10 Faces of Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist movies

Oliver Twist, 2005 r.

Charles Dickens’ novels are among the most frequently transferred to the silver screen books in the history of literature. It can be said that the story of Oliver Twist “goes on record.” What makes the fate of an orphaned boy, whom cruel fate and ruthless people fund a life full of hardship and drudgery, so readily transferred to the silver screen? Is it the dark reality of English charity, colorful and distinctive characters or a fantastic plot that grabs the heart and captivates with the grotesqueness of events?

Oliver Twist, step forward!

“Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless
with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in
hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
‘Please, sir, I want some more.’
The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupified
astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the
copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear. (…)
The board were sitting in solemn conclave, when Mr. Bumble rushed into the room in
great excitement, and addressing the gentleman in the high chair, said,
‘Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more!’
There was a general start. Horror was depicted on every countenance.
‘For MORE!’ said Mr. Limbkins. ‘Compose yourself, Bumble, and answer me distinctly.
Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the
‘He did, sir,’ replied Bumble.
‘That boy will be hung,’ said the gentleman in the white waistcoat. ‘I know that boy will
be hung.’

The above scene is so brilliant and brilliantly written that it has become a trademark of the Oliver story and appears in every adaptation. For decades, filmmakers have outdone themselves in creating ever more poignant images, dirtier and squalid London streets, and more hideous and scarlet characters. The influences of the early adaptations are clearly visible in the later productions, with some of the plot solutions and sometimes even the set design being similar. However, each director offers his own vision and gives the story an original twist. Over the past 100 years, 22 films have been made based on the story of Little Twist. Here are 10 of the most famous film adaptations of the book “Oliver Twist”.

“Oliver Twist,” 1922

Oliver Twist 1922

This is a very faithful silent film adaptation directed by Frank Lloyd (known for directing such hits as “Mutiny on the Bounty”). The story was treated in a highly ironic manner, with emphasis on the absurd treatment of the poor and orphans of the time. The asylum where Oliver grew up appears to be a prison, where children and adults are forced to do menial labor in the name of God’s mercy. The viewer gets the impression that disgusting filth and poverty reign everywhere. The title role was given to 7-year-old Jackie Coogan, the same one who partnered Charlie Chaplin in “The Beast.” For many years the film was considered lost, happily it was found unexpectedly in the 1970s in the former Yugoslavia.

“Oliver Twist,” 1933

10 adaptations of Oliver Twist - Oliver Twist 1933

The sound film, directed by William J. Cowen, takes a much looser approach to the incidents depicted in Dickens’ book; many of the themes did not make it to the screen. This adaptation features a cute, charming and well-fed little boy in the role of Oliver. The creation was created by seven-year-old Dickie Moore, for whom, despite his very young age, this picture was the 38th production in a row (!). Another aspect that shows the tendency to make things smoother and more attractive is the role of Rose, Oliver’s great benefactor, who is played by the phenomenal Barbara Kent in a heavily lined dress. Such a version with a fair amount of icing and glitter stands in contrast to this earlier, more brutal, silent screen version. The filmmakers reportedly had a very truncated budget, which may have contributed to the fact that the film did not gain wider fame.

“Oliver Twist,” 1948

Oliver Twist movies 1948

In the version directed by the great David Lean (“Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Lawrence of Arabia”), cinema noir effects reign supreme, giving the film a poignant mood of horror and anxiety. The director made sure that there are several strong, memorable scenes in his picture. Particularly striking is the vision of hungry underlings fed with lousy porridge gazing at the lavishly set table of their “benefactors.” Finally, we see a suitably run-down Oliver (John Howard Davies), with sunken cheeks and that notorious melancholy in his eyes.

It’s also the first version to cut the storyline with Rose, while the role of Nancy (Kay Walsh) is wonderfully enforced. The film came out only 3 years after World War II and caused a lot of controversy because Fagin (played by Alec Guiness, or the iconic Obi-Wan Kenobi) was portrayed, in keeping with the rest of the literary original, as a wily and devious slaughterer of Jewish descent. In the face of the tragedy of the Holocaust, this character was met with violent opposition and accusations of anti-Semitism. Lean’s picture was not presented to American audiences until 1951, and only after many scenes with Fagin were cut.

“Oliver!”, 1968

Oliver Twist 1968

“Oliver Twist” finally lived to see a production that earned fat millions and raked in several prestigious awards, 6 Oscars, including Best Picture, and 2 Golden Globes. Carol Reed has created a fantastic musical inspired by Dickens’ novel, with so many wonderful songs and delightful dance routines that it is a true feast for the eyes. The inscription on the wall of the shelter, “God is Love,” above a throng of shabby kids slipping in the amount of gruel needed just to survive carries a particularly powerful message.

The naïve and infantile Oliver, played by Mark Lester, is balanced by the delightful Clever Man (in other translations Twist), played by the golden child of British cinema, Jack Wild, who garnered Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations. The whole atmosphere of the film is much different from the previous one, it is colorful, almost cheerful and carefree, and the final scene with Fagin and Clever is a real masterpiece. The British Film Institute ranked “Oliver!” among the 77 best films of the 20th century.

“Oliver Twist,” 1982

Oliver Twist film 1982

Clive Donner offers an adaptation with significant changes in the plot and very direct images of the misery and injustice that befalls the orphans in the asylum. Their digest is much more watery than in other versions and the delivery scene watched by the frightened kids is chilling. The viewer is brutally drawn into a world of cruel visions, and the filmmakers do their best to make sure that every shocking aspect of Dickens’ story is noticed and interpreted accordingly. Sometimes this lack of subtlety and faith in the viewer’s intelligence and sensitivity is glaring and sometimes it is an asset as we “admire” the most criminal and repulsive characters of all 10 films. We watch a much less naive Oliver with an altruistic streak, who for the first time in his life finds kindness (only apparent, but always!) in the squalid attic of a gang of London thieves.

“Oliver Twist,” 1985

Oliver Twist 1985

The 12-episode BBC series directed by Gareth Davies offers a very faithful screen adaptation without missing any minor themes. Rightly considered the most faithful adaptation of all those created so far, depicting almost all the characters created by Dickens. In terms of characterization and set design, it unfortunately loses out to the version that is 3 years younger. The convention of the film resembles a play and the pace is rather slowed down and focused on details. The role of Oliver was played by Ben Rodska, whose first and last appearance on the silver screen.

“Oliver Twist,” 1997

Oliver Twist 1997

Walt Disney’s version, directed by Tony Bill, is, as Disney’s is strongly adventurous, colorful, very unfaithful to the plot and at times comedic. Oliver (Alex Trench) is a pretty-as-a-picture and carefree rascal and Lord of the Rings fans will find their time made more enjoyable by the charming Elijah Wood in the role of the Clever Man. This adaptation has a simplistic plot clearly aimed at a younger audience.

“Oliver Twist,” 1999

Oliver Twist film adaptations - 1999

The four-episode miniseries loosely wraps around the plot of the book, deepening the characters, expanding their choices, explaining motivations and life stories beyond the person of Oliver himself, of whom there is as little in this version as in the book. All the attention is focused on the people around him. The filmmakers performed a very interesting procedure, instead of a story for children, the audience received a drama combined with a romance for a decidedly senile audience. The film, directed by Renny Rye, differs significantly from its predecessors by starting to weave the story long before Oliver was born, showing the loving relationship between his parents and a number of other extremely interesting connections.

Issues that were only mentioned by Dickens are here extensively discussed and explained. Unlike in the book, we get to see strong female characters, including the wives of Edwin (Oliver’s father) and Rose (played by young Keira Knightley). In addition to Keira, we admire a number of excellent British actors such as Julie Walters (Mrs. Bumble) and Andy Serkins (the most brutal and least honorable Bill Sykes). On the other hand, however, the peculiar British humor exposes viewers to bizarre and rather unsavory scenes like the birth in the asylum or the death of Edwin’s relative in the bathhouse.

“Oliver Twist,” 2005

Oliver Twist 2005

The most famous film adaptation of “Oliver Twist” in Poland is, of course, the one that came from the hand of Roman Polanski. You can feel that this film is intensely personal, made with extraordinary attention to detail and realism. Suffice it to say that this is the only picture that shows Oliver’s (Barney Clark) mangled feet after a 7-day hike. Polanski offers beautiful shots of nature and a spectacular finale while deviating significantly from the original. Ben Kingsley created a wonderful, caricatured role of Fagin that steals the show. The production budget was huge and the set was so big that Polanski navigated it on a motorized scooter.

“Oliver Twist,” 2007

Oliver Twist 2007

The last major adaptation is another BBC miniseries, which was directed by Coky Giedroyc. After so many different versions, it would be hard to expect originality and a fresh take on Dickens’ classic with interesting plot solutions and a unique atmosphere. And yet! The series has all these qualities. From a completely different, rebellious and articulate accurate observations that until the mouth of the audience Oliver (William Miller) to a new look at the cast and set design. It’s interesting to note that Timothy Spall (the memorable Glizdogon), who plays Fagin, already had a small part in the 1982 Oliver Twist film. Tom Hardy, Sophie Okonedo or Sarah Lancashire and the rest of the actors give a new twist to such, after all, already clichéd characters.

The tale of the hapless orphan is an ongoing struggle between good and evil, righteousness and deceit, innocence and cunning. Despite the 21st century, education and awareness, the theme of cruel treatment of the poorer and weaker is not outdated. Perhaps that’s why this story continues to resonate in the imagination of creators and test their creativity, bearing witness that this creativity is truly infinite.


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