Oliver Twist is no stranger to the silver screen. For every well-known movie version of Dickens’ tale, there are two lesser-known versions. Looking in all the nooks and crannies of the Internet Movie Database, I count 24 versions since 1909.
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Twists on Oliver
The latest version, of course, was directed by Roman Polanski and released in U.S. theaters September 30. But the earliest versions were made almost a hundred years before, silent films that are all but lost to us. There are English, American, French, German, Hungarian, and Brazilian versions. There is even a version from South Africa.
In Polanski’s version, Ben Kingsley steals the show as Fagin. Kingsley plays him as a troll: hunchbacked, pointy-bearded, and in love with his shiny trinkets. But if he’s a troll, he still has a human heart; he’s the first adult to show kindness to Oliver, at least in Polanski’s version.
Kingsley isn’t the first Fagin to steal the show. The stars who’ve filled his shoes make their own constellation: Alec Guinness (1948), Lon Chaney (1922), George C. Scott (1982), Richard Dreyfuss (1977) — even Dom De Luise plays a version of Fagin in Disney’s 1988 dog-and-cat version called Oliver & Co.
If Fagin has an hint of good in him, Bill Sikes is pure villain. In this season’s film, tough-guy Jamie Foreman (most recently in the British thriller Layer Cake) plays the role. But couldn’t you just picture Tim Curry as Sikes (1982)? Or how about Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in a 1999 “Masterpiece Theater” miniseries (which also features Keira Knightley in a role cut from Polanski’s version). Serkis’ Lord of the Rings co-star Elijah Wood played the Artful Dodger two years earlier, in an American made-for-TV version.
While we’re looking at young stars, let’s not forget quintessential child actor Jackie Coogan, who rose to fame beside Charlie Chaplin in The Kid, and then went on to play Oliver at Lon Chaney’s side.
But Polanski overlooked the Oliver overload when considering what to make after The Pianist. In the press notes, he says “I thought I owed my children a movie because they were always very interested in my work, so I started looking around for a children’s story and eventually landed on Dickens. And ‘Oliver Twist’ was the obvious choice. Dickens always enchanted me when I was a child, and I like the period very much, both on the screen and in literature.”
“I was never afraid of the dark part of ‘Oliver’ as far as the young audience is concerned because they love dark stories. The fairy tales of Grimm and Andersen are quite frightening. At the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of humor in every Charles Dickens book, a great deal of irony and sarcasm, and that appeals to me very much. And I think it appeals to children, within the scope of their comprehension.”
Indeed, although Polanski’s Twist looks a lot like previous versions — right down the costumes chosen for the Artful Dodger and Mr. Bumble — Polanski brings something new. He finds humor, irony, and sarcasm in the minor characters, who seem to have lives of their own. Where other versions treat the magistrate or the coffin-maker as mere extras, Polanski gives them recognizable personalities. Whether their human dimension is curiosity, pity, or prejudiced impatience, they all seem life-sized or larger.
Polanski is the latest filmmaker in a long line of filmmakers to find his way into the story of an orphan who survives his own childhood. Judging by Oliver Twist’s track record, it is unlikely that Polanski will be the last.
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies