Oliver Twist – The Storm Opening

by Mark Wallace

In his 1990 study of A Christmas Carol, Paul Davis referred to that work as both a text and a “culture-text”. The text is what Dickens wrote, and the culture-text is what we collectively remember. The culture-text is in a constant state of rewriting, “changing as the reasons for retelling it change”. The term culture-text is useful not just for A Christmas Carol, but for any other work that has “inverted the usual fok process” – being not retold until it eventually found a stable form in print, but beginning from the apparent stability of the print form and being retold in endless permutations.

Another obvious example from Dickens’s canon is Oliver Twist. What is the culture-text of Oliver Twist? This seems rather a complex question, and the degree to which it is based on certain adaptations of the novel rather than the novel itself is hard to ascertain exactly. In her essay on Oliver Twist’s screen history, Juliet John suggests David Lean’s 1948 film has somewhat taken over the status of “original text” for subsequent adapters. Having watched quite a few Twists at this point, it is clear to me that Lean’s retelling echoes through its successors in many ways. Perhaps the most obvious demonstration of this is in the opening to Lean’s film.

Lean includes a storm scene at the beginning, one that is not described or even suggested by Dickens. It has no real narrative role: it’s just a storm; then it ends, and the fact of there having been a storm is of no consequence to anything that happens subsequently. It is, however, undoubtedly cinematically effective. The howling wind and the rumbling thunder, the flashing lightning, the innovative camera tilts that coincide with the spasms of pain Agnes (that’s Oliver’s mother’s name) is undergoing as she struggles through the storm, the close-up of the briars, again used in conjunction with shots of Agnes’s face contorted in pain and violin stabs on the soundtrack. And all done without a word of dialogue, or any detail to be gleaned about this character beyond that she is a young woman, heavily pregnant, walking through a storm.

Tilted shot of Agnes (Josephine Stuart), momentarily illuminated by a flash of lightning and in the throes of labour pains.

And this scene has found its way into the culture-text of Oliver Twist, having been used as an opening scene by most subsequent adaptations. The next major adaptation, the 1968 musical Oliver!, is the exception here, and does not use it, even though Oliver! is certainly influenced by Lean’s film in other ways – and Oliver‘s! director Carol Reed employed Lean’s camera operator Oswald Morris as director of photography.

The next adaptation, though, the 1982 made-for-TV Cliver Donner effort, returns to the storm. He also reproduces  Lean’s use of the lightning to illustrate Agnes’s pain, adding to the scene his own touch of a carriage riding by towards which she pleads for help, but is ignored. This prefigures a particular emphasis on the corruption of officialdom and high society in Donner’s film. The presence of the carriage also, perhaps, differentiates the scene from Lean just enough to allow Donner a measure of what Bloom would call artistic priority.

Clive Donner’s Oliver Twist features a shot of lightning followed by a shot of Agnes (Lysette Anthony) reeling from a sudden labour pain, as the rain beats down.

Thenceforth the storm opening has been almost ubiquitous in Oliver Twist adaptations. The 1985 BBC serial, the 1997 Disney film, the 1999 ITV serial, the 2007 BBC serial – all have it in varying forms. Have they all been deliberately paying homage to Lean, or has that scene entered the “culture-text” and become what we think of when we think of Oliver Twist? Do they know they’re not adapting Dickens here, but David Lean? (Or not just David Lean. It should be pointed out that the scene was initially sketched out by Kay Walsh, who played Nancy in the film, and was in a relationship with Lean at the time. Stuck for an opening, Lean canvassed for suggestions, and Walsh wrote hers down in a copybook and handed it to him. The rest is cinematic history.)

The 1999 Alan Bleasdale-penned, Renny Rye-directed Twist had a spectacular setting for its opening scene; not a fully-fledged storm here: very heavy rain, slight thunder and no lightning.

The opening shot from the 2007 BBC Oliver Twist, directed by Coky Giedroyc, replicates a shot from Lean’s opening scene.

The most high profile of recent adaptations, Roman Polanski’s 2005 film, does not use this scene, because his film does not, in fact, depict Oliver’s birth and his mother’s death at all; nor does it bother with the whole Dickensian plot machinery of Oliver’s past, and his genetic inheritance that in Dickens is inextricable from the notion of purity retained amidst such black circumstances.

Finally, it is far beyond the scope of this blog post to attempt to explain or theorize the storm scene and its apparent acceptance into the culture-text of Oliver Twist; it is an interesting phenomenon, though, and one, no doubt, only waiting to have its secrets laid bare by the eagle eye of some scholar of adaptation.

Brownlow, Kevin. David Lean: A Biography. London: Faber, 1997.

Davis, Paul. The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge. Yale University Press, 1990.

John, Juliet. “Oliver Twist on Screen”. Dickens and Mass Culture. Oxford University Press, 2010.