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Last Updated: Friday, 30 September 2005, 07:26 GMT 08:26 UK
Polanski takes on Oliver Twist
By Keily Oakes
BBC News entertainment reporter

There were raised eyebrows when Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski announced his next project was to be an adaptation of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist.

Barney Clark and Harry Eden
Barney Clark and Harry Eden play Oliver and the Artful Dodger
Polanski is known for his gritty movies with subjects ranging from the Nazi concentration camps of The Pianist to the Satanic horror of Rosemary's Baby.

Although Dickens' classic was largely a bleak look at poverty in Victorian London, one of its most famous screen adaptations was director Sir Carol Reed's uplifting musical Oliver!

It saw a sprightly Fagin, played by Ron Moody, singing and dancing to You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two.

The film also included memorable songs such as Food Glorious Food, Consider Yourself and Boys For Sale.

Polanski's offering is a darker adaptation, in keeping with murky themes of Dickens' book, but still manages to remain upbeat.

'Cheeky chappy'

There have been more than 20 screen adaptations of Oliver Twist on the big and small screen, with the first as early as 1909 when Edith Storey played young Oliver.

Polanski decided he wanted his Oliver to be "braver" and "less educated" than previous incarnations, plumping for blond 12-year-old Barney Clark for the role from a pool of hundreds.

His casting of Harry Eden as the Artful Dodger provides a less "cheeky chappy" than in Oliver!, but he is still one of the lighter characters in the film.

Sir Ben Kingsley
Sir Ben Kingsley takes on Fagin

Sir Carol also selected his Oliver, Mark Lester, after auditioning more than 250 young hopefuls.

Some adaptations have stuck closer to the original story than others. The plot of the novel is complex and difficult to keep to in its entirety for the average two-hour film.

David Lean's 1946 version stayed true to the original story, while both Polanski and Sir Carol Reed missed out chunks of the story and the major character of Monks, who is a key figure in young Oliver's life.

Keeping the spirit

Oliver's real background remains an unexplored mystery in the two films, while the book delves into his real parentage in more detail.

Polanski, along with his screenwriter Ronald Harwood, opted to eliminate the sub-plots of the book and concentrate on the main storyline and keeping the spirit of the novel.

What Polanski offers is a darker look at poverty in Victorian London, which saw orphans such as Oliver Twist forced into workhouses from a tender age.

Despite being made 40 years apart, Sir Carol and Polanski's movies have a similar feel in terms of sets, largely because of the detail provided by Dickens about the contrast between industrial London and its slums.

Literary and film criticism is divided on whether the character of Fagin has a heart and loves the urchins he trains as pickpockets or is purely using them to feather his nest further.

An almost unrecognisable Sir Ben Kingsley takes the role of Fagin in Polanski's film, playing it as a decrepit miser feigning a love for his charges.

He said he based his character on photographs of 19th Century Jews he found in Krakow when he was filming Schindler's List.

"I loved them and wanted them to be part of my Fagin too," said Sir Ben.

The directors both chose to skip over race issues in their films, despite Dickens constantly referring to Fagin as "The Jew".

Monster role

Both Sir Ben and Ron Moody play Fagin in an almost pantomime fashion - invaluable in attracting more orphans into his confidence.

Polanski stated he wanted his film to be a humorous tale of good fighting evil.

Both films feature a largely British cast with Jamie Forman taking over the role of Bill Sykes, played so memorably in the musical by Oliver Reed.

Oliver Reed
Oliver Reed was Bill Sykes in the musical Oliver!
Neither have much to endear them to viewers - though Foreman makes his Sykes even more of a monster.

Whether Polanski's film can get close to the five Oscars Oliver! won remains to be seen.

But it is unlikely to be the last time a director wants to take on the challenge of putting one of Dickens' most famous characters on the big screen.

Polanski screens Twist in Prague
25 Sep 05 |  Entertainment
Roman Polanski: Film's dark prince
22 Jul 05 |  Entertainment

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