It has been nearly a century since the first film based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, and the Internet Movie Database indicates there have been over two dozen adaptations since then. But once we bracket off the TV shows, the silent movies, the children's cartoons and the modernizations (such as Jacob Tierney's Twist, which concerns male prostitutes in present-day Toronto), it turns out the story has been adapted for the big screen in a more-or-less straightforward manner only four times since the advent of talking pictures.

Barney Clark plays the title character

Barney Clark plays the title character

The first was a low-budget 1933 film that no one remembers. The second was David Lean's dark, moody, Gothic 1948 masterpiece, which is unfortunately remembered today mostly for its controversial and allegedly anti-Semitic depiction of Fagin, who is played by Alec Guinness. The third was Carol Reed's 1968 adaptation of Lionel Bart's musical Oliver!—not the most direct adaptation of the novel, to be sure, but still a faithful rendition of the story and its setting; it also had a footnote in film history as the last musical to win the Oscar for Best Picture, until Chicago came along. And now there is Roman Polanski's film.

This new film reunites Polanski with screenwriter Ronald Harwood and cinematographer Pawel Edelman, both of whom worked on his Holocaust drama The Pianist. And just as that film was hailed by some as a deeply personal project for its director but criticized by others for failing to provide a particularly personal a vision of the Holocaust, so too this new version of Oliver Twist feels like a strangely personal yet detached project for its director.

As a Holocaust survivor who was only 11 years old when the war ended, and whose parents were sent to concentration camps—his mother died in one—Polanski has an obvious affinity for Oliver (Barney Clark), a 10-year-old orphan who grows up in oppressive circumstances, runs away, and hides from the authorities. After Oliver has walked miles and miles to London and worn through his shoes, the film draws our attention to his bloodied feet, and we can sense that this particular detail may reflect Polanski's own experiences roaming the Polish countryside after he escaped from the Warsaw ghetto.

Fagin (Ben Kingsley) has some words of 'wisdom' for young Oliver

Fagin (Ben Kingsley) has some words of 'wisdom' for young Oliver

But there is little else to distinguish this adaptation from any of the others. Here and there, you can sometimes see traces of Polanski's famously dark style, but for the most part, he plays it safe and, in some ways, he has even made the material lighter and easier to digest. Perhaps because the story is about children, many filmmakers have approached it as though their films should be made for children, and this version has a similar sort of Classics Illustrated air about it, right from the opening credits, which play Rachel Portman's oddly upbeat music over the nostalgic image of what looks like an antique engraving.

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What darkness there is, is often played for laughs. At the beginning of the story, Oliver lives with dozens of other orphans in a poorhouse where they are basically treated like slaves: performing menial tasks, receiving no education, and fed with only the smallest portions of gruel. When Oliver is goaded by the other orphans into asking for an extra helping, the men who run the place are outraged; and because they are mostly fat, pompous buffoons—one of them inadvertently spits out some of his food as he expresses his indignation—it is difficult to take them all that seriously. Dickens' books certainly engage in caricature, but even cartoonish villains need to be menacing, and these gentlemen are not that.

Oliver (center) and his chums Charley Bates (Lewis Chase) and the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden)

Oliver (center) and his chums Charley Bates (Lewis Chase) and the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden)

Sometimes the humor works, though. After he runs away, Oliver finds a home in the slums of London with some juvenile criminals, and one day, he is mistakenly accused of picking a man's pocket when it was actually one of his new friends who did the deed. Oliver is captured by a mob and taken to court, where Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke), the man who was robbed, tries to convince the judge that the wrong boy has been arrested; but the judge is a sour fellow who looks down on plaintiff and defendant with equal contempt, and the trial takes a few absurd turns that leave Mr. Brownlow absolutely flustered.

The judge's treatment of both Oliver and Mr. Brownlow illustrates two of the story's central themes: the world is a cruel place, and the institutions designed to civilize the world may even perpetuate the cruelty. The church, as depicted here, is part of the problem—a timid vicar sits among the fat oafs who run the workhouse—and one of the film's recurring motifs is the way people dominate each other (and their animals) through sheer physical or numerical force. On a few occasions, mobs and neighbors are easily whipped into action, or into siding with whoever happens to be the loudest in a public heated discussion. And the story reaches its climax through an act of brutal violence that stays discretely off-screen.

Leanne Rowe stars as Nancy

Leanne Rowe stars as Nancy

In such a world, even the smallest and most selfish act of kindness can stand out, and it is not at all surprising that Oliver should come to like Fagin (Ben Kingsley), the criminal mastermind who gives him a place to eat and sleep while grooming him to become another of his underaged thieves. The film lets us see flashes of Fagin's own villainy, but between Polanski's direction and Kingsley's somewhat comical performance, it is all too easy to sympathize with this character, who comes across as more of a tragic father figure than anything else; he's just another of the world's pathetic victims.

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This, too, may reflect how the story has been tamed for family consumption. Polanski's film is not a bad adaptation, and it may be a fine way to introduce children to the classic story. But it is not exactly a definitive version of that story, and it is not hard to imagine that another, possibly even better version might come along in another decade or two.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. What do you make of the role that religion plays in this film? Consider the vicar and the prayers offered at the workhouse, and consider Oliver's "prayer" at the end. Does one prayer leave a deeper impression than the other?

  2. Fagin says the greatest sin is "ingratitude." Do you agree? Should Oliver feel grateful for what Fagin has done, even though Fagin is trying to teach him to become a criminal? Is Fagin merely trying to exploit Oliver and the other boys, or is there something more to it than that?

  3. Do you think our attitude toward Oliver would change if he began to steal like the other boys do? Why do you think we never see him perform any thefts? Does he choose not to, or does he just never get around to it? Is Oliver a good character, or only innocent?

  4. Why do you think Oliver goes on to London after the woman at the one house lets him spend the night there? Do you think he would have been better off staying with her? Was she kind enough?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Oliver Twist is rated PG-13 for disturbing images, including scenes of muddy streets and bloody feet. One character is physically mean to his horse, another to his dog, and several fights break out. One person is killed in a brutal act of violence, but all we see on-screen is a drop of blood; the murder is discovered when someone else sees a pool of blood on the floor. A man accidentally hangs himself. A few "damns" are said, mostly in exasperation at social injustice.

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What Other Critics Are Saying

The latest big screen version of Oliver Twist boasts the direction of Oscar-winner Roman Polanski (The Pianist) and the extraordinary Ben Kingsley (Schindler's List, Sexy Beast) as Fagin.

Christian critics are pleased, if not blown away.

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says he "would almost surely give a thumbs-up to this fine and handsome new version, in spite of some reasonable streamlining of the narrative, and the elimination of some of the coincidental plot turns Victorian readers so loved. … Polanski knows how to do right by the classics (Macbeth, Tess) and, abridgements notwithstanding, has kept in all the essentials. … All the roles are beautifully performed by a top-notch cast."

Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says it's "a triumph of deliberately paced storytelling, bravura acting and moral uplift, seasoned with just enough humor to sustain viewers through a story that is, at times, overwhelmingly bleak."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) is unsure whether the film is suitable for children, but he concludes, "Polanski's well-executed and faithful-to-the-source Oliver Twist is a rare experience: a well-made, uplifting movie that uses disturbing images not as gratuitous 'entertainment' but to better contrast the grace and mercy of its main characters."

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) says, "As far as film adaptations of Charles Dickens go, Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist is a good one. … [A]nd the score by Rachel Portman is as full-bodied as 19th-century London is grimy. … Every facet of filmmaking is superbly wrought here—except for the pacing, which at times makes you feel like you're in a London fog, just waiting for it to lift."

Mainstream critics aren't as impressed as they were with Polanski's The Pianist.

Kenneth R. Morefield (Christian Spotlight) says it's "competently acted and perfunctorily faithful to the plot (if not the spirit) of Dickens's novel. Why, then, does watching it seem like such a chore?" He adds, "It is odd that of all Dickens's novels, Oliver Twist should have the most celebrated and varied theatrical life. Perhaps the story of an orphan eventually escaping poverty resonates with modern beliefs in upward mobility. Narratively, however, Oliver Twist presents several problems."

He goes on to explain that Oliver himself, as the central character, is "more reactant than agent; his changes in fortune are wrought more by what others do to him than by what he does for himself." He also notes that "the film borders on prettifying material that Dickens intended to be difficult and disturbing to look at."

Andrew Coffin (World) compares Oliver Twist and A History of Violence and concludes, "Oliver Twist may seem simplistic in its representations of good and evil, but the fact that they are allowed to exist together on screen—and even in the same character—provides for complexity that powerfully overshadows Mr. Cronenberg's existential muddle."

Oliver Twist
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for disturbing images)
Directed By
Run Time
2 hours 56 minutes
William Miller, Tom Hardy, Sophie Okonedo
Theatre Release
December 18, 2007 by Sony Pictures
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