Our current Movie of the Month, 1968’s Oliver!, is an adorable movie-musical adaptation of the classic Dickens novel Oliver Twist. It sweetens the bitterness of the original text as best as it can with big-budget, song-and-dance movie magic, but it never fully breaks away from the brutality of its source material. Oliver! is an extravagant Technicolor spectacle composed entirely in a spectrum of sooty browns, stuck halfway between a feel-good crowd-pleaser and a heartbreaking tale of systemic child abuse. I cannot tell if it’s wonderfully grim or grimly wonderful, but it’s one of the two.
There have been dozens of Oliver Twist adaptations produced in the past century, so there’s plenty more Orphan Oliver cinema to explore after checking out the wonderfully grueling musical. Oliver! has a more distinct angle in its approach to Dickens’s novel than faithful adaptations like David Lean’s 1948 version, though. Proper pairings for Oliver! should all attempt a similar stand-out gimmick or interpretative device beyond dramatically illustrating the source material, especially since there isn’t much value to watching the same story repeated over & over again without that variety in form. To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more Oliver Twist adaptations that attempt to make the old text feel new again, often through extreme means.
Oliver Twist (2005)
Because there are so many Oliver Twist adaptations out there, Hanna got her titles confused and we ended up watching a modern version directed by Roman Polanski by mistake before meeting a second time to watch the musical. We likely should’ve questioned the programming choice when she referenced the 2005 film as a “childhood favorite” (ouch), but it wasn’t until about 20 minutes into the runtime when Hanna realized the mistake, as it was clear there wasn’t going to be any singing or dancing in Polanski’s adaptation. We finished the movie anyway (which is likely more time & attention than that decrepit rapist deserves) and found it to be a lot more entertaining than initially expected (which is definitely more praise than he deserves).
The Polanski adaptation of Oliver Twist is stubbornly faithful to the events of the source material, so much so that it’s the clearest outlier on this list of Oliver! pairings. Except, the director clearly bristled at the lighter, sweeter interpretations of the novel that have become standard in the years since Oliver!. Polanski’s Oliver Twist is absurdly grotesque, often laughably so. The cruelty, grime, and hopelessness of 19th Century London is pitched so far over the top that you cannot help but find it comedic. Every character wants to see the sweet, young orphan Oliver hang for the crime of existing in their eyesight. Meanwhile, if they just wait long enough, he’d likely die naturally of starvation or infection from touching London’s shit-smeared streets with his bare, wounded feet. It dives so far into the muck & misery of the text that it can only be viewed as a pointed rejection of the movie-musical revisions meant to brighten its narrative with a little song-and-dance sunshine – mainly Oliver!.
Thankfully, you don’t have to watch a Roman Polanski movie if you’re looking for an appropriately grim adaptation of Dickens’s story. The 1996 low-budget indie Twisted offers “a retelling of Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist, set in a New York City contemporary underground populated by drag queens, drug abuse, and prostitution.” Its determination to make a dark & twizted update to Oliver Twist is likely overkill, since the source material is already plenty grim as is. Still, it’s the only adaptation I’ve seen that goes out of its way to make the text too bitter to stomach – changing the orphan boys’ criminal enterprise from petty thievery to child prostitution and skipping the happy ending for Oliver entirely. Twisted is impressively fucked up, stylish, and chaotic enough to make me nostalgic for the true independent filmmaking of 90s festival programs. It also includes one-of-a-kind performances from William Hickey (as a Lynchian take on Fagin) and Billy Porter (as a transgender take on Bet), which you would think would raise its profile in pop culture nerd circles.
The 2003 film Twist also gritties up the Dickens story in a world of drug addicts and gay hustlers (that time set in Toronto), but it’s hard to imagine there was any novelty left in that approach after Twisted beat it to the punch. Twisted‘s version of grimy NYC street life is illustrated with music video production values, to the point where you halfway expect the camera to pan past Michael Jackson dance-smashing an abandoned car. Whereas Nancy is only implied to be a prostitute in every other version of the story—including the novel—Twisted explicitly opens with her surrogate in the act of hooking. Then there’s the deeply upsetting decision to maintain Oliver’s age as a young minor, while aging up everyone else around him to lecherous adults, grooming the sweethearted orphan for a life of prostitution. The backwards-letters typeface of Twisted‘s opening credits announces that it’s not your grandpappy’s Oliver Twist, and the movie delivers on that promised shock value every chance it gets. It also features Billy Porter quipping that his barroom buddies look “as nervous as a drag queen in a shoe store,” though, so it’s not all grim, grim grime. Just mostly.
Oliver and Company (1988)
Obviously, if you’re the world’s #1 Oliver! fan, it’s unlikely that grimness & cruelty are your top concerns in your Oliver Twist adaptations. If you’re looking for a version of Dickens’s novel that’s even cheerier & schmaltzier than the movie musical, Disney is of course your savior. The 1988 cartoon Oliver and Company arrived just before the Disney Renaissance, at a time when the company was still in heated competition with idealist defector Don Bluth (who beat the film at the box office with The Land Before Time). It’s just as toothless of an Oliver Twist adaptation as you’d expect from Disney, featuring talking kittens and dogs dancing to a cornball pop soundtrack, as well as the decision to play Fagin as a desperate sweetheart voiced by Dom DeLuise. And yet the current state of talking-animal CG animation for kids is so dire that Oliver and Company feels like a timeless masterpiece in comparison. Call it a mehsterpiece. It’s a sweet mediocrity from a lost era of superior visual craft, putting thoughtful care into its detailed animation even while evaporating all of the thought & care out of its literary source material.
In this version, Oliver is an unadopted kitten abandoned on the streets of New York, populated entirely by faceless archetypes who yell “Hey, I’m walking here!” and “Come and get your hotdogs!” He’s taken under the wing of a streetwise dog named Dodger (Billy Joel, who fortunately only has one song on the soundtrack) and taught how to pretend to get hit by cars to steal from distraught drivers (a solid grift!). Voice performances from a villainous Robert Loggia and a fabulous Bette Midler (who unfortunately only has one song as well) threaten to add some substantive, mature themes to the proceedings, but the movie is pure Disney schmaltz through & through. It’s really only worth seeking out if you wished Oliver! was even sweeter or if, like me, you’re nostalgic for a time when even the most disposable kids’ media looked nice in its visual craft, regardless of its thematic ambitions.