An expanded version of a review article of Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist (2005), which appeared in the Mail on Sunday on 21st August 2005.
I once read an analysis of the unidentified beginning of a Dickens novel by a student who (rather perceptively really) praised it for being ‘almost Dickensian’. It is true: ‘real’ Dickens can seem rather unconvincing, read against the ‘Dickensianism’ that cocoons it. It’s hard to say how and when we learn to recognise the bizarre, but utterly unmistakeable gruel of plum-pudding, paupers and peasoupers, beadles, urchins and angels-in-the-house, of which Dickensianism is compounded. Hence the odd feeling of actually picking up a book like Oliver Twist, only to discover, as the man said after coming out of seeing Hamlet for the first time, that it is full of quotations. Indeed, this might furnish us with the definition of a ‘classic’ – a book that you can never quite read for the first time.
But Dickens is a different kind of classic author than Shakespeare or Jane Austen, whose canonisation came after their deaths. For Dickens was the first literary celebrity of the age of mass media, who deliberately, even desperately, sought global fame and adulation in his lifetime. As a twelve-year old boy, Dickens had been, as he later put it, ‘cast away’ into the streets of London, following the incarceration of his father for debt. Celebrity mattered to Dickens, because it seemed to guarantee respectability (how things have changed in this respect). The adulation to which he became addicted kept at bay his dread of slipping back into the world of poverty, vice and crime that he thought had so nearly swallowed him up. As a revered author, Dickens could congratulate himself on having survived the streets, but as the chronicler of suffering, crime and destroyed lives, his imagination was held hostage by the darkness and degradation he wanted to convince himself he had escaped. Dickens was not the only writer to feed the popular appetite for crime and degradation in the nineteenth century, and he was a long way from being the most sensationalist. But he was unique in the seriousness with which he insisted on bringing together crime and respectability. When he made the performance of the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes the centrepiece of the readings he undertook late in his life, it is almost an acknowledgement of how intertwined the writer and the murderer were in him.
The cost of celebrity was that Dickens became what one of his characters calls ‘portable property’. He never quite reconciled himself to seeing his novels, which were usually written serially, being pirated, imitated and adapted – sometimes they were even put on stage before he had himself decided what was going to happen in them. This is particularly so with Oliver Twist, only his second novel, where he jumped feet-first into the writing without any very clear idea how he was going to get out of it.
The media age has multiplied the ways in which a classic author is made portable. A rather majestic colleague of mine was once asked whether she was going to go and see the film that had just been made of John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. ‘No need’, she sniffed, ‘when the book is already the film of the book’. In those days, English professors could still afford to be haughty about such things. Nowadays, the DVD or the film or the video is an indispensable accessory for the book, or even a substitute. One suspects that the scene in Little Britain where the school teacher gives up the struggle to read out loud a passage from Dickens’s Great Expectations, suggesting ‘Let’s watch the video, eh?’ is regularly repeated all over the country. Indeed, this has spawned a whole academic subdiscipline, which concentrates not on texts, but on their cultural afterlives, as dramatisations, films, TV-movies, radio, computer games, and all the other forms of retreads to which classic texts are subject.
Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist is the latest contribution to Dickens’s evolving cultural afterlife. It’s hard for any adaptation of a Dickens novel to keep its eye steadily on its object, without glancing aside at other film versions. Polanski’s principal rivals are David Lean’s sombre, expressionistOliver Twist of 1948, all lightning and gnarled trees, and Carol Reed’s exuberant musical, Oliver! of 1968, all high-kicks and Cockney sparrers. Polanski feeds off rather than fending off these cinematic ghosts of time past. The signature scene of Oliver holding out his bowl to ask for more in the workhouse is shot and cut almost exactly as in the Lean version; the game that Fagin plays with the boys to sharpen their pickpocketing skills is blocked out in just the same way as Oliver! ; and the mob baying for Sikes’s blood at the end could come from any of the movies, not to say any decent Frankenstein flick.
We should think ourselves lucky perhaps. that Polanski is not a more ponderously playful filmmaker, or we might have to endure some of the more unabashed and delirious kinds of anachronism that thrive in Victorian remakes. You know the kind of thing: Nancy outed as a lesbian, references worked in to opium dens and the Indian mutiny, Sherlock Holmes called in to trace the missing Oliver, fingering the tart-battering Bill Sikes as Jack the Ripper.
Polanski showed himself to have a superb ear as well as eye in The Pianist (2002) and Oliver Twist also features some powerful use of sound. Perhaps most impressively, there is the way that the snarls and howls of Bullseye, Bill Sikes’s dog, here burlier and more disgustingly slavering than the harmless little pug of other versions, gets threaded into the growls and snarls of the soundtrack. But, for the most part, Polanski gives the soundtrack of his film over to that great, swamping idleness of cinema and TV drama, the score. Nannying and nagging away at us about what we should be feeling at any point, this drooling muzak is our modern version of the intertitles of the silent cinema. When we are to be shown danger and menace, the cellos and double-basses start sawing away; when Fagin comes on the scene, a jaunty cod-Jewish lilt instructs us to enjoy his quirky cuteness. Why do we consent to be infantilised by this ghastly musical captioning? There is nothing new or lively in the music of the score itself, could have been written at almost any time over the last seventy years. Like almost all film music, is seems designed simply to cue the appropriate Pavlovian giggles, gasps and blubs, and so does not dare risk unfamiliarity.
Polanski follows other versions of the novel in the nips and tucks he makes in the book’s rather baggily constructed plot. We can be thankful that we don’t have to try to follow the intricacies of exactly how Oliver is related to the insufferable Maylie family, nor work out why everyone is trying to conceal the mystery of his identity. I’ve read this novel 10 or 15 times in my life and I confess I couldn’t really tell you this without going back to mug it up. What is more, I am prepared to bet that, if one were to enquire by ouija-board of the Inimitable himself (a form of posthumous fan-mail that used to thrive among Dickens devotees), he would also be stumped.
In fact, in a book like Oliver Twist, it is the predicament rather than the outcome which crystallises in our minds. As Polanski realises, what continues to compel is not what the novel’s subtitle calls ‘the parish-boy’s progress’ towards happiness and respectability, but the grotesque, disturbing intimacy that grows up between Fagin and Oliver. This is queerer and queasier in Polanski’s version than in other versions because of Fagin’s clearly-marked role as a pimp as well as a fence. His stable includes a Nancy (Leanne Rowe) who is both younger and yet more convincingly raddled than previous incarnations of the good-hearted brass. Ben Kingsley’s Fagin is much less melodramatic than Alec Guinness’s coiled, Satanic Fagin and much less twinkly and avuncular than Ron Moody’s. He seems wearier, more bewildered, more decayed than either of them, yet also more dangerous, as though he had been playing the part of Fagin in some purgatorial repertory for thirty years. It is hard to do a lot more with the role of Oliver than obediently play the bewildered innocent and and swoon when required, which is to say, frequently. But Barney Clarke brings to the role an unusual toughness and variety of tone, even the odd flaring of ferocity, which makes Oliver a great deal more than the baby around which the dirty bathwater swirls. We understand both his powers of survival and his vulnerability to the grotesquely implausible protection apparently offered by Fagin.
The culmination of this intimacy between the innocent parish boy and the depraved abuser is the meeting between the two in Fagin’s condemned cell. Here, respectability and wickedness confront and acknowledge each other, as Fagin is allowed the great, defiant howl: ‘What right have they to butcher me?’ At a time when the hunger for absolutes – unredeemable evil, the incorruptible truth, the certainty about our ‘way of life’ – is reasserting itself, Polanski stays powerfully true to Dickens’s intuition that the light and the dark are not to be kept apart from each other. The faint stains around the plaque recording Dickens’s residence on the site of BMA House, outside of which the number 30 bus exploded on July 7th this year, are confirmation enough of this.
An indispensable part of the Dickens myth is London, on which Polanski focusses intently. His film allows us hardly a glimpse of the tweety-pie rural retreats that take up so much of the novel, and which Dickens sometimes seems to be grinding out as dutifully as if he were in double-detention. When we do see the countryside, in Oliver’s flight to London, or Bill Sikes’s restless tramping after the murder of Nancy, it is as bleak and unpeopled as in Polanski’s Tess (1979). These scenes perhaps recall the director’s own early years as a ten-year old boy wandering around the Polish countryside, after his parents had been taken from Krakow to concentration camps. The parallels with the plight of the young Dickens are striking.
Polanski’s London is a murky, slithering, amphibious sort of place, which allows him to indulge fully his eye for the claustrophobic menace of urban architecture, as displayed in earlier films like Chinatown (1974) and The Tenant (1976). Repeatedly, we see Oliver walking away down long, retreating streets into a grey, amnesic fog, as though about to be lost forever. It is a world of uncertainty, suspicion and betrayal, in which there is little to choose between violent criminals and the crowd of ‘respectable’ city-dwellers, who, at a cry of ‘Thief’, are capable of turning instantly into a vengeful, pursuing mob. As Fagin advises Oliver ‘You don’t have to be guilty. They’re so very fond of hanging’. In fact, coming to Polanski’s Oliver Twist with the memories of his evocations of urban ruin and degradation in The Pianist, it is not hard to see in this London another version of the Warsaw ghetto.
Polanski gives us the most perfunctory hint of a happy ending. His emphasis is much more on what binds Oliver to the underworld than on the prosperity and privilege on which he is about to enter. Oliver remains caught, as Dickens was, between the worlds of respectability and crime, the only gesture towards his redemption being the glimpse we are given of a poster for Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, a play in which a lost child is eventually found.
Neither the young Dickens nor the young Polanski were lost. But their coming together in this version of Oliver Twist makes it seem a novel about the strangeness and the guiltiness of surviving. Dickens and Polanski seem to share a sense of being marooned between past and present. Both seem to harbour the suspicion that perhaps really no one ever came, that they never got out of the ghetto, the den of thieves. Perhaps it is the rescue, the coming home, the making good, the living on, that all along have been the dream.
Rightly, we professors still encourage students to read Dickens’s novel rather than merely watching the video. Precisely because classics will keep getting remade and retranslated, they are all vulnerable to being betrayed or travestied, as new and often spurious forms of ‘relevance’ are invented for them. But the risk of travesty is one that is not just worth taking, it is also ineliminable in whatever we call a classic. Dickens is more than just a writer of memorable books and inventor of unforgettable characters. ‘Dickens’ names a whole world, which, somewhat disconcertingly for the professors, has a life of its own, even beyond what Dickens himself could have guessed or grasped.