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David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946): Casting and the Bildungsroman

Yesterday, I discussed Brian McFarlane on Great Expectations and its numerous adaptations. McFarlane gives most space to David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), widely acknowledged as the best screening of the novel, if not the best of all Dickens adaptations. McFarlane saves this one for last:

I have deliberately left it until the end of this book to see whether any of the other versions, on screens large or small, might offer a serious challenge to its pre-eminence. They don’t. ( Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations: The Relationship Between Text and Film [2008], 127)

McFarlane’s enthusiasm for Lean’s film prompted me to rewatch it. My own feeling about the film is the same as it was after the first time I watched it: I love the first 38 minutes, and can do without the remaining 75. There is a very simple reason for this. As McFarlane notes early in the book, Great Expectations is a bildungsroman: a novel that traces “the development of the protagonist’s mind and character, as he passes from childhood through varied experiences – and usually through a spiritual crisis – into maturity and the recognition of his identity and role in the world” (M.H. Abrams, quoted in McFarlane, 3). There is a serious difficulty in filming a bildungsroman in that the protagonist passes from childhood to maturity, and it is generally physically unfeasible for the same actor to play the protagonist at all stages of the film. Generally, there will be two: in this case, “Young Pip” and “[Older] Pip”

Young Pip is Anthony Wager, aged 13/14 at the time, a totally untrained and inexperienced actor, who gives a compelling and naturalistic performance.


Anthony Wager as Young Pip in the opening scene of the film

Older Pip is John Mills, a well-established actor who had started his training at a dancing school in the 1920s. He was aged 38 at the time of shooting.

The transition from Young Pip to Pip that takes place on 38 minutes is an extremely awkward one. The film allows six years to pass unrepresented as Pip follows his apprenticeship. This lacunae of six years is not present in the novel, and its function is obvious: to prepare the audience for a physically changed Pip. We fade out on Pip and Estella walking down the stairs of Satis House, the dialogue between them two and Mrs Havisham having established that they will not see each other again, and that Pip is about to embark on an apprenticeship, and we fade in on the blacksmith’s forge, with John Mill’s voiceover announcing:

It was in the sixth year of my apprenticeship, and it was a Friday night.


The shot, with Pip in silhouette, that announces the passage of six years from the preceding scene.

Yet nothing can adequately prepare us for the Pip we see before us: in reality, Mills was 24 (!) years older than Wager, rather than 6, and he looks it. We are immediately jarred out of the suspension of disbelief the film has created. Age aside, their physical appearances and demeanours are nothing alike, and their acting styles, too, are diametrically opposed. Wager was naturalistic; Mills is mannered, obviously a schooled actor. Wager’s Pip was hesitant and timid; Mills is smiling and open-faced.


John Mills’ first appearance as Pip in the film

This single piece of careless casting mars the film – irretrievably, for me. Any sense of the character is lost. Probably Mills as a well-known actor was the most important presence to Lean. So perhaps a different young Pip would have worked, though I hesitate to say it, for I think that Wager is excellent and that Mills’ performance has not dated well.

We all probably know examples of this: it is a staple of the bildungsroman, as I have said, that at least two actors are often called upon, but I think this is the single most damaging example of it I have seen. (The Estella transition is also pretty jarring – perhaps this was a blind spot of Lean’s.) Much as there is to admire about this film, I prefer Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948): an easier book to film, if only because it is not a bildungsroman and we only know the protagonist as a child. Any thoughts? Am I exaggerating the importance of this element? Are there other bildungsroman films which suffer from a similar casting problem?


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.

Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre and David Lean

Further to my last post about Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, I wish to speak about the opening scene in the film. Moira Buffini’s script rearranges Bronte’s story considerably, bringing Jane’s flight from Thornfield into the beginning, and presenting all the earlier stuff as flashback, interspersed with the scenes from the Rivers household from after the flight, and all this becomes the NOW in the film. In the book, it’s all flashback, as Jane is reciting it all from a “Reader, I married him” vantage point far in the future, and so the NOW isn’t part of the narrative, it just provides a distanced point from which to view everything.

So, anyway, the first shot is of Jane throwing open the doors of Thornfield and rushing out. I was reminded here of that shot at the end of David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) where Pip (John Mills) throws open the windows at Miss Havisham’s, letting in the light, and Estella is thereby magically transfigured and they walk off hand in hand.

First Shot of Jane Eyre, she opens the doors of Thornfield

Pip opens up the windows of Satis House

Then Jane goes out and walks hurriedly away from the house; we see her face for the first time, and her eyes are brimming with tears. There’s a shot of her standing at a crossroads, irresolute, then she sets off walking again. It cuts to her out on the moors, and this is where it begins to recall Lean’s other great Dickens adaptation, Oliver Twist. The weather turns nasty, and we’ve got the same set-up as Lean’s memorable opening scene from Twist (a scene that I have already discussed on this blog), a slight young woman battling against the elements. She is dwarfed by her surroundings, and buffetted by the wind and rain, as she trudges on, viewed in relief against the lowering sky. Then she sees a light in the distance and makes for it, while the rain and wind try to beat her back till, at the end of her strength, she makes it to her destination: in Oliver Twist, this place is the workhouse where the woman gives birth to her son and dies; in Jane Eyre it’s the Rivers house, where Jane is to be reborn.

Agnes’s first appearance.

Jane on the moors.

Lean’s is a great opening sequence, though plot-wise it doesn’t do anything. There’s no exposition. It’s not setting up character, because the woman dies straight afterwards. And, for several minutes at the start of Oliver Twist, there’s no dialogue at all. It’s all about the cinematicity, the visuals: great shots of the sky, the water rippling as the wind rises, the moon coming out from behind a cloud, the bare branches silhouetted against the sky, the briars quivering in the wind, etc.  It’s just a metaphor for the struggle Oliver is to go through in his quest to make a life for himself. Jane Eyre tries the same thing: the complete absence of dialogue, and the evocations of a natural power that in this case is maybe an analogy for Jane’s inner turmoil, the storm raging inside, as it were.

Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre, against the elements

Josephine Stuart as Agnes in Oliver Twist.

Ultimately, whatever metaphor one wishes to read into it, the scenario seems to have a suggestive power that has caused the scene to live on, and has caused Fukunaga to revisit it and place it in a different context. This blog post is not the place to go into theorizing the scene, but its recurrence is interesting. The opening of Jane Eyre also goes to demonstrate the pervasive influence of Lean’s Dickens adaptations on the field of 19th century adaptations. I’ve already devoted two posts to Lean’s Oliver Twist’s great influence on subsequent adaptations of that novel, but it even goes beyond that, to adaptations of other novels of similar vintage. Lean is the Shakespeare of the period adaptation, the great precursor who can neither be avoided nor overcome, and his adaptations continue to be mined for inspiration by the “ephebes” of our generation, as Harold Bloom would call them.

The Various Deaths of Nancy in Oliver Twist Adaptations 1922 to 2007

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.

Bull’s-Eye scrabbles for the door as Nancy dies in Lean’s Oliver Twist

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.

Clive Donner’s 1982 TV movie: Sikes (Tim Curry) lifts his flaming cudgel, very slowly, in preparation to kill Nancy

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.

Michael Attwell as Sikes in the 1985 Twist, cudgeling Nancy’s body with extreme force (Apologies for the terrible picture quality).


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.

Bull’s-Eye in the 2007 BBC serial turns away from the murder, sitting quietly by the door.

Leanne Rowe as Nancy in Roman Polanski’s 2005 film.

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.

Oliver Twist – The Storm Opening

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.


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