A new ‘Twist’
Cast and crew find modern relevance in Dickens’ classic
"Oliver Twist" is a tale of survival.
Not just because of the travails of its plucky lead character, but in terms of how the story itself has found an audience with each new generation.
Between film and television, there have been nearly 20 adaptations of "Oliver Twist," Charles Dickens' 1837 novel about an orphan forced to survive among pickpockets and street thugs.
Now the latest twist on "Oliver Twist," which opens nationwide today, has attracted a fresh batch of Oscar winners to the project, including director Roman Polanski and actor Sir Ben Kingsley.
"By definition it's a classic," says Kingsley, who portrays the pickpocket gang leader Fagin.
"Therefore in its authority as a classic it has enormous resonance. I think it was written with great care and compassion, great attention to detail. Like a great piece of music, people don't tend to say, 'Do you think it's relevant that you're playing Beethoven today?'"
The themes of "Oliver Twist" certainly don't seem dated. Even though the piece takes place during a newly industrialized London, it portrays a system in which a poverty-ridden working class inhabits the same streets as prosperous fat cats -- a reality that's often no different now than it was then.
"Unfortunately, the dilemmas still exist, so they do hold true," says Kingsley, who was interviewed along with the cast during roundtable sessions in Manhattan.
"Millions of children are disempowered, and we need to empower them."
When taking on such an iconic literary figure as Fagin, Kingsley had to wrestle with a role that was also prone to caricature -- often as a Jewish stereotype from a bygone era.
Instead of referencing the novel ("I got halfway through it and then I thought, 'Why am I reading this? I'm in it,'" he says) or classic cinematic portrayals of the character by Alec Guinness and Ron Moody, Kingsley drew inspiration from his own experiences.
"The costume came from an antique dealer -- a junk dealer -- I met as a child," he explains. "He sold junk, foreign coins, stamps, old musical instruments, clothing. He was my Fagin as a child. I used to go and buy things from him, and I was fascinated by him. He wore three overcoats tied together with a piece of rope just like I do as Fagin. He was always bent over, and he had a high voice, as I do."
Fagin didn't just take over Kingsley's psyche when the camera was rolling, either.
"He was always in character and was always walking around as Fagin in his costume off the set as well," says 12-year-old Barney Clark, who plays Oliver. "He was always hunched over. He would always talk in his Fagin (voice). His back must have hurt after awhile because he was always hunched over."
The method acting apparently worked.
Kingsley recalls, "(Polanski) said one morning, 'I can't believe that's you inside there.'"
Polanski first brought the idea for an adaptation of "Oliver Twist" to South African screenwriter Ronald Harwood, who previously collaborated with the director (and won an Oscar) for his work on "The Pianist."
"It's a story of a child who survives, and that's why it's eternally attractive and has been since it was written," Harwood says.
"I've known nobody in my life with a life like Roman Polanski and what has happened to him. But he's survived, and survived wonderfully. He's come through. And 'Oliver Twist' is that."
(Polanski was noticeably absent from the press gathering; he has not been back to the United States since 1978, when he fled to Europe to avoid incarceration on statutory rape charges.)
The director endured a harrowing childhood as a Jewish survivor of the Nazi occupation of Poland. (His mother died in Auschwitz.) Harwood says he and Polanski discussed how the mistreatment of the young was the universal theme of "Oliver Twist."
"When there is cruelty to children, it's sort of a constant in human affairs," Harwood says. "That's what touched me the most."
No good or evil
The 70-year-old Harwood remained faithful to Dickens' work, only excising a few subplots and inventing new ways for Fagin and Oliver to share more screen time. He approached the classic not as if these two characters were hero and villain, but rather figures whose lives intersected in sometimes positive ways.
"I don't believe in good and evil in that way," Harwood says. "I like the gray areas in literature. I don't like the idea of villains. I don't think I've ever written a villain. Fagin is a human element on the underbelly of life."
"I have to find the way of being the perfect dark angel in the story of that child's journey," the actor explains. "There are good angels and bad angels, violent angels and comforting angels."
Like Harwood, Kingsley had previously worked with Polanski (in 1994's "Death and the Maiden"). Both writer and actor say they'd team with the fugitive director again in a heartbeat. And neither rule out revisiting another Dickens' production.
"Charles Dickens is one of the authentic geniuses of English literature," Harwood praises. "And 'Oliver Twist' he wrote in his 20s -- which is really quite alarming."