The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: April, 2014

Oliver Twist (1948) – Opening Storm Scene

Having laid out my basic schema for analyzing adaptations last week, I will here attempt to put it into practice, using a scene I’ve watched several times and have found very effective, and which comes from one of my favourite adaptations.

David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) is not just one of my favourite adaptations, but one of the great adaptations in cinema history. The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens (Paul Schlicke, ed., 2000) reserves the highest place among all Dickens adaptations for the film, calling it “a masterpiece”, while the British Film Institute have pronounced it a “a classic of British cinema“. Among the most memorable scenes in the film is the opening, which features a heavily pregnant young woman struggling through a storm in barren moorland, following a distant light and finally falling exhausted at the gate within which the light sits. My exploration in this post will be to see where the scene, in each of its elements, “comes from”. Taking each of the four elements of the schema in turn, I will try to construct a panorama of the scene’s content, the only limit being my own breadth of knowledge.


Source Text: If one wishes to see this scene as a direct adaptation of a narrative element in Dickens, one can point to a line of dialogue from the workhouse nurse attending the young woman (who is, as we find out later in the novel, named Agnes, and the eponymous character’s mother – in the film, I don’t think we find out her name within the text at all, but only in the paratextual material of the credits).

She was brought here last night,” said the old woman, “by the overseer’s order. She was found lying in the street. She had walked some distance, for her shoes were worn to pieces; but where she came from, or where she was going, nobody knows.” (Chapter 1)

This is analepsis or flashback that comes in near the start of the story. It is what Genette would call an “external analepsis” (Narrative Discourse), meaning that it refers to an incident which lies outside the temporal boundaries of the story as told, and is only referred to in this dialogue.

I would analyze the narrative of this short analeptic passage as follows:

  • The functions alluded to are: 1, Agnes being brought to the workhouse; 2, Agnes being found lying in the street; and 3, Agnes walking “some distance”. (In order as related; evidently, they occurred in the reverse order)
  • There are two informants: Agnes’ shoes being “worn to pieces”; and the “realist operator” (Barthes, “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative”) that is the reference to the overseer,  placing the narrative within Dickens’ contemporary England.
  • There is one indice: Agnes’ tenacity and strength of purpose is implied by the fact that she had walked so far that her shoes were in tatters.

The narrative in Lean’s opening discards 2 and 3, though they remain implied by the cut from Agnes collapsing at the gate to Agnes lying in the workhouse. The informant relating to the overseer is gone (it would probably have been unintelligible to a 20th-century audience, in any case), and the informant of the shoes in pieces is also discarded; however, the indice of Agnes’ tenacity and strength of purpose remains.

Indeed, if one wished to make a wholly source-text oriented interpretation of the scene, one could say that it is an extended metaphorization of the aforementioned indice. The storm functions less in itself than in what it shows of Agnes’ strength of character. In this regard, one could argue that the scene adapts Dickens, that it is a correlative of a function in the source text. It is, however, a narratively excessive one, given the length and dramatic intensity of the scene.

Direct Author: I have already designated “Lean” as the author of the film Oliver Twist; but such a naming of authorship is never more than a synecdoche, part-for-whole. With specific reference to this scene, it needs to be noted that the idea for the scene came from Kay Walsh, who played Nancy in the film and was at the time David Lean’s wife. The importance of lighting in the scene can hardly be overestimated, either, with cameraman Guy Green  using special effects to create a sky in Pinewood Studios


Similarly, Arnold Bax’s score is crucial to the effect of the scene: the disharmonious scraping of violins that accompany the cut to thorny branches as Agnes gets labour pains


It is clear, however, that both Green and Bax were micro-managed by Lean:

“Bax was great,” said John Huntley, “but totally inexperienced at film and timing and all the rest of it. So in order to try and help, David wrote the most extensive notes on what he actually wanted the music to do.”

Green thought [the shots of the sky in the opening scene] looked great in the rushes, but David [Lean] declared, “We’re going to have to retake this. It’s too romantic. I want more edginess and more storm.” (Kevin Brownlow, David Lean: A Biography, Faber and Faber, 1977, pp. 243-44, 229)

And then there’s Josephine Stuart as Agnes, the only actor in the scene, no dialogue, a purely visual presence, chosen undoubtedly as much for her physical embodiment of fresh young beauty as for her thespian ability – by her visual presence she works affectively in the role, creating sympathy for the character’s plight.


To a great extent, all of these contributions were under Lean’s control, so it remains reasonable as well as convenient to consider him author here. And author in this scene is important, as there is much that can be seen as pertaining to the direct author. In “A Profile of Oliver Twist”, the documentary on the 2000 ITV DVD release, camera operator Oswald Morris recalls the innovation of the tilting of the camera to sync with Agnes’ labour pains: “I had never seen that before. That was all David’s idea.”

Camera Tilt

The technical innovation of the scene, then, points to a strongly individualized authorial presence, which is able to interpret and work around the source text in an original and effective way, and harness the talents of various other personae working on the scene.

Generic influences: The conception of this scene is from early 20th-century cinema. Kay Walsh had a memory of “sitting in the flea pit”, and seeing a girl with “great big eyes” on the screen who sank into a ditch and died. (Brownlow, p. 229) Her outline of the scene was based on this memory, and this was re-actualized in the film. But it is impossible to specify the influence Walsh had in mind.

Influence of previous Oliver Twist adaptations in this scene is minimal. Lean actually went to see the (rather poor) 1933 US adaptation starring Dickie Moore during the making of his own film, but went for a different tone entirely. Lean wanted “a grimly realistic study of what poverty was like in that time” (Gene D. Phillips, Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean, (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2006), p. 123); which is reflected in the dark and moody lighting of this scene. Such lighting  is film noirish, but the bleak moorland setting is not, recalling 19th-century romantic fiction and theatre more than any existing cinematic tropes. But the keys terms for Lean were historical (“in that time”) and realism – if we take the film as being a piece of historical realism, we must allow that it had few cinematic antecedents, and entered somewhat new cinematic territory.

Cultural influences: These seem to me to be entirely absent from this scene. Perhaps this is what gives it its timeless quality. There is cultural specificity visible in later parts of the film – the post-WWII/ rationing  focus on food – hunger for Oliver, gluttony for the workhouse board; but it’s kept relatively subtle and indirect. But in this opening scene, I can find nothing at all. this may be partly because I am have little background knowledge of the period in question. But it also points to the classicism of Lean’s approach. Lean was an aesthetic rather than a political filmmaker, less concerned with reflecting the times than with creating cinema. That’s despite the fact he made some films based (loosely) on historical fact. It’s despite the fact, too, that he conceived Oliver Twist as dealing with 19th-century poverty, as it historically appeared. The juxtaposition of this intention with the ahistoricism of the opening scene is striking, and leads me to the provisional conclusion, which I may try to follow up in later analyses, that the past is aesthetic. Representations of the past have a different status to those of the present, and are experienced differently and, in part, aesthetically.

So the scene is Dickens plus an unknown early 20th-century film (presumably some sort of melodrama), plus individual technical innovation and an impressionistic approach to film-making: images reproducing and communicating character’s states of mind – a technique very different from Dickens, or novels in general, though it’s not too far from the poetic device of pathetic fallacy, in the phrase coined by Ruskin. There’s a dash of film noir, too. The intertext of the scene is complex, as is, indeed, the intertext of most scenes. This particular scene is interesting as it’s so patently limiting and insufficient to see it through the lens of adaptation, or posit that all it does is re-mediumize something that’s already in the book. But there was nothing inevitable about the scene; if Lean hadn’t done it, it would never have been done with Oliver Twist, and would never have entered the culture-text of the novel as it has, being re-done by most subsequent adapters, as I’ve written about earlier.

And, even still, there’s lots of ways of interpreting the scene, I’m sure, that I haven’t touched upon. Yet the quadripartite framing schema I’ve used certainly opens up a scene to a detailed and fairly comprehensive reading, though it also demands a high level of circumstantial knowledge… a level which I myself, perhaps, haven’t quite reached. My knowledge of the history of cinema is not so substantial as I might wish, but I am, at least, continually pointing out directions to myself, erecting signposts on the road to critico-analytical knowledge.

Adaptation Study: A Very Basic Schema

This blog hereby posits that the content of any adaptation can be conveniently seen to be drawn from four sources: source text, direct author, generic influences, cultural influences. I will now briefly delineate them in relation to screen adaptation (film and TV).

Source text: This is the category which has traditionally received most attention. The classic approach, since George Bluestone’s pioneering monograph Novels Into Film (1957) has been the source-adaptation comparison. More recently, this approach has been very heavily criticized, seen to be productive of a narrowly fidelity-based analysis, in which the adaptation is overtly or tacitly condemned for any failure to be exactly the same as the book. Yet this remains a privileged category in adaptation study, because it is the category which is unique to adaptation. An adaptation is defined by the proximity of its relationship to a specific anterior text. Therefore, criticisms of fidelity-based analysis should not be broadened out to include all source-adaptation comparison.

Direct author: In this and the subsequent categories, adaptation does not differ fundamentally from other works of film and TV. Authorship is a complex question in film: is the author to be identified with the director ( a la French auteur theory), the writer, the actor of the part if a specific character is in question; what amount of authorial independence can be ascribed to other contributors, such as composer or costume designer? No decision can be made independently of the specific adaptation to be studied. Perhaps director, co-screenwriter and initiator of the project David Lean is an auteur, and the author of the 1948 Oliver Twist; but what of the 2007 BBC Oliver Twist, where the project was initiated at boardroom level, then assigned a director and a screenwriter, who worked separately?

Generic influences: A category that has tended to be downplayed in adaptation studies, but one of exceptional importance in almost any artwork. The generic status of a film or TV program is often a complicated question, but all may be presumed to be placing themselves within certain prevailing paradigms of screen narratives. These paradigms change over time, and are in any case somewhat different to those of literary narrative. Let us take for example the paradigm of the Hollywood blockbuster: an explosive physical climax is necessary – action and violence, explosions and car chases. This has odd results in the 2009 motion-capture adaptation of A Christmas Carol (dir. Robert Zemeckis, perf. Jim Carrey). Dickens’ narrative, of course, has no such development, being concerned with the moral awakening of the central character, achieved through ghostly visions of the future (his lonely death, the Cratchits’ tribulations, etc.). But the film involves a protracted and frenetic chase scene in which Scrooge is chased through the streets of London by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who rides a carriage. There is no narrative element suggesting such an episode in the novella, so it seems it is a purely generic addition – genre as constitutive of narrative, at the expense of the source text.

The Wild Card:

One could parse this point a little more, pointing out that A Christmas Carol was made using motion-capture, and was at the cutting-edge of expensive technological developments – the narratively incongruous chase scene was not wholly necessitated by genre, but even more so by the obligation to show what the technology can do. Not just everyday action such as that signified by Dickens’ narrative, but Hollywood action. This goes to show how complex is any judgement on the origins of content in any work, and the need to follow the path suggested by the individual case. Technology is not widely influential enough to warrant a separate entry in my schema, but there’s always a wild card somewhere or other.

Cultural Influences: The last is a rather wide catch-all, designed to allow for inclusion of material that references, overtly or tacitly, consciously or unconsciously, events, trends, ideas, and structures of feeling (to use Raymond Williams’ term) particular to the spatial or temporal locus within which the adaptation is being made – or the locus within which it was made to be distributed, if there is a distinction. This is a tricky category: to take the above example from A Christmas Carol; one may decide to go beyond the generic explanation, and suggest that the reason for such a dominant pattern of filmic narrative structure is cultural: people nowadays have short attention spans/ no appreciation for narrative or human interest/ propensity for violent spectacle. These are generalizations that are easy to make, but will rely either on a large body of research empirically demonstrating the tendency alleged, or, more simply, citing a pre-existing reference work that establishes such a point in a reasonably convincing manner – but by “convincing”, I really mean that you will use a text that has good cultural capital within the academic world (assuming this is the world you’re writing for).


These are the points, I argue, that need to be kept in mind when performing an analysis of a screen adaptation. The schema aims to ensure that the source text is not used as an ur-text to which the adaptation is ceaselessly compared and against which it is judged. The source text is retained as an important point of reference, but a further framework is provided to enable a broader view of the adaptation and to allow for wider interpretations to be given to the adaptation in toto or any relevant part thereof.  All in all, it’s a mighty piece of work.  I will apply the schema to a specific case in a forthcoming post. Stay tuned!

Adaptation Study: Some Basic Notes towards a Personal Approach

The good people at the OED define adaptation thusly:

—An altered or amended version of a text, musical composition, etc., (now esp.) one adapted for filming, broadcasting, or production on the stage from a novel or similar literary source. –In recent use freq. modified to specify the medium, as radio, screen adaptation.

There are other definitions of the word in the OED, but none relevant to me, as this is my particular field of interest, and most particularly the type mentioned at the end of the definition: screen adaptation (though this can also be further subdivided into two main categories: TV adaptation and film ditto). The adaptation defined above would appear to invite two types of analysis:

1) The formalist analysis which finds how elements of a narrative can be rendered in a different media. How words can become image/words/sounds. Or how image/words/sounds/ music/ theatrical performance (see Stam on literature as a single-track medium v. film as a multi-track medium, “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation”, in Naremore, Film Adaptation, Rutgers UP, 2000) can be traced back to the words of the source text. When I say “words”, I’m assuming that the source text is literary – and it usually is. The classical adaptation studies approach, from Bluestone (Novels Into Film, 1957) onwards takes literary source texts, and, despite many theorists calling for a broadening of the field, most studies still proceed along the literature-to-screen path.

2) The second type would be (very broadly speaking) a cultural analysis: what are the general external factors which make such an adaptation possible, and make it so that it is as it is. This analysis still needs to include the source text, I would argue (this may seem self-evident, but much recent theorizing on the matter seems to leave little room for any exploration of the specific source-adaptation relationship), but it has several other questions to ask, or from which to choose:

2.1) Firstly, it may ask why now and why here? Is there something in the situation in which the adaptation is produced that invited a revisitation of the source text? A cultural movement, a political happening; or more narrowly, generic developments in film, or even technological developments. Did one or more of these potential factors create a climate within which it became relevant to revisit and reconsider the source text? For example, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was loosely based on Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: the reason this book was revisited at this time is evidently related to the Vietnam War, in which themes relating to morality, leadership and conduct in foreign conflict with a technologically less-developed people became once again relevant – admittedly, this example is too easy, as Apocalypse Now is updated to Vietnam War times, rather than directly adapting Conrad’s milieu in late 19th-century Congo. This question is still largely focussed on the source text: why is the source text being revisited/ reconsidered now? However, a proper consideration will require much contextual knowledge relating to the chosen sphere, whether it be cultural, political, etc.

2.2) Next the how must be considered. This involves, in the first place, a comparative analysis of source and adaptation. Here I believe Brian McFarlane’s use of Barthesian terminology (Novel to Film [1996]) remains useful. McFarlane differentiates between functions (actions; things that happen; linear combination; chronological; “functionality of doing” ) and indices (concepts; non-linear; “functionality of being”). The former can be reproduced directly in an adaptation in another medium; the latter must be subdivided into informants (pieces of concrete physical information, “ready-made knowledge”), which can be directly transposed; and indices proper (traits of character; psychological traits; atmospherics), which usually are not directly transposable. For example, Bulwer Lytton’s classic opening line “It was a dark and stormy night” performs as an informant, and  provides a specific material description that can be directly rendered in adaptation. But Dickens’ opening line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is rather an indice proper, for the state it designates is not one so clearly material as that of the weather. There is no immediately apparent correlative image for this statement. An alternative in this case is to render the line in voiceover, and this is sometimes done with adaptations of A Tale of Two Cities (certainly the 1980 BBC series), but generally this is impractical (opening lines lend themselves to being voiced over, but very few films make the voiceover central to the mode of storytelling). Sometimes indices can be rendered by having characters giving voice to them, for example. a psychological state can be disclosed. This, too, however, can be awkward and clumsy. It can affect the integrity of a character –  if, for example, the character isn’t the sort who would disclose his/ her psychological state in that way, or, if the state is given with an eloquence or articulacy that the character doesn’t have, or if the disclosure is simply inappropriate to the situation.

So an objective correlative (Stam) may be sought. Stam thought that it would be possible to map out objective correlatives in an adaptation for each element of the source’s narrative. This is, obviously, overstating it, as adapters won’t take everything, or even try to, as that would be impossible. Or let’s take it that it is possible to provide total adaptation using objective correlatives: but now say a film was too long, and the studio cut it down: would the edited version still have objective correlative total coverage, or would the original cut be the real adaptation? And if the director had cut down the script before filming – would the original script be the only real adaptation? And if the writer himself had done some mental editing before even writing down the script – where then is the adaptation that would give us our objective correlatives? It’s not practical to study adaptations on the assumptions they’ll yield up full objective correlation. Put in Stam’s terms, it’s an impossibility.

But on an individualized, local basis, I would still like to keep the concept of the objective correlative. Some elements of an adaptation may indeed be objective correlatives, or a reasonable material facsimile of that rather metaphysical term. For example, Dickens’ reference at the opening of Oliver Twist to the unnamed woman’s (Oliver’s mother) physical distress is objectively correlated in spectacular fashion in David Lean’ 1948 adaptation with the shots of jagged branches accompanied by the staccato screeching of violins in the storm. This gets Dickens’ point across without words, though to see this scene merely as adaptation is rather an impoverished view. As adaptation, it is surely excessive, taking an unremarkable observation and making it sublime, with all of the elements being called in to portray the woman’s pains. To try and do justice to the scope and vision of the scene we might postulate that it is a metaphor for Dickens’ tale as a whole: for innocence afflicted by the cruelty of nature, especially human nature, before eventually finding a port in the storm, as the eponymous character does with Mr. Brownlow. But, further, we must see the scene as an expression of the power of cinema, the power to call upon the sublime in a fashion unavailable to Dickens. We must analyse the technical virtuosity that allows Lean and his cinematographers to create such a scene. We must ultimately conclude, I feel, that adaptation study doesn’t cover this scene, though it can illuminate aspects of it, and, certainly, there is a correlation between Lean’s opening and Dickens’. In terms of its narrative functions, the scene is just Dickens, but magnified, both in effect and in simple terms of the duration relative to the whole given to it – I mean simply that Lean gives it 3 out of 90 minutes; Dickens half a page out of 500 page. This magnification makes it an appropriate and interesting locus of study, a prime candidate for a spot of close reading. I think this is a simple rule that can profitably be borne in mind: where there is magnification, there we have an appropriate locus for close reading – and, in this analyst’s opinion, all attempts at adaptation study should include diligent close readings of at least one or two scenes.

2.3) The there but not adapted: But we will almost always find areas where the idea of objective correlative will not be applicable: it’s just different; something not in the source. Again, scenes not in the source need to be paid special attention to. We may look at these from an authorial point of view: what is the author of the adaptation trying to do here? Is he marking himself out as different from the source-author? Is he critiquing that author? Is he in any way displaying a Bloomian Anxiety of Influence towards the source-author? Or is it simply an expression of his own aesthetic without reference to the source-author? As an example of the latter, Hitchcock once said of his own adaptation technique, “What I do is I read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema.” Or again we may look at it from a cultural point of view: what prevalent social discourses go into the making of a scene not in the source? For example, recent adaptations of Oliver Twist tone down either the villanousness or the Jewishness of Fagin – Lean’s film was criticized for perpetuating Jewish stereotypes (see account in Juliet John, Dickens and Mass Culture); think, then, of the musical Oliver! which had for the first-time a rather genial and benevolent Fagin, who did “pick a pocket or two” but ends up dancing down the street arm-in-arm with the Dodger – almost the hero of the film. Evidently this needs to be looked at in the context of our increased sensitivity to ethnic stereotyping, as well as the Holocaust. Authorial and cultural considerations, then, but also generic: a film is constituted by its genre, too. Recall the 2008 motion-capture version of A Christmas Carol starring Jim Carrey. This was intended to be  a blockbuster, having the special effects, the budget ( estimated: $200M [IMDB]), the all-star cast, and the technological USP (unique selling point – [perhaps outdated] business jargon) for the role (though its box office was ultimately disappointing). Accordingly, it included a long, climactic scene in which Scrooge (Carrey) is chased around London by a giant snowball – this narrative non-sequitur allowed for an appropriately visually spectacular scene with sweeping panoramas of a snowbound London. I cannot resist intruding my own opinion that this narratively pointless scene detracted greatly from my enjoyment and investment in the film, taking me out of the sequence of events, which in this story is basically psychological (a simple psychology, perhaps, but that is what it is, all the same), and insisting I admire the pure visuality of the scene. I was reminded of Peter Biskind’s account of how Star Wars changed cinema:

Star Wars pioneered the cinema of moments, of images, of sensory stimuli increasingly divorced from story. (Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, Bloomsbury, 2007, p. 343)

The blockbuster is the cinema of moments, and this does not mesh well with the narrative of A Christmas Carol, but it is another factor that constitutes an adaptation. Source-author, adaptation-author, culture, genre: these, then, are the four principal contributing factors that make up an adaptation. This is stated simply, for convenience, but any one of the four can be complicated greatly. What about the source-author’s own sources and his own generic and cultural influences, for one? Here we are getting into questions of adaptation in the second-degree. A further influence on adaptation, hidden, unspoken and unknown. This is a complicated issue which I will get into later. For now, I have reduced my way of reading adaptations – my methodology, if you insist (but it is a word I dislike for its scientism, which I think a poor fit for literary and film criticism)- to its bare bones, for my own future use.

I am by no means a sophisticated theorist of criticism, nor do I mean to be. If I can work out some basic rules of thumb for myself, focussed on workability, avoidance of preconceptions, and openness to individual cases, with little thought for sophistication, I will be happy with that,  and consider it a thesis well spent.

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