Film: Roman Polanski and Oliver Twist

Roman Polanski, a fugitive from American justice, has recently released his much-anticipated adaptation of Charles Dickens’s second novel, Oliver Twist. This project has aroused a great deal of interest over the past few years for two reasons. The first was perhaps the most obvious: Why bother? During the last 80 years, there have been more than a dozen film and television adaptations of the classic novel, beginning with the silent version in 1922 (starring Jackie Coogan); peaking with David Lean’s 1948 black-and-white adaptation featuring Alec Guinness; and including Carol Reed’s lackluster musical version (Oliver!), which received the Oscar for best picture in 1968.

The second reason for the pre-release interest was the reasonable question: How will Polanski do it? How would this talented, tormented, often despairing director, especially given his own difficult childhood, retell the story of young Oliver, who—despite being orphaned at birth, enslaved in a parish workhouse, sold as a mortician’s apprentice, and incorporated into a London band of thieves—still maintains his innocence and moral rectitude?

Polanski’s youth, it’s fair to say, was far more difficult than Oliver’s (or Dickens’s). He was born in Paris in 1933 to a Polish Jewish father and a Russian mother of mixed Catholic and Jewish heritage. His family returned to Poland a few years before the war broke out and Poland was invaded. His father was eventually sent to the con-centration camp at Mauthausen, and his mother was murdered at Auschwitz. The young Polanski, after escaping from the Warsaw ghetto, spent the rest of the war wandering around the Polish countryside, hiding from sadistic Nazi troops, and surviving only through the kindness of various Catholic families. After the war, he was reunited with his father, and he matriculated at the famous Lodz Film School, initiating his career as an actor and then a director. His first feature, Knife in Water (Noz w Wodzie), nominated for best foreign picture in 1963, set the tone for his subsequent films, portraying a world of eerie malice, sexual tension, and ever-looming violence.

Polanski then moved to England where he made several features before coming to Hollywood and adapting Ira Levin’s best-selling novel, Rosemary’s Baby, about the birth of a spawn of Satan in upper—middle class New York. The film, consistent with Polanski’s pessimistic vision, is a masterpiece of foreboding atmosphere, as Rosemary (Mia Farrow) struggles against the efforts of a Satanic cult to control her pregnancy. The film, like the book, ends shockingly, cynically, and blasphemously. The following year, while Polanski was away on business, his wife Sharon Tate—eight months pregnant—was slaughtered in their Beverly Hills home, along with several friends, by the cult followers of Charles Manson.

Devastated by the death of his wife and child, Polanski made an excessively bloody adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1971) before making his classic film noir, Chinatown (1974), with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. This brilliantly directed film created, once again, an ominous world (set in 1930s Los Angeles) in which evil and corruption are not only tangible but seemingly intractable. Three years later, Polanski was indicted in Los Angeles on statutory rape charges, involving a 13-year-old “model” at Nicholson’s Beverly Hills mansion, and Polanski eventually skipped bail and fled the country. Settling in Paris, his subsequent films were markedly inferior to his previous work until The Pianist, Polanski’s 2002 “comeback” film, which was based on the extraordinary survival of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a brilliant Jewish musician who, aided by Christians and even a Nazi captain, miraculously survived the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto. It was perfectly obvious that The Pianist related to Polanski’s haunted youth, and his decision to adapt Oliver Twist was rightly seen as another attempt to reexamine his own experience as a hunted young boy in war-torn Poland.

Surprisingly, Polanski’s Oliver Twist is a faithful, well-made, and enjoyable version of Dickens’s great novel. It’s a rather old-fashioned film, unaltered by Polanski’s previous propensity for fatalism and hopelessness. Although the film looks a bit too “brown,” Polanski’s excellent cinematographer, Pawel Edelman—employing marvelous set designs, costumes, and locations (shot in Poland)—has captured a remarkably believable mid-19th century England. Although some of the characters fall into caricature (always a danger with Dickens), there are excellent performances by Edward Hardwicke as Mr. Brownlow, Oliver’s patron, the extremely moving Leanne Rowe as Nancy, the good-hearted whore; and Harry Eden (Peter Pan), a likely star of the future, as a very engaging Artful Dodger. Young Barney Clark does a fine job portraying the sweet and irrepressible Oliver, and Ben Kingsley is a rather hammy but adequate Fagin, though he’ll make no one forget Alec Guinness in the still- superior Lean version.

One problem with the film is the decision of Polanski and his screenwriter, the talented South African Ronald Harwood, to eliminate a crucial character, the villainous Monks. In the novel, Monks is a mysterious and malevolent presence who engages Fagin to corrupt young Oliver. As is revealed late in the novel, Monks is actually the half-brother of Oliver, who’ll receive all of their father’s inheritance if Oliver is determined to be tainted “with any public act of dishonour, meanness, cowardice, or wrong.” Without this important motivating force in the story (which is wisely retained in the Lean version), Fagin’s obsession with retrieving Oliver from his pleasant life with Mr. Brownlow can only be explained by his fear of being exposed by Oliver, which is highly improbable. The elimination of Monks and his machinations also undercuts (but doesn’t remove entirely) the overriding theme of the novel that a good and decent young boy like Oliver can successfully resist temptation and corruption. It’s extremely significant that Dickens’s novel was originally entitled Oliver Twist, or, the Parish Boy’s Progress, clearly a reference to John Bunyan’s Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The most interesting scene in the film results from Polanski’s important decision to include Oliver’s prison- cell visit to Fagin before the criminal finally meets his fate. This scene, which takes up roughly two pages in Dickens’s long novel, is generally left out of filmic adaptations of the novel, including the Lean version, but Polanski wisely leaves it in. When Oliver insists on encountering Fagin in his holding cell, the young boy has one purpose in mind—not merely to comfort the nearly deranged old man, but to try to save his soul. When he is confronted with Fagin’s self-absorbed murmurings, Oliver finally calls out, in desperation, begging the man to pray with him. Oliver kneels down on the floor of the cell, but Fagin is too obsessed with fear to do as the boy asks, and Oliver cries out, “Oh! God forgive this wretched man!” The fact that Oliver is unsuccessful is probably why other adaptations of the novel have avoided the scene, but Polanski shows this powerful moment that clearly reveals the source of Oliver’s uncompromising morality—his religious faith.

Does this mean that Polanski, now in his 70s, has come to witness a broader vision of the world than his earlier Beckett-like nihilism? It is impossible to know. Years ago, long before Polanski was an international fugitive, he said rather flippantly, “Normal love isn’t interesting. I assure you that it’s incredibly boring.” But he’s now married to Emmanuelle Seigner; they have two children, and he claims, “A lot has changed for me. My life has improved. It’s not only the children, but the relationship with my wife is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Although his new version of Oliver Twist has been a disappointment to those critics who value Polanski’s characteristic cynicism, the film reveals a much more complex and hopeful vision of the human predicament.


  • William Baer

    William Baer is a graduate of U.S.C. Cinema where he received the Jack Nicholson Screening Award and taught in the Filmic Writing department. He currently teaches English and Film at the University of Evansville, Indiana and is a frequent contributor to Creative Screenwriting.

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