I promise fifty pounds, fifty pounds to the man that takes him alive” (Dickens 425), wherein the movie, it’s Mr. Brownlow that utters those words, but in the context of saving Oliver. He says, “I offer fifty pounds to anyone who is able to save the boy”, offering a different message than the book. In the following shots, the reason that Sikes is killed is because he is shot in the back and the rope gets tangled around him as he falls. Even though it is not evident in the book how the rope got around his neck, it is said that “he lost his balance and tumbled over the parapet” (Dickens 428), showing that it was his own fault for his death, not at the hand of someone else. This scene is beyond poorly executed in the movie, not giving the viewer the satisfaction they desire when understanding that Sikes essentially killed himself, and didn’t die at the hand of one of the police force.
After this scene, the movie ends with Oliver running towards Mr. Brownlow’s house. This ending sequence is extremely short and although it fits with the movie, it doesn’t match the novel. Much like the rest of the movie, this scene is quickly rushed through, not giving the audience the happy ending they get with the book. The ending scene, not including the killing of Fagin, or Oliver’s time at the church looking at the tablet that bears his mother’s name is disappointing. Overall, the movie seems to follow this same pattern: Following very few events within the novel, leaving the audience with a different experience from the book, perhaps, giving them a false perception of what Dickens’ intended message was. The movie, deceivingly coherent to an audience who has no familiarity with the book, serves as a good starting point in understanding the story, but to fully grasp the nuances that Dickens purposely placed to critique social institutions, morality, and economics, the audience must read the book – for they get none of those in the movie, making it a poor adaptation.
- Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist, edited by Philip Horne, Penguin Books, 2003.
- Lean, David. Oliver Twist. Cineguild, 1948.
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