This wildly original adaptation of Oliver Twist is likely to disappoint Dickensian purists. Adventurous and open-minded viewers will find it riveting. Screenwriter (and co-executive producer) Alan Bleasdale has invented a backstory that runs parallel to Dickens’ narrative and elevates minor characters to leading roles. Inspired by the sketchy account of Oliver’s origins that Dickens shoehorned into two brief chapters toward the end of the novel, Bleasdale has constructed an elaborate two-hour prologue. Moreover, when the familiar Oliver Twist plot takes hold in the second installment of this six-hour "Masterpiece Theatre" presentation, the backstory is kept alive by combining the screenwriter’s newly fleshed-out characters with Dickens’ central story line. Subplots are reconfigured and the novel’s more preposterous coincidences are sharpened into a larger conspiratorial design. Motivations that Dickens left murky or unstated are given a richer context and significance. The revisions are audacious, to say the least, but they don’t undermine Dickens. Indeed, Bleasdale seems to have a preternatural intimacy with every detail of the book.
Charles Dickens was twenty-six years old when Oliver Twist — his second novel — was published in 1838. Its breathless plot owes much to the conventions of stage melodrama and magazine serialization, qualities which Dickens’ later work transcended with greater dexterity. The memorable characters include the pompous and farcical Mr. Bumble, the malevolent Bill Sikes, and the complex (and glaringly anti-Semitic) Fagin "the Jew" and his gang of young gin-swilling pickpockets. Although the melodrama is creaky, the novel’s imagery is forceful and often larded with shocking realism. Bill Sikes’ bludgeoning of the prostitute Nancy is one of the most brutal scenes in Victorian literature. There is also a startling immediacy to Dickens’ depiction of filthy London slums festering with poverty and disease and a desperate criminal underclass. (The vividly rendered atmosphere influenced Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.) The novel was in part an attack on the New Poor Law of 1834 that consigned the homeless and destitute to the squalid drudgery of workhouses. Oliver Twist’s forlorn mother has arrived at one of these workhouses to give birth to Oliver in the opening chapter.
Alan Bleasdale’s teleplay also begins with Oliver’s birth, but the scene dissolves to a flashback of the doomed love affair between Oliver’s unwed middle class parents, Agnes Fleming (Sarah Miles) and Edwin Leeford (Tim Dutton). Edwin is a good-hearted but weak-willed philanderer unhappily married to another woman, and Agnes is the teenage daughter of Edwin’s good friend, the flinty sea-captain Mr. Fleming (Alun Armstrong). Once Agnes becomes pregnant, Edwin is neither legally in a position to marry her nor courageous enough to face her stern father. The promise of a large inheritance from a dying uncle in Rome sends Edwin packing for Italy with hopes of using the money to free himself from his first marriage. He arrives in Rome just in time to witness his uncle’s spluttering demise in the shallow pool of a public bathhouse. It’s a grotesquely amusing scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a film by Peter Greenaway or Fellini. The embittered and cancer-ridden uncle has a baseball-size tumor growing out of his neck and dangling in a sack of skin like a monstrous testicle (as if mocking Edwin’s sexual indiscretion with Agnes). None of these details are to be found in Dickens, of course. The inheritance plot that unspools late in the novel is little more than the kind of conventional third-act denouement that was well-worn even in 1838. (Dickens amazingly cranked out the last six chapters of Oliver Twist in three weeks while simultaneously working on installments of Nicholas Nickleby.)
The novel’s shadowy villain is Oliver’s half-brother, Edward Leeford, a.k.a. "Monks," the son from Edwin Leeford’s past marriage. He’s largely off-stage until the end of the book, at which point he reveals the mystery of Oliver’s parentage and rightful inheritance. In Bleasdale’s adaptation, Monks — played with gleeful relish by actor Marc Warren — has a meatier role as a sickly mama’s boy plagued by epileptic seizures, savage rages, and a titanic Oedipal complex. With his ghostly pallor and oily black hair, he’s an Edward Gorey drawing come to life. The seizures are in fact alluded to in Dickens’ text, when we’re told in passing that Monks "has desperate fits, and sometimes even bites his hands." Monks’ mother, Elizabeth Leeford (Lindsay Duncan) — mentioned only fleetingly during the novel’s wrap-up — has taken the biggest leap of all to become the production’s Lady Macbeth, a murderous harpy responsible for the pivotal machinations of the plot. It’s a daring and outrageous departure from Dickens. Nevertheless, Lindsay Duncan gives a bone-chilling performance, whether plunging a letter opener into an adversary’s stomach or ridiculing her son by mimicking his epilepsy.
Film versions over the years have had to grapple in one fashion or another with the portrayal of Fagin, who is both a fascinating character and a racist stereotype. The novel draws an unmistakable correlation between "Jew" and "vile and repulsive." David Lean’s 1948 film was censored in the U.S. because Alec Guinness’ sinister performance as Fagin was deemed anti-Semitic (viewed today, the actor’s exaggerated hook-nosed make-up still seems remarkably offensive, the equivalent of a blackface routine). Ron Moody reduced Fagin to a non-threatening bug-eyed clown in Oliver!, the Oscar-winning 1968 musical. Not surprisingly, the character has been overhauled in the new PBS adaptation. In keeping with the book’s larger theme of confronting our origins, the screenplay provides Fagin with an elegiac past that he mourns. Thus, we now have an Eastern European Fagin, formerly of Prague, where he had a career as a stage magician. Robert Lindsay brings an intriguing air of debauched mysticism and sideshow sleaziness to the role. Fagin’s clothing consists of remnants from his exotic theatrical robes. If drunk or bored, he’s given to barroom card tricks or the conjuring of doves from beneath a greasy cape.
The production isn’t without flaws. The role of Oliver Twist — which admittedly is a flattened symbolic character to begin with — barely registers, played with angelic passivity by child actor Sam Smith. The Artful Dodger (Alex Crowley) has lost his colorful braggadocio and appears to have fallen victim to the reshuffling of major and minor roles. There are a few ragged transitions and some awkward cross-cutting that may not be the fault of the script or Renny Rye’s competent direction. Oliver Twist ran two hours longer in Britain and has been cut from eight hours down to six for U.S. television. That’s a shame. By any measure, Alan Bleasdale’s screenplay is an impressive achievement. The complete eight-hour drama deserves to be shown uncut on both sides of the Atlantic.
– Bob Wake