Category: Film Critique


Oliver Twist is one of the most popular novels by Charles Dickens first published in 1837. Being the second novel written by this prominent English writer, Oliver Twist immediately gained popularity and became a great example of its author’s outstanding mastery. The novel reveals traits of many literary genres, varying from adventure to horror. It has a strong political and social context and provides a powerful insight into the injustices and oppressions faced by the poor people in the nineteenth century England.

Oliver Twist was first published in 1837 in a literary magazine Bentley's Miscellany under Dickens’ pseudonym, Boz. The novel was published sequentially, chapter by chapter, and was intended to be a hearty protest against the Poor Law of 1834. The law was aimed at punishing the poor for being poor and depriving them of opportunities to rise out of their poverty (Dunn 1993). Thus, Oliver Twist is written in a satirical manner that reveals the snobbery, pretentiousness and complacency of the middle class society of Victorian England in times of Industrial Revolution.

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When attempting to identify the main characteristic features of Dickens’ novel, it is important to distinguish between the two most significant characteristics: first is the author’s specific humor that incorporates social and political sarcasm and irony, and second is his exaggerated character description. Dickens describes each character in utmost detail making them explicitly rich and colorful.

Polanski’s Film Adaptation

Dickens’ Oliver Twist has been adapted to screen several times. One of the most recent ecranisations was directed by Roman Polanski and released in 2005. It received generally positive commentaries from the critics. However, numerous critical differences that exist between Dickens’ book and Polanski’s filmed version of it appear to justify the opinion that the film presents an entirely different experience than the book and should be viewed as a complementary unit rather than a faithful ecranisation.

When commenting on his Oliver Twist, Polanski stated that he was making the film for his children, ages 7 and 12. He defined his characters as highly exaggerated and non-realistic, and stated that his main goal was to keep the film up to the standards determined by Dickens himself. Therefore, a great amount of efforts was put into recreating early Victorian London. The characters, their costumes and the scene settings are all based on scrupulous and meticulous research. The film suggests a realistic and clear idea of the poor urban population of London in 1837. Moreover, the chosen storyline directly resonates with Polanski’s own personal experience. At the age of 8, he was also orphaned, and his parents were sent to a concentration camp during World War II (Benjamin 2005).

Analyzing the Screenplay

The screenplay for Polanski’s Oliver Twist was written by Ronald Hanwood. The process of writing this screenplay represented a great challenge because of the size of the book, its multi-leveled and multi-dimensional structure, the sequential manner in which it was written, and its diversity determined by the vast variety of incorporated genres. Therefore, Hanwood’s screenplay differs greatly from Dickens’ original tale and leaves out many peripheral storylines and elements of the plot largely focusing on a single central theme.

Hanwood’s screenplay does not provide any background information about Oliver, and the audience encounters the boy when he is nine years old. As introduced by character Bumble, ‘This is the boy. Born here in the workhouse. Moved to the parish farm. Nine years old today. Time to be moved back here.’ (Hanwood 2005). Eventually, young Oliver escapes from the workhouse and begins his difficult and troublesome journey to London, where he meets a young and talented pickpocket, Artful Dodger. Dodger brings him to Fagin, an old and deceitful criminal who trains young boys to be thieves. An innocent and gentle boy as he is, Oliver does not instantly realize that he is also being trained. He trusts Fagin and his gang and believes in their goodness. However, eventually he gets into trouble and is accused of street pickpocketing that has actually been executed by two other boys, members of Fagin’s gang. Fortunately, Mr. Brownlow, a man who has been robbed, notices Oliver’s gentle manner. He suddenly feels sorry and sympathetic for the boy and takes him into his home. Fagin and his colleague Sykes do not want to let Oliver go, and thus, over the course of the film, the boy is torn between crime and virtue.

The beginning of the film suggests great difficulties of Oliver’s journey to London by means of his impoverished appearance and poor physical condition. It also interestingly represents the range of reactions to a poor orphan child in Victorian Britain. This range can be exemplified by the way in which Oliver is treated at one farm on his way to London, where he tries to ask for help and encounters an indifferent girl and her father, who clearly despises him, as opposed to his reception by a ‘benevolent old lady’ at another farm. In fact, the scene with an old lady who saves exhausted Oliver, takes him into her house and offers him rest, food and care, which he needs to continue his journey, has additional significance. The character of this old lady appears in Chapter 8 of Dickens’ book. She is described as ‘the old lady, who had a shipwrecked grandson wandering barefoot in some distant part of the earth, took pity upon the poor orphan, and gave him what little she could afford…’ (Dickens 1939, p. 121).

Polanski’s decision to include the character of this lady into the film is reasonably thought to be a director’s successful maneuver. It greatly contributes to the major focus of Polanski’s film and is fully justified by the following passage from Dickens’ book: ‘In fact, if it had not been for […] a benevolent old lady, Oliver’s troubles would have been shortened by the very same process which had put an end to his mother’s; in other words, he would most assuredly have fallen dead upon the king’s highway’ (1939, p. 120).

Once Oliver finally gets to London and unintentionally joins the gang of young pickpockets, he enters into a relationship with Fagin. Unlike Dickens in his original tale, Polanski clearly humanizes the character of Fagin and suggests half-apparent warmth in the relationship between him and Oliver. Fagin attends to Oliver’s wound and treats him with his special ‘magic remedy’ (Hanwood 2005). Oliver is thankful for Fagin’s ‘kindness’ and says that he will ‘always remember it’. Moreover, during their final encounter in the condemned cell Oliver also says that Fagin was kind to him.

However, Polanski takes a more complex approach capturing and depicting the duplicitous nature of Fagin’s ‘kindness.’ This nature is revealed in the episode when Sykes says that he is going to kill Oliver so that the boy does not squeal and Fagin agrees that ‘it’s for the best’. His ‘kindness’ obviously derives from the persuasion that in case he gets caught, Oliver will speak in his favour. Hence, after the police disclosed that Sykes has murdered Nancy, Fagin hastily gathers his property and escapes, leaving the sleeping Oliver behind. However, he immediately returns to get the boy. This curious moment emphasizes Fagin’s calculating nature, as right after his gang is surrounded, he says that Oliver is their ‘bargaining tool.’ Thus, although Fagin is oftentimes seen from Oliver’s point of view, Polanski also attempts to show him objectively, from aside.

Among the parts of the original Dickens’ plot that have been omitted in the screenplay are the entire Rose Maylie strand of the story and the subplot of conspiracy to defraud Oliver of the inherited money left to him by his father. The Monks are also eliminated, thus suggesting that Mr. Brownlow is a complete stranger to Oliver and that there is not the slightest family connection between them.

In the end of the film, the resolution suggested by Polanski and Hanwood is rather tense and grim. Brownlow’s safe house appears to be surrounded by dangerous threats on all sides. Another powerful scene is Oliver visiting the imprisoned Fagin. Unlike in the Dickens’ novel, the boy comes not to offer a righteous gesture of forgiveness, but to thank the old villain for his kindness and pray together. Fagin is scared and miserable because he is going to be hanged. He trembles and seems paranoid. He tries to persuade Oliver to help him out of the jail and mutters: ‘Outside. Outside. You can say I've gone to sleep. They'll believe you.You can get me out.’ Oliver is very much affected by the sight of this wretched man and prays for him to be forgiven.

Thus, at the very end of the film the viewers are reminded of the miserable world Oliver has left behind rather than merely being shown happy images of him in the garden in his new home. This choice of ending has a powerful impact on viewers and creates a final atmosphere provoking the audience to think of the existing social injustice and oppression often encountered by the poor.

Mise En Scene Analysis

According to Stadler and McWilliam (2009, p. 28), when analyzing a film adoption of a literary work, it is important to recognize and analyze the Mise en Scene. Mise en Scene is ‘the art of ‘making a scene’ using costumes, performance, lighting and setting to construct and describe the narrative world, to cue audience response and emotion, and to express theme or atmosphere. All elements of Mise en Scene work together, contributing layers of meaning to the story.’ Mise en Scene analysis is effective when attempting to reveal the thematic and symbolic content of the film.

In order to organize the Mise en Scene analysis effectively, it is important to distinguish between its key components. Stadler and McWilliam (2009, p.2) suggest that those components include costumes, setting, action and lighting. They also emphasize that ‘together, these four elements are central to constructing the story world and determining where the action takes place (on a set or location), when the action takes place (signaled by lighting that cues time of a day, or sets and costumes that indicate period), and how and why the action takes place (as communicated via performance). These components of the fictional world express and dramatize the mood and thematic content of the storyline, conveying meaning through visual style.’

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Polanski’s scenes are visually convincing and successfully render the characters' feelings creating the most natural and organic effect. The majority of the scenes feature low light levels, usually with candlelight as the only source. Designing a lighting approach for the Victorian era, when everything was lit exceptionally by fireplaces, candles, and gaslights, was a great challenge and a significant step to achieve the desired realism. Moreover, Oliver Twist scenes commonly take place in dimly lit interiors, either day or night. Accordingly, London is depicted as a city of constant wet rain, clouds, fog, and smoke (Banjamin 2005).

As to the camera techniques, Polanski commented that the camera height was sometimes intentionally lowered to create Oliver’s point of view. He states that ‘That’s how children see the world, and the story is told more or less from the child’s point of view, so we had to place the camera more or less on his level.’ Moreover, Polanski specifically points out the importance of camera placement and claims that it is crucial to his Mise en Scene (Benjamin 2005).

When working on his Oliver Twist, Polanski invested a great amount of efforts into faithfully recreating early Victorian London. In order to suggest such a clear and realistic idea of the poor urban population of London in 1837 and attempt to communicate Dickens’ original intentions, Polanski worked with a big team of professionals, who carefully researched and created the corresponding scene settings, costumes, and characters’ appearance.


Charles Dickens is famous for his creation of explicitly vivid characters. Even those characters that might appear insignificant and play very small roles in his novels are always wonderfully presented and filled with particular mannerisms and quirks that make them distinctive (Dunn 1993). Therefore, rendering these characteristics, capturing all the crucial nuances, and enhancing Dickens’ refined narrative presented a real challenge for Polanski and his professional team. However, their work has been widely acknowledged and accordingly, has withstood this challenge successfully.

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