The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, November 04, 2011

"Oliver" (1968)

One of the finest musicals ever created, "Oliver" is a slightly lighter version of Dickens' classic "Oliver Twist" with some of the more abusive and horrific aspects toned down, the anti-Semitism considerably curtailed, and a sprinkling of drop-dead brilliant performances (Ron Moody and Fagin, Shani Wallace as Nancy, Jack Wild as Artful Dodger) and one heart-breaking and soleful (and unfortunately once-in-a-lifetime) performance from Mark Lester as the titular orphan, Oliver.

The original novel was subtitled "The Orphan's Progress" and that title is accurate. It is the tale of Oliver, born to an unmarried mother in a poor house in London in the 1800's. He is shuttled from one terrible situation to another until running away to "make his fortune" in London. There, he meets the marvelously amoral young pickpocket Artful Dodger, who introduces him to Fagin, the elderly mentor to a bunch of thieving street urchins, also meeting the monstrous Bill Sykes (Oliver Reed) and his wounded, pathologically optimistic, doomed girlfriend Nancy.

We all know the story that follows, but by making Fagin more empathetic (he has genuine avuncular affection for Artful Dodger, and is no longer the "loathesome Jew" of the novel. Brrrr. Interestingly, several musical cues are reminiscent of "Fiddler on the Roof" such that his ethnicity is clear, but Moody imbues Fagin with a humanity wholly missing from the novel, and his story arc is just marvelous). The art design is magnificent, evoking London from the high to the low, letting us smell the stinking streets while still somehow able to agree with Nancy that it's "A Fine, Fine Life." A small miracle.

Hero's Journey time:

HERO CONFRONTED WITH CHALLENGE: Orphan Oliver must find some way to a decent, moral life.

REJECTS CHALLENGE: There seems no hope for such a happy outcome. There is no clear route to anything but degradation, crime, and eventually prison and decay.

ACCEPTS CHALLENGE: His basic decency and optimism shines forth no matter what the circumstances. His is a pure soul in a warped world.

ROAD OF TRIALS: from Workhouse to London alleys (literally walking a long and painful "road" along the way), learning to be a thief, being caught, tried, adopted into a good home, being kidnapped, forced to steal...oh, I could just go on and on.

ALLIES AND POWERS: Artful Dodger (regardless of introducing Oliver to crime, it is arguable that Oliver might have died or worse had they not met), Nancy, and then various Magistrates, beadles, relatives and charitable souls who lift him slowly from the gutter)

CONFRONTATION WITH EVIL--FAIL: Bill Sykes (and to a lesser degree, the wiley Fagin) are unwilling for Oliver to be rescued from his situation, and when it seems he has "escaped,"drag him even further down. Sykes is a beast with no redeeming qualities other than having all his teeth. Sykes kidnaps Oliver with the help of Nancy.

DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL--It seems that Oliver will never escape the "trap" of poverty and crime.

LEAP OF FAITH--Again, his pure spirit shines forth from the very beginning, and inspires Nancy to take steps to save him, even though they ultimately cost her own life.

CONFRONT EVIL--SUCCEED Sykes is undone as the entire community rises up to prevent his escape. Oliver is rescued and restored to his rightful station in life.

STUDENT BECOMES THE TEACHER. Well...Oliver has touched the hearts of all around him. Arguably, Artful Dodger and Fagin are still the same rascals they were at the beginning (an utterly charming scene) so we can just take this step to represent Oliver's rise in station, and confidence that he will become a fine man and pillar of his community.

It is instructive to read "Oliver Twist" and then to watch the musical, to see the choices made, and theorize about why they were or were not appropriate. Get to work!


Learn to apply Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey model to your writing...or your life! Totally Free Lifewriting Tips!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For really deep hero's journey, see Kal Bashir's 2000+ stage version at