David Lean’s atmospheric and generally faithful adaptation of Dickens’ novel is a classic film in its own right. It has a spooky beginning with shots of wind-whipped branches and stormy clouds as Oliver’s mother struggles to reach the workhouse.
The second half of Dickens’ plot is mostly jettisoned and the story is all the better for it. We miss out the unnecessary diversions with the sickeningly nice Maylie family. However, we don’t see the housebreaking which Sykes forces Oliver to do and which is a major turning point of the novel. The film increases the tension of the ending by having Sykes take Oliver on to the roof while the rest of the criminals are all conveniently trapped in the building. Some of the plot over Oliver’s inheritance is simplified but it all just about makes sense. I like how the setting is kept in London, whereas the book drags the narrative out by roaming around the nearby towns. Much of the dialogue is original, even if sometimes it’s put in a different character’s mouth. There are a few extracts from the book early on to link the scenes, but none later on, which I feel was a missed opportunity.
Three things in particular strike me when thinking about this film. Firstly, St Paul’s Cathedral is often in the background, looming above the poky houses, reminiscent of the iconic ‘St Paul’s Survives’ photograph taken only 8 years before this film was released. Secondly, workhouses were within living memory and indeed some of them continued as housing for social and health care into this era. Thirdly, the unnecessarily large prosthetic nose worn by Alec Guinness in the role of Fagin was a really bad idea.
This film is a fair substitute for reading the book, although of course it’s not as fun as the musical Oliver!
Low-resolution image from Wikipedia.