The Victorian Sage

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Tag: oliver twist

On Žižek, Adaptation and Fragments of the Whole

[T]he goal of the translation is not to achieve fidelity to the original but to supplement it, to treat it as a fragment of the broken vessel and produce another fragment that, rather than imitating the original, will fit it as one fragment of a broken Whole may fit with another. A good translation will thus destroy the myth of the original’s organic Wholeness, rendering this Wholeness visible as a fake. One can even say that, far from being an attempt to restore the broken vessel, translation is the very act of breaking. (Slavoj Žižek, Absolute Recoil, Verso, 2014, p. 143-144)

Žižek’s view of translation as a fragment to fit together with the equally fragmented original is one he owes to Walter Benjamin (as he acknowledges in the passage quoted above), and is also one he applies to adaptations. Indeed, the one substantial piece of analysis he give apropos this passage is of an adaptation, not a translation, focusing on different versions of the play Antigone. Žižek leaves aside the possibility that adaptation and translation may be theoretically distinct concepts, but certainly there is a school of thought that sees them as analogous. So, provisionally admitting this point, how productive is Zizek’s approach? Can we conceive of an adaptation which operates by destroying the myth of the original’s organic Wholeness? An adaptation which is a fragment and which exposes the fragmentary nature of the source?

These (imagined) variations should not be read as distortions  some lost primordial original, but as fragments of a totality which would have consisted of the matrix of all possible permutations (in the sense in which Levi-Strauss claimed that all interpretations of the Oedipus myth, inclusive of Freud’s, are part of the myth). Should we then endeavour to reconstruct the full matrix? What we should rather do is locate the traumatic point, the antagonism, that remains untold and around which all the variations and fragments circulate. (p. 146)

It is an idealistic view of adaptation, one that posits a unity behind each avatar, a unity that cannot be found in any individual work, but only uncovered by the scholar. It is the scholar who communicates the traumatic point untold in the fragments.

My own approach is in some ways the opposite to Žižek’s. When you track versions of the same story across time, what you find is not one single traumatic kernel underpinning the narrative, but a predominantly unchanging narrative line that is used as support for reflection on themes that do not predominantly come from the source, but from cultural influences. Adaptations prove that the ideology of a text is not dependent on the story being told. The source provides a narrative framework more than a philosophical or ideological framework.

It may perhaps seem counter-intuitive to think that the same storyline can be used for substantially different ideological purposes. One clear example can be seen in Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel, and the 2007 BBC series Oliver Twist (adapted by Sarah Phelps, latterly better known for her Agatha Christie adaptations, And Then There Were None (2015), etc.). In my essay “Adaptation, Transtemporality, and Ideology: The BBC Series Oliver Twist (2007)” (available in (Re)Writing Without Borders: Contemporary Intermedial Perspectives on Literature and the Visual Arts, eds. Brigitte Le Juez, Nina Shiel, Mark Wallace, Common Ground, 2018), I discuss the ideological shift in the story between the two versions in question, even though at the level of narrative structure there are only minor differences.

By going through the main characters in the narrative (Fagin, Sikes, Nancy, Rose, Monks – I don’t go into Oliver himself in detail, as there was only space to study the most relevant characters to my argument), I demonstrate (at least to my own satisfaction) that through changes in presentation of characters rather than in narrative functions, Phelps manages to invert much of Dickens’ embedded worldview in Oliver Twist.  To take a brief excerpt from my essay, I discuss the character of Fagin, who emerges in Phelps’ version as a victim in ways Dickens never envisaged:

This is most striking with regard to the character of Fagin. John notes in a brief overview of the series that Fagin is placed as a “victim of discriminatory social circumstances” throughout.* This climaxes in the trial scene, in which Fagin (played by Timothy Spall) is sentenced to death by Judge Fang, who further makes him the offer of a reprieve if he will convert to Christianity: “Fall to your knees before this assembly and take Christ as your saviour” (5; 22:15). Fagin refuses and becomes a martyr for the Jewish religion. The exchange is not found in Dickens, and Fagin’s principled refusal to forsake his religion contrasts with the greedy opportunism of Dickens’ villainous character. The offer made by Fang cannot be explained with reference to nineteenth-century legal practices, either.

Rather, Fagin’s trial scene constitutes an argument directed against the ideology of the source text from a presentist perspective, from which perspective ideologies of religious tolerance and idealization of the socially or politically marginalized or oppressed provides a basis from which the narrative is re-constructed, said re-construction incorporating a dialectic between source and adaptation.

* The quoted phrase is from Juliet John, Dickens and Mass Culture, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 223.

Tim Spall

Timothy Spall as Fagin in Oliver Twist (2007)

So there’s a whole different problematic about the character of Fagin. Fagin is the most obviously troublesome character in the novel, as the anti-semitic element of the depiction has long been noted (I go into the history of the character in the essay), but other characters like Sikes, Nancy and Monks are also altered in revealing ways. Sikes is still brutal, but tortured and sensitive; Nancy is much more kindly and maternal towards Oliver; Monks is fleshed out: he wants to marry Rose, but goes about securing this match in a particularly evil way.  They all still behave in ways that move the plot along the same lines as Dickens, but we feel very differently about them. Each character has inscribed into them not only the source material, but also other features which are often in tension with the source, and which in analysis often prove to be traceable to ideological issues of wider significance. It’s in the spaces between Dickens’ Nancy and Phelps’ Nancy that we can find out something significant about how we constructs narratives of human life. We don’t write stories or understand people as Dickens did: even if an adaptor tried to, there would be tension there. With Phelps, the tension is upfront: she wants to challenge Dickens, particularly with regard to Fagin:

The anti-Semitism bothered me hugely, but rather than sweep it under the carpet, rather than make it comedy, I wanted to look at it in its squinty, nasty, horrible little eye. [“Behind the Scenes” feature on Oliver Twist, BBCDVD2572, 2008]

Thus, I’m unconvinced by Žižek’s emphasis on a traumatic core common to source and adaptation. Trauma is evidently personal and contextual. The trauma in Phelps’ retelling is precisely the absence of trauma in Dickens. It is Dickens’ perceived callousness which provokes Phelps into attributing trauma to Fagin.  And if one was to follow Oliver Twist around the world and find other adaptations, you would find other sources of trauma. Many would engage in arguments with other elements of Dickens’ text, aside from the anti-Semitism. Or, if not engage in arguments, instead maintain silence over the elements which provide an ideological jolt. So in difference we can find those elements which demand analysis. It does not necessarily follow that these differences point to a commonality at a deeper level, a shared trauma. Analysis does not have to lead to a higher-level synthesis. The idea that it does is the Hegelian coming out in Žižek .

Sarah Phelps’ BBC Adaptations

The Guardian published a couple of days ago an interview with Sarah Phelps, who has over the last few years become effectively the BBC’s resident adapter of literary works. She’s tackled, among other things, a couple of Dickens novels (Oliver Twist and Great Expectations), J.K. Rowling’s adult novel The Casual Vacancy (Rowling’s work was effectively an attempt at a 21st-century Condition-of-England novel), and, for last year’s BBC Christmas schedule, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The latter’s reception was, on the whole, enthusiastic, so Phelps has been tasked with adapting Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution for this Christmas.

Like Britain’s first adaptation auteur, Andrew Davies (see Sarah Cardwell’s Andrew Davies), Phelps likes to sex up her material, as noted in the headline to the Guardian‘s article. Nevertheless, her tone is a long way from the urbanity of a classic Davies work like Pride and Prejudice. Instead, Phelps often seems to be attempting an assault on the adapted authors, never more so than in Oliver Twist. In this 2007 series, Phelps writes in a stinging critique of Dickens: a critique written, it must be said, from a distinctly 21st-century point of view, concentrating on the identity politics of the novel. The novel certainly presents problems here: principally, Fagin is referred to throughout mostly as “the Jew”, and is a diabolic thief and willing accomplice to murder. Even on Dickens’ first introduction and physical description of Fagin, before we know anything of his character, we are made aware that he is somehow “repulsive” and that there is a moral element to this repulsiveness. Add to this to the identifiably stereotypical elements to Fagin’s appearance and clothes, and the spectre of anti-semitism rises before the contemporary reader.

[S]tanding over them, with a toasting-fork in his hand, was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair. He was dressed in a greasy flannel gown, with his throat bare; and seemed to be dividing his attention between the frying-pan and the clothes-horse, over which a great number of silk handkerchiefs were hanging. Several rough beds made of old sacks, were huddled side by side on the floor. Seated round the table were four or five boys, none older than the Dodger, smoking long clay pipes, and drinking spirits with the air of middle-aged men. These all crowded about their associate as he whispered a few words to the Jew; and then turned round and grinned at Oliver. So did the Jew himself, toasting-fork in hand. (Oliver Twist, Chapter 8)

Phelps is not the first adapter who has had to contend with this (see Juliet John’s Dickens and Mass Culture and Christine Geraghty’s Now a Major Motion Picture on this). But seldom have adapters dealt with it as explicitly as she does. There is, in Phelps’ adaptation, a “calling out” of Dickens on his anti-semitism, rather than a sanitizing of it, as in, say, Oliver! Phelps talks about this in the “Behind the Scenes” featurette on the 2008 DVD release:

The anti-Semitism bothered me hugely, but rather than sweep it under the carpet, rather than make it comedy, I wanted to look at it in its squinty, nasty, horrible little eye.

This rather strong language is typical of Phelps, both in interview and in her scripts. In line with this attitude, Phelps foregrounds in Oliver Twist the anti-semitism that Fagin (Timothy Spall in this version) faces, and exposes the corruption and sadistic underbelly of the 19th-century justice system in the figure of Fang. Fang is the crazed judge who tries Oliver in Dickens. Phelps’ innovation is to reintroduce Fang to try Fagin as well (thus following through on Dickens’ satire on law in Oliver Twist, rather than reverting in the standard Dickens manner to bourgeois morality in the denouement). So, rather than <spoiler alert> Fagin’s death being justice for the villain, it is clearly coded in this adaptation as a deliberate persecution of a victimized and marginalized figure.


Oliver Twist (2007): Timothy Spall as Fagin is on the left. Sophie Okonedo as Nancy is second right.

Similarly, she introduces a black Nancy, arguing in “Behind the Scenes” that this is a form of fidelity to history, as well as a correction to Dickens’ whitewashed casts of characters. Central to this adaptation then, I would argue, is the notion of arguing with the source text, and for this reason it is an interesting text for me. All of these canonical 19th-century texts have been done with fidelity, done with reverence. A new approach is needed. If we can’t ignore these canonical texts, we can argue with them, and Oliver Twist is emblematic of an adaptation that does this. That is not to say that it is by any means a great adaptation, but it is to say that it is a sign from the future (as Zizek would say) of classic adaptations.

Of course, none of this applies very much to Phelps’ recent And Then There Were None; nor will it apply, probably, to the upcoming Witness for the Prosecution. But it is an important element of my approach to adaptations, and will be further developed in an upcoming publication on Phelps’ adaptation of OT, of which more anon.


Edit: the upcoming publication mentioned above is now available in the volume (Re)writing without Borders: Contemporary Intermedial Perspectives on Adaptation, eds. Brigitte Le Juez, Nina Shiel, Mark Wallace, Common Ground Research Networks, 2018, DOI:



Philip Roth: An Unadaptable Author (Voice and Argument in Adaptation)

Today’s Guardian does a hatchet job on Ewan McGregor’s (director and lead actor) adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and along the way makes some points about the “calamitous history” of Roth adaptations. One problem they point up is the tendency to use voice over, apparently because adapters are unwilling to lose the Rothian voice. I suppose it indicates that voice is a far bigger element of Roth’s success than plot, and that voice tends to be less amenable to screen adaptation than plot. But such a failure is in itself interesting in the light it casts on the author adapted, in that an experience of the work shorn of the author’s voice can give us insights into the limitations of said author.  Roth, apparently, is less a great novelist than a great voice. But maybe the power of the voice is what lies behind everything, from novelists and poets to politicians and leaders. One is reminded, perhaps, of various passages concerning Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

The man presented himself as a voice. Not of course that I did not connect him with some sort of action. Hadn’t I been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he had collected, bartered, swindled, or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together? That was not the point. The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.


A voice! a voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart. Oh, he struggled! he struggled! The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now—images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression. My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas—these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments. The shade of the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham, whose fate it was to be buried presently in the mould of primeval earth. But both the diabolic love and the unearthly hate of the mysteries it had penetrated fought for the possession of that soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power.

The idea of voice is one that has received attention in adaptation scholarship, although it is also one that can easily lend itself to evaluative fidelity criticism (“the film has the same plot, but, I don’t know, it just fails to capture Roth’s voice…). Can an adaptation have a voice of its own, or is it only a ventriloquist’s dummy? Andrew Davies is an interesting case study: an auteur of adaptations, an adapter whose voice is known. He is the only adapter who has been honoured with a scholarly monograph (that I can think of): Andrew Davies (Manchester UP, 2005) by Sarah Cardwell (one chapter of which is freely available on her page). Cardwell finds in Davies’ adaptations a particular voice of sympathetic irony (115), irrespective of who the source author is. She also considers that his best adaptations are, for the most part, those of authors who have a strong voice, not because he captures that voice in its singularity, but because he engages in a conversation with them, and, as he put it himself, “sometimes I’ll have a little quarrel with the authors” (ibid.). Thus, these works become multivocal, or, to use a word that Cardwell somewhat surprisingly doesn’t use, heteroglossic.

So, perhaps the problem with Roth adaptations is that the argument doesn’t take place. It’s easy when dealing with a reputedly great writer to take their words as holy writ. It takes confidence to approach adaptation more as a conversation or even a “little argument”. A paradigmatic example of the argumentative adaptation that I have been studying (and will be publishing on in the near future) is the 2007 BBC series of Oliver Twist, written by Sarah Phelps, which deals with issues of anti-semitism, class bias, and gender politics in Dickens’ novel. I’m not for a second suggesting that this series is a model (in fact, I’m not even sure I like it very much), but it is certainly a very different approach from the reverential one we often associate with the adaptation of works of literature.


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.

The Victorian Bachelor in Adaptation

Victorian novels, especially Dickens’s, tend to feature a benevolent / philanthropic bachelor-type character, who enters for the purpose of providing protection, prospects of social advancement and, often, large amounts of money to the protagonist. Someone like Mr Brownlow in Oliver Twist or the Cheerybles in Nicholas Nickleby. They may be an uncle or other relation to the protagonist, or be motivated to help simply by their overflowing niceness, and they ask nothing in return. They are singularly uncomplicated individuals, ones who tend to have no intimate personal relationships but to operate in the capacity of fairy godfathers to any deserving person who happens to come into their path. Recent adaptations suggest this character creates quite a headache, as such disinterested benevolence cannot be accepted as credible.

Andrew Davies was certainly conscious of this when he came to script Bleak House (BBC 2005). Bleak House has John Jarndyce as a central character, and Jarndyce is in the tradition of the benevolent bachelor, though with a complicating factor: he wants to get married to Esther, and traditionally this character is entirely happy with his bachelor state, and never countenances any other possibility. Dickens doesn’t really deal with Jarndyce’s reasons for marrying Esther, or the element of sexual desire that is, presumably, involved in his proposal. Rather, he has Esther (and also Ada) refer to Jarndyce as being “like a father” and other such terms. He also constantly stresses Jarndyce’s moral uprightness, and the respect all the other characters have for him, a sleight of hand obscuring Jarndyce’s real intention, as Davies sees them:

Dickens raises it, in a way, but shies away from it, as usual. Why did Jarndyce not get married before? Why does he settle on a child? Of course, she’s grown up by the time he actually pops the question, but by then she’s so obliged to him, isn’t she? […] Dickens is writing about a man who, for some reason, can’t deal with grown-up women, so what he’d like to do is groom this girl (Cartmell and Whelehan, 240).

Now whether Davies successfully redrafts Jarndyce’s character to get this across is another story. I don’t think he does. Though there are a few telling details added, they’re buried beneath the weight of Jarndyce’s overall niceness and at the serial’s pivotal points, it tends to follow the Dickens approach to Jarndyce. I don’t think anyone comes away from Davies’s Bleak House thinking of Jarndyce having groomed Esther. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting point, and this ambivalence about benevolent bachelor characters recurs in other period dramas of recent vintage.

In North and South (BBC 2004), we have Mr Bell making an implicit offer of marriage to Margaret Hale. Mr Bell is Margaret’s godfather, and her father has entrusted her to him, little suspecting (one presumes) that by “looking after” Margaret, Mr Bell has matrimony in mind. And, of course, in Gaskell’s novel he doesn’t have that in mind. Gaskell’s Mr Bell is presented without any sexual colouring at all; he’s an Oxford don, he’s never been married and the idea of it never seems to have occurred to him. Again, though, for scriptwriter Sandy Welch, this attitude on Bell’s part is unthinkable, and the need is felt to uncover the sexuality lurking under his mild and disinterested exterior.

Mr Bell's proposal

Oliver Twist (BBC 2007) – written by Sarah Phelps, who also scripted the 2011 BBC Great Expectations – is one of the more radical classic serials of recent times: a black Nancy, a Fagin who is victim rather than villain (not without precedent in recent adaptations, but the anti-semitism is explicitly tackled here), and who is also of a rotund figure, thus breaking with the conventional vision of Fagin from Hogarth’s illustrations through Alec Guinness in Lean’s Oliver Twist, Ron Moody in Carol Reed’s Oliver! and beyond. It also rejects the Dickensian portrayal of Brownlow by painting him as a paranoid and somewhat controlling individual. In this version he lives with Rose Maylie – no, he doesn’t want to marry her, but he is a morose and taciturn individual and very over-protective of Rose, being generally opposed to letting her out of the house, because she is the last link with the woman he once loved (who was Rose’s sister and Oliver’s mother– i.e. Rose is O.’s aunt in this version). So this Brownlow, as well as lacking the good temper of Dickens’s character, is also given a romantic past, and perhaps a romantic present, if we see him as having transferred his love for Rose’s older sister onto Rose herself. Actually, it’s Monks, here Brownlow’s nephew (confused yet?) who bears a predatory lust for Rose, but given the close filial relationship between Brownlow and Monks for most of the serial (until Monks’s dastardly Rose-entrapping schemes are revealed), one might well see Monks as a manifestation of Mr B.’s dark urges. It’s all very confusing, but for the purposes of this post all that’s relevant is that Brownlow is not the happy bachelor of Dickens’s novel.

Of course, the greatest of all Victorian bachelors was Sherlock Holmes, albeit much later in the Victorian era. I haven’t seen the serial Sherlock yet (!), so I don’t know if they do try to explore the title character’s sexuality. In Doyle’s stories, Holmes is depicted, I would say, as being “above” sexuality, a concept the Victorians wouldn’t have had a problem with, but that, in the context of recent adaptations, may not now be seen to be credible. Certainly not if the vid below is any indication.

*Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, “A practical understanding of literature on screen: two conversations with Andrew Davies”, in Cartmell and Whelehan, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 240.


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