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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (11/2/09) 1:03pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Oliver Twist (2005)
TV:  <none>
Books:  <none>



Oliver Twist (2005)
DickensiThon '09 continues with Roman Polanski's recent adaptation of Oliver Twist, featuring Ben Kingsley as Fagin.

This was Dickens' first novel (Pickwick Papers is more like a short-story collection), and it's always struck me as the most standard-issue and straight-ahead of his books.  If you ask people to describe what a Dickens novel is like, they'll basically describe for you Oliver Twist.  Yes, there's a beleaguered, saintly orphan.  Yes, there are dowdy-but-benevolent rich people and charming-but-evil criminals.  Yes, the systems of social welfare are badly broken.  Yes, there's melodrama and coincidence.  Other books went in more curious directions -- I'll have a lot to say about Our Mutual Friend if I ever finish the audiobook -- but Oliver Twist is Dickens at his most Dickensian.

Oddly, what particularly struck me about this adaptation was the use of special effects.  I've seen a few different adaptations of Dickens, but this was the first one I saw that was recent and big-budget.  So I was surprised to see a bit of CGI used to create, for example, the detailed, smoke-belching skyline of Victorian London, or to fill in St. Paul's cathedral distantly looming over a busy city street.

I was surprised at how much of an impression this made on me, particularly when I tend to be the sort of sniffy cineaste who stolidly insists that fancy-schmancy visual effects have, at best, a muted impact on me.  But I think that the judicious use of effects goes a long way at selling the world of Victorian London.

I know it's blasphemy to speak any ill of David Lean, but one thing that bugged me about Great Expectations was that it was a whole movie that took place in little rooms, like a TV show.  Dickens does not take place in little rooms.  It takes place in sprawling urban thoroughfares, and bustling courtrooms, and lively villages.  If a scene does take place in a little room, it's a little room that gives the reader that, just beyond those walls, one will find the rest of busy, hazy London.

Claustrophobia might be fine for, say, Austen or Trollope, but for Dickens it just feels wrong.  So I was happy to see Polanski using his budget to expand the sets and fill in the horizons.  If characters walked down a street, it was a street that went somewhere.  If they looked out a window, it was a window that looked out on something.  The city was *there*.

As for the story itself, I liked it well enough.  Honestly, Oliver Twist is a little too simple for me.  (Ooh, look at me, I'm soooo smart.)  I mean, sure, the story works -- kid gets born, awful things happen to him, more awful things happen to him, he finally gets saved from poverty -- but I favor the massive sprawl of Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend to the relative focus of this straightforward picaresuqe.  Even single-plotted books like David Copperfield or Great Expectations have twists and turns that interest me more than the basic story here.

That said, everyone brings it to life admirably.  Again, they pare down the novel to something that fits itself to the procrustean bed of three-act structure.  (God, that must have been hell to adapt.)  The kid they plucked from obscurity does a serviceable job as the wide-eyed orphan, while Ben Kingsley steals the show as Fagin.  The third act, with Bill Sykes inexorably closing in on Oliver, is exciting stuff.

My only complaint is that Polanski seems to opt for too much realism in places.  Put another way, he doesn't seem to enjoy the extremity and caricature in the novel's secondary characters, and seems to do what he can to file off the rough edges of fantasy.  To his credit, he at least does this consistently, and creates a tone that feels more consistent with 21st-century period dramas than with 19th-century novels... but it does make it a bit less *fun*, doesn't it?


For next time:  more David Copperfield and Our Mutual Friend, a documentary on Dickensian London, and (eventually) that that Frontline special.

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