Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Notes on Oliver Twist

I recall a critic calling David Lean's versions of this and Great Expectations "model adaptations." Can't comment immediately on the latter, but on the former, I'd say both yes and no.

Let's start with no. The plot of the movie does considerable violence to the plot of the book. The book, which involves a considerable amount of willful suspensiuon of disbelief, involves at least three extraordinary coincidences. The first is that a poor orphan named Oliver Twist, having arrived in London penniless, falls in with a gang of thieves led by the evil Fagin, who is in cahoots with Monks, who just happens to be the an evil older brother that Oliver didn't know he had. The second is that he will be accused of robbing an elderly old gentleman. Mr. Brownlow, who just happens to be the best friend of Oliver's long-gone father. The other coincidence is that Oliver, under the coercion of the thug Bill Sykes, will be involved in the robbery of a home -- which just happens, of all the homes in London, to be the one containing Rose, the lost lost sister he didn't know he had. Brownlow and Rose and their company, to make a long story short, work to save Oliver and restore to him the inheritance that Monks tried to steal.

Granted, it's a lot to pack into two hours, so Lean streamlines: he takes scenes completely out of sequence, shuffles them about at will, assigns different characters to different actions. The Lean version scraps the whole sister subplot, and makes Brownlow Oliver's long-lost grandfather. In the book, a fellow named Noah Claypole follows Bill's duplicitous galpal Nancy on her way to a secret meeting on the bridge with Rose and Brownlow; in the movie, there is no Rose, and it is Fagin's head thief, the Artful Dodger, who follows Nancy to meeting Brownlow. In the book, Bill Sykes, after murdering Nancy, is hounded by a crowd, crawls on a roof, and accidentally hangs himself; in the movie, he drags Oliver with him on to the roof, and Oliver is barely saved.

Now to the yes side. Despite all of the above, the film is absolutely stunningly brilliant: the brilliant black and white photography, the variety of camera angles, composition, art direction are all first-class, and Lean manages to keep the film at a very snappy pace without sacrificing the poetry of its images. It is faithful to the Dickens' spirit if not his story; Lean even appears to have used the Cruikshank illustrations of the book as storyboards. A heavily made-up Alec Guinness has a roaring good time playing Fagin; Robert Newton (later famous as Long John Silver) could not be bettered as Sykes, Francis L. Sullivan makes the perfect Mr. Bumble, and it was interesting to see Peter Bull, (Alexei from Dr. Stranglove) in a small bit as a pub-owner. A young Anthony Newley, several decades before Stop the World, I Want to Get Off! is a fine young Dodger.

The lead is played by John Howard Davies, who went on to become a British TV director (most notably for "Flying Circus" and "Fawlty Towers.") Lean doesn't flesh out the role much more than Dickens did; he's one of the author's insufferably sweet little orphans. Davies is passably charming.

Kay Walsh is a bit too pretty to make a good Nancy, but that's my only quibble.

The book is not, by a long stretch, first-class Dickens, but the movie is first-class Lean.

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