The Various Deaths of Nancy in Oliver Twist Adaptations 1922 to 2007
by Mark Wallace
This blog earlier discussed the opening storm scene in David Lean’s classic adaptation of Oliver Twist (1948) and the tendency of later adapters to copy Lean’s approach. Another very important scene from Lean’s film which has been directly influential is that of Sikes’ murder of Nancy, a climactic episode occuring towards the end of the narrative. Lean famously cuts away from Sikes and Nancy just at the moment he is about to cudgel her to death, and focusses on Sikes’ dog Bull’s-Eye, who responds to the violence by racing to the door and furiously scrabbling to get out. Lean himself felt:
I am not too mad about violence on the screen […] I think violence is much more frightening if you leave it to the viewer to imagine. […] To do the death of Nancy as described – Bill Sikes hitting her on the head – would be disgusting (Brownlow 241).
So Lean made the highly effective substitution of the frantic dog for the act of violence itself, and the result has been highly acclaimed. According to Lean’s biographer, Gene D. Phillips, it is “one of the outstanding examples of horror induced by indirection in all cinema” (134). Less known, in fact I’ve never yet seen it pointed out, is that this development was not entirely novel to Lean’s film, as the 1922 version of Oliver Twist starring Jackie Coogan included a fleeting shot of Bull’s-Eye as the murder takes place – again he’s scrabbling at a door, but he seems to be trying to get in, rather than out as in Lean’s film, although it’s hard to be sure. Lean took this shot and made it the centrepiece of his great scene.
Dickens himself seems to forget about Bull’s-Eye during this scene in Oliver Twist. A few pages later, though, we are told that on cleaning up the murder-scene, Sikes leaves, “dragging the dog with him” (Chapter XLVIII), so apparently Bull’s-Eye was present at the death.
Later serials have almost all taken their cue from Lean to the extent of showing the dog’s reaction to the murder. Unlike Lean, however, they have also shown the murder itself, and the voyeuristic lingering on the moment of violence has increased over time.
In the musical Oliver! we don’t see much, Sikes and Nancy are hidden behind a set of steps, all that is visible are Sikes’ upper body and his staff as it descends in a striking motion on the unseen Nancy. There’s also a shot of Bull’s-Eye, just standing there, watching without reaction; like Lean’s dog, he’s white with a black patch over one eye.
Clive Donner’s 1982 Oliver Twist was the first to make real voyeuristic capital of the murder. In this adaptation, Tim Curry is a particularly unpleasant Sikes, not only irascible and violent, but sleazy and leering. Here, Sikes beats Nancy (Cherie Lunghi) to the floor, then retreats as she rises to her knees, saying “I can’t see, Bill” and begins to grope around looking for him. She crawls to him, and embraces him, still on her knees, pleading with him to spare her life. There’s a close-up of Bill’s face as he prepares for the coup de grace, lifting up a flaming cudgel (he’s picked it up from the fire); his eyes are blank and rather than overcome by rage, he seems to be drawing out the moment. Then a close-up of Nancy’s blindly staring face, and back to Bill. He lifts the cudgel so slowly it seems to be almost ritualistic, then brings it down with great force. The camera is on Bill’s face as he commits the deed. Just afterwards, his expression seems almost ecstatic, before he emits an anguished howl. I don’t think this scene works characterologically, and its motivation seems more one of fetishized violence.
Bull’s-Eye is also shown scrabbling at the door in Donner’s evocation of the scene; but in a later shot, just before the murderous blow is dealt, he is shown baring his teeth, just as Sikes did in the immediately previous shot – obviously a deliberate parallel by the director to emphasize Sikes’ bestiality. Bull’s-Eye is here a terrier-type dog, rather than the usual bull dog.
The 1985 BBC serial of Oliver Twist, directed by Gareth Walsh, takes a similar approach to Donner with regard to Nancy’ s murder. Like Donner, Walsh lets the scene take place without non-diegetic sound, and for much of it in complete silence. It’s a long scene, building inexorably towards Sikes’ outbreak of brutality. The director seems to be relying on his audiences anticipation – when is he going to do it? – given that the outcome is so well known. Here, Sikes strikes when Nancy is in his arms, Sikes having lowered the gun when she said “No, they’ll hear it”, which leads her to think he’s changed his mind. But as she lies in his arms, facing the floor, he raises the gun over her head and brings it down very heavily, then we see him bringing it down on her as she lies on the ground – bringing it down from a great height and with extreme violence. For the first time, Bull’s-Eye doesn’t appear in the scene.
The 1982 and 1985 scenes are very similar. I find them problematical in that by drawing out the scene and slowing everything down, it’s harder to fit it into Sikes’ character, which is impetuously violent. Lean’s Sikes dispatches Nancy quickly, obviously in the throes of a great passion. Walsh’s and Donner’s Sikes are more calculating in their approach, seeming in control and postponing the murder for no apparent reason.
The 1999 Alan Bleasdale-scripted serial for ITV also went for the maximalist approach. This long scene resembles Donner’s by having Nancy rise after the first blows, blood streaming from her face, and plead with Bill to “Have mercy”, before being downed again. This scene has a lot of shots of Nancy’s bloodied face. And we have our first black Bull’s-Eye (colour-blind casting?), sitting under the bed, not reacting to the violence.
The death of Nancy has been twice rendered on screen so far in the 2000s. Roman Polanski’s 2005 adaptation of Oliver Twist has a shortish murder scene, fairly restrained. Bull’s-Eye stands barking as Sikes’ blows fall. We see Sikes striking out, but Nancy is invisible in the shadows in the room. The 2007 BBC series (dir. Coky Giedroyc) features the first mixed-race Nancy, and, more to this post’s purpose, she is the first Nancy who is not in bed when when Sikes arrives home in the murder scene. She’s sitting up, and knows immediately by his demeanour that he knows of her meeting with Mr Brownlow. She begins to plead, but he grabs her by the hair and after a short hesitation beats her with his stick. It’s another short one, with an odd use of Bull’s-Eye, who sits quietly facing away from Sikes and towards the door as the murder takes place. In both the two most recent OTs, the dog has the classic Bull’s-Eye aesthetic of white with a black patch.
There has been a definite arc in Nancy murders, from Lean’s classy indirection to the increasing and somewhat sadistic violence in the 80s and 90s and then a move away from that into the more neutral stagings in the more recent ones. The Nancy murder scene has less importance in the more recent (post-2000) adaptations. The 2007 serial placed more emphasis on Bill in the aftermath, as he seems unable to take in what he’s done, talking to Nancy’s corpse as if he thinks her still alive. I’m not here going to try and go into why this change in approaches to the scene has taken place, merely point out that it has. As for Bull’s-Eye, his presence and his appearance shows (as the storm scene discussed before did also) the pervasive influence of Lean’s adaptation on his successors. Bull’s-Eye has been used in all sorts of ways to heighten the effect of the murder scene, a scene which has always been known as one of Dickens’ most powerful; in fact, the 1897 short, The Death of Nancy Sykes, is the oldest known Dickens adaptation, and each adapter since has brought their own vision to create new ways of staging this immortal scene.
Brownlow, Kevin. David Lean: A Biography. Faber, 1997.
Phillips, Gene D. Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean. University Press of Kentucky, 2006.