Sunday, February 15, 2009

"What's the row?"

And so the latest Oliver Twist -- Part the First -- has been watched tonight on PBS. This being the BBC, the production is, if not lavish, at least, predictably, colorful. And that's the first problem, but by no means the only, nor mine with it. Oh, the streets are grimy enough, as are the strangely active locals. (A note to producers on a budget: never give an elderly lady extra a distinctively filthy hat and a clay-pipe if in her passing and passing the camera again she's meant to suggest a crowd.) The palate is the traditional one for color television; grays and browns for poverty, white walls and floral frocks for the "posh." One of the things spared the viewer by black and white, is the otherwise clumsy and improbable suggestion that for the poor it is always overcast and for the rich a sunny day. The sun, I believe shone equally, when it could be seen through the smoke, on rich and poor alike, even in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. No matter, save that already in this adaptation, one is being told too much and shown too little. Another example comes to mind in the score, which is rambunctious to a degree clearly meant to tell what fun all this might be, with banjos and tympani, even as Oliver battles the undertaker and Bumble for his freedom. Not being shown anything particularly dignified in the first man or frightening in the other, both here being played as clowns, there's little at stake in the fight, and hardly a laugh in their fall. Mrs. Sowerberry's hat being crushed by a coffin is the nearest the scene comes to either a punchline or an impact.

And that's my problem with what I watched tonight. What makes Dickens the greatest comic novelist in English, is in his English, which is Fielding's English, and Smollett's, but Dickens' English is not his all. The circumstances of Oliver Twist, the situations, even the majority of Dickens' famously comic supporting characters, at least after the second half of Pickwick, are often painfully real. The poverty is real poverty, the danger dangerous, the hunger sincerely hurtful. Where the reader learns early that Tom Jones is likely to escape the gallows and triumph, never fear, and that the worst pratfall in Peregrine Pickle, or the cruelest joke, will do no more actual harm than a frying pan in the face of Warner Brothers cartoon character, in Dickens the peril is, if not realistic by contemporary standards, all too real to those whose stories Dickens tells. Children die, not comically, but from starvation, disease, neglect. Prostitutes may be murdered for "grassing" on their pimps. Villains are hanged, as they were before him, but are met in Dickens' books not repentant but driven mad in their terror in the cell the night before. The targets of traditional comedy; hypocrisy, pomposity, venality, pride, are the same, but Dickens has more to say than his ancestors about where and in whom these vices are to be found, who is to be mocked, and who is to be pitied. If Dickens is far and away the most consistently funny and inventive of our great comic novelists, he is also, as was Twain in America, the most radically democratic, not only in his humor, but his anger. If this, only Dickens' second novel, is funny, and it is, it is in the ingenious telling. If it is great besides, it is in the author's anger.

In tonight's Oliver Twist, as in any film adaptation, there can be little of Dickens' subtlety of language, so there must be some visual and narrative subtlety to compensate. David Lean's film, and even Roman Polanski's, recognize the loss in moving the novel to the screen, and compensate where they can; in an amusing bit of business for The Artful Dodger as he moves about his work, in a happy bit of comic bluster from the Bumbles, in Nancy's assumed airs when called "Miss," and of course in Fagin's elaboration of what might be called family values, and his demonstration of the proper means of acquiring pocket handkerchiefs. Oliver's smile, like the audience's, must be earned if it isn't to seem incongruous. Likewise the anger must be translated into scenes, rather than telegraphed by glum faces, in sad surroundings, in dark and windowless rooms. If the targets of the author's indignation and mockery are reduced to harmlessness buffoons, as they are here, and Nancy made nought but Sykes' doxy, if Fagin is but an unfunny bit of oily exploitation, and, worst of all, if Oliver is made not a harmless, sensitive boy, but a tough little bastard, all fight and fortitude, then all that's left of the balance that made the book is a grim polemic, and a dour story played out to a weirdly dancing measure.

So many things are lost in this version; fat people are thin here, tall men made short, beauty coarse, and in Tom Hardy's Bill Sykes, a brute is made beautiful. Really now, should Sykes be prettier than Nancy? London itself, a central character in much of Dickens, is here given only a glance, and that, like the seventy miles Oliver walks to reach it, both too short and too pretty. Fagin's treasure is here but a coin dropped in a box.

What's wrong here is not just the crudity of the execution, or even the deliberately broadened and indulgently acted misinterpretations of the text. What's wrong with this Oliver Twist is not that it isn't Dickens', it's that this isn't any body's, or rather it is any body's, from the weird choices in casting, to the tired cinematography, to the violently unlike acting, to the humorless dialogue, to the jangling banjo score, anybody and everybody made this mess, wasted these actors, this expense, in the service of, what? Certainly not Dickens. Certainly not any potential new audience (no, nor any admirer of the novel or earlier, better films.) Just such a waste.

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