You often wonder why someone chooses to remake a film, even if it is based on a classic book. Oliver Twist has been made no less than 20 times, according to the IMDb. Most critics agree that David Lean’s 1948 version is the best, with Alec Guinness’s Fagin the definitive one. (Ron Moody in Oliver! is a close second, though you can’t really compare the two since one is comic and the other definitely is not.)
You don’t have to wonder why this director chose to remake this film, however. Roman Polanski’s parents were sent off to concentration camps when he was about Oliver’s age, and he had to fend for himself on the brutal streets for a long time. No question this story resonates with him. So, though it wasn’t really necessary to make this film, I give him points for making a visually stunning movie, full of vivid Dickensian characters. Unfortunately, it totally laid an egg at the box office.
But I had a few thoughts about the book itself. It is one of Dickens’ most popular, and it’s easy to see why. The book is more complicated than most of the screen versions (maybe one of the several mini-series included the whole plot, but I haven’t seen them), and it turns out to be easy to snip out several subplots without any damage to the larger story. And it’s the story that, upon reflection, concerns me.
Polanski has left out the beginning, where a desperate woman dies giving birth, and the ending, where it is revealed that Oliver is the long-lost nephew of Mr. Brownlow. Okay, we expect unlikely coincidences in Dickens and other Victorians, as we expect sentimentality. That aside, what makes a Dickens story so compelling to this day is the realistic portraits of the evils of the age, the sheer grinding indifference of the upper classes and their moralistic lackeys to the plight of the unfortunates who Dickens loves so much.
Oliver bothers me. Just look at him. Raised in an orphanage, then sent to the workhouse, unwanted, unloved, on his own. And yet he is so angelic, so full of goodness. How the hell did he survive ten years? In Oliver! he even speaks like a little upper-class twit (twist?), as if he was on the public school track that leads straight to Oxford, and in this new version his speech is distinctly different from the street urchins. Henry Higgins maintained that an Englishman’s speech “absolutely classifies him,” but he didn’t suggest that accents were hereditary. Then, thrown in with a nest of thieves, Oliver never steals anything. Taken in by Mr. Brownlow, he exhibits all the honor and resolve of the class he was born into. And that’s the key, isn’t it?
Did Dickens even realize that he was making that ancient, eugenic argument that “blood will tell”? His own youth was moderately well-off until he was 12, when his father was thrown into debtors prison and he had to go to work in awful conditions. I can imagine him slaving away, thinking “I’m better than all this.” I’m not putting him down; who wouldn’t think like that, in that situation? But it’s a major flaw in the story for me.
There is also the Merchant of Venice syndrome, with the “bad guy” being Jewish. I don’t have a lot to say about that, except to note that the 1948 version was banned in Israel as being anti-Semitic … and also in Cairo, as being too sympathetic to Jews!