So I recently finished Charles Dickens’s second novel, Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress which would seem to justly deserve its subtitle. I first became aware of Dickens’s story back in late 60’s or early 70’s when I saw the movie musical version Oliver! I also played The Artful Dodger in a community theater production of the musical when I was in high school, but that’s a story for another day.
The film’s title pretty much gives away the changes made to Dickens’s story – it’s trimmed down and its dramatic points highlighted. It’s really based more on David Lean’s 1948 film Oliver Twist than Dickens’s novel, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While a bit bloated at points (“Consider Yourself,” and “Who Will Buy?”), it doesn’t shy away from the unattractive points of the story. For instance, the direction, staging and orchestration for Nancy’s solo number “As Long As He Need Me” suggest a descent into madness rather than a torch song and the storyline takes center stage over the musical numbers in the second half. It cuts and moves some of the numbers from the original Broadway production in service of the story – the musical hall number “Om Pa Pa” becomes a terrific set piece for Nancy to help Oliver get away from Fagin and Bill Sykes rather than the throwaway opening to the second act it serves as in the original show. But all of that aside, the musical brings Dickens characters to life – preserving the satiric, the melodramatic and the comic elements of his work.
Dickens’s novel works in a number of ways – as a searing indictment of the treatment of the poor, as a comic puncturing of the moral middle-class, and as lively portrait of London in the early 19th century. What I found amazing was Dickens ability to move gracefully and quickly through his various styles and themes. Read, for instance, the scene in which Oliver attends a pauper’s funeral with the undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry. Dickens begins by poking fun at the system then shifts into Oliver’s point-of-view of the pauper’s family and the extreme poverty and cruelty under which they live. And the chapter near the end, in which Fagin contemplates his final days are filled with a frightening sense of psychological realism. From what I understand (well from Wikipedia, that is), a friend of Dickens protested his portrait of Fagin as “the Jew’ and a wicked one at that, which moved Dickens so much he stopped production of the novel (in its serial form, I believe) and removed most of the references to Fagin as “the Jew” in the yet-to-be printed chapters. It might also account for the humanizing of Fagin in that late chapter – Dicken’s doesn’t excuse Fagin’s villainy, but he does give him a bit of redemption and sees him as a human being.
I was also surprised by an entire subplot (well, really almost half the plot) that’s been excised from any of the versions I’ve seen. On retrospect though, it’s easy to see why that section has been discarded at times. By chance, Oliver comes in contact with an old woman and her young companion who take him in at their country home. It’s got a lovely pastoral setting that serves as counterpoint to the dark, seedy interiors we get in the sections set in London, but the story is also at its most melodramatic and romantic in the country scenes and the novel’s villains and half-villains are much more interesting then Agnes and Harry.
All in all though, I want some more. I believe a rereading of Bleak House is due!