Settling up the score: Adapting Dickens – Oliver!

Untitled design (12)

Perhaps the most (in)famous Dickens musical adaptation is the 1968 musical film version of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! directed by Carol Reed. [1]

Neo-victorian critics have criticised Oliver! for presenting a colourful and sanitised version of Dickens’s novel that recasts the abusive Bill Sikes and the exploitative Fagin as loveable rogues.[2] To encourage Oliver to aid Sikes, Fagin leaves Oliver with a book of the ‘history of the lives of great criminals’ (186)[3]:

The terrible descriptions were vivid and real, that the sallow pages seemed to turn red with gore,and the words upon them to be sounded in the ears if they were whispered in hollow murmurs by the spirits of the dead (186)

The morally unimpeachable Oliver thrusts the book away from him ‘in a paroxysm of fear’ (186) and ‘prayed Heaven to spare him from such deeds, and rather to will that he should die at once, than be reserved for crimes so fearful and appalling’ (186).

Compare this with Oliver!’s jovial pickpocketing game in ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’:

Benjamin Poore discusses the loss of threat in the musical adaptation of
Oliver Twist in ‘Re-viewing the Situation’ (2008/9), in which he argues: ‘If the melodramatic elements of Dickens’ storytelling presented us with stark choices between innocence and villainy, then Oliver! toned this down and reduced the story’s threat by locating it in a colourful, carnivalesque, imaginary London of the distant past’.[4]

‘I’d Do Anything’ is pitched as a sweet song about loyalty and love instigated by the Artful Dodger and Nancy, yet the lyrics of Fagin’s final verse are deeply troubling. After the comic dance break in which Fagin emerges with a feather in his hair to much laughter, the boys pledge that they would hang to keep Fagin in business:

[FAGIN] Would you rob a shop?

[ALL] Anything!

[FAGIN] Would you risk the “drop”?

[ALL] Anything!

[ FAGIN ] Tho’ your eyes go, ‘pop’

[ALL] Anything!

[FAGIN ] Would you come down ‘plop’

[ALL] Hang ev’rything!

The physical description of the effects of hanging upon the body, the ‘eyes go pop’, is disturbingly graphic and jars with the tone of the song. Corporal punishment resulting from criminal activity becomes assimilated into the jovial camaraderie of the boys chorus and the threat is lost.

Relocating Oliver Twist to a ‘colourful, carnivalesque, imaginary London of a distant past’ – as Scott Freer termed it ‘a carnivalesque utopia of the criminal underworld’ [5] – removes much of the novel’s darker elements, such as the domestic abuse that Nancy suffers at the hands of Sikes which is only alluded to in the song As Long as He Needs Me and the overt anti-semitism in the depiction of Fagin who, in the novel, is repeatedly referred to by the epitaph: ‘the Jew’. In the musical, the villains become diluted caricatures of their Dickensian counterparts.  

This is not to say, however, that all of Dickens’s social commentary is lost in the musical adaptation of Oliver Twist. In fact, social evil is pervades the musical, but it is sung and danced about which, to an extent, negates the gravity. Underneath the iconic number ‘Food Glorious Food’ is a critique of workhouse conditions following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834; the enactment of which meant that relief for the poor would no longer be the responsibility of parishes and would only be given at workhouses. The conditions in workhouses were abominable and ‘inmates’, for they are regularly described as prisons for the poor, were tasked with menial labour:

‘Work’ consisted of oakum-picking, stone-breaking, bone-crushing, sack-making or driving the corn mill. Oakum is old rope, sometimes tarred or knotted. These ropes had to be unpicked inch by inch and a day’s work would be to unravel 3 lbs. of rope. The corn mill was driven by inmates walking round on a treadwheel. Women had to do domestic work: scrubbing floors that were already clear, polishing brasses, scrubbing table tops, black-leading kitchen ranges and so on. [6]  

The food inmates received had little nutritional value and was sparse, so that many were starving. In fact, the actual boys of the workhouse probably would not have had the energy to perform the dance break of ‘Food Glorious Food’.

This discrepancy between historical and literary accuracy and musical entertainment is part of
Oliver!’s appeal, argues Poore. The ‘awareness – from the perspective of 1960s – the Victorian Age is long past and those social evils ameliorated’ aids the nostalgic fondness with which Oliver! is received.[7] As a modern audience, we believe that the social evils of the workhouse and child exploitation have disappeared and we can watch Lionel Bart’s Oliver! in all its technicolour glory assured of the fact that things will turn out better for little Oliver. The novel, on the other hand, is not so reassuring.

Next up on the blog: Adapting Dickens: Pickwick – Drood

Interested in seeing how musical theatre treats Dickens’s final, unfinished novel? Get you tickets here

[1] Carol Reed, (dir.), Oliver!, Written and composed by Lionel Bart [1968]. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2006.
[2] See Benjamin Poore,  ‘Re-viewing the Situation: Staging Neo-Victorian Criminality and Villainy after “Oliver!”’, Neo-Victorian Studies 2:1 (Winter, 2008-9), pp. 121-147 and  Scott Freer, ‘The Victorian Criminal Underworld and the Musical Carnivalesque’, Neo-Victorian Studies 2:1 (Winter, 2008-9), pp. 52-77.
[3] Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (London: Penguin, 2007), p. 186.
[4] Poore, p. 133.
[5] Freer, p. 53.
[6] ‘Condition in the Workhouse’, <> [accessed 19.10.2015].
[7] Poore, p. 126.

Leave a Reply