Thursday, September 1, 2022

Literary Movie Church Adaptations Volume 1: Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist
Oliver! (1968)

In A Christmas Carol, solicitors ask Ebenezer Scrooge if he will give to help the poor and he responds, “Are there no prisons? And the Union Workhouses? Are they still in operation? The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” 

When told these institutions were all still in force, Scrooge is relieved. No need for him to take personal action.

Charles Dickens, the author of A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens, was evidently not pleased with contemporary institutions intended to help those in need. During his time, the government ran the prisons, but often the workhouses he decried were privately owned. In his novel, Oliver Twist, the workhouse featured is a “parish workhouse;” it is owned and operated by the Anglican Church.

In 1948, David Lean adapted the novel and directed his version of the story of the orphan who asked for “more.” Oliver’s mother died, leaving her newborn son at an orphanage that also served as a parish workhouse. When the children living there are old enough, they are put to work. The institution is managed by Mr. Bumble the Beadle (Francis L. Sullivan). And yes, I did have to look up the definition of a “beadle.” I'll save you the effort: A beadle is a ceremonial officer in a church institution. A beadle would not necessarily have theological or Biblical training, but would be assigned menial duties. In this case, he was charged with the care of hundreds of young children.

At the age of nine, Oliver (John Howard Davies) is brought before the board of directors of the workhouse. One of the board members states, “Gentlemen, it is my opinion our charity is being taken advantage of. This workhouse has become a source of entertainment to the poorer classes.” Oliver’s “entertainment,” along with other boys in the workhouse, is “picking oakum,” separating loose fiber from nautical ropes in order to use the fiber to make more rope. 

A member of the board tells Oliver, “I hope you say your prayers every night. And say your prayers to the people who feed you and brought you up.” The board wants Oliver to express appreciation for his daily “gruel” (a thin, liquid form of oatmeal boiled in water or milk). Oliver expresses his appreciation in a way that neither the Beadle nor the Matron, Mrs. Corney (Mary Clare).On behalf of the other boys, he asks for a second helping of gruel. The Beadle is outraged and puts Oliver up for sale.

Oliver is purchased by an undertaker, who wants to use Oliver as a “mute,” a silent mourner at the funerals of children. When another worker insults Oliver’s late mother, Oliver goes wild, beating the worker. He's eventually trapped in a coffin and kept there until the Beadle is summoned. The Beadle takes him back, suggesting the problem was that they fed Oliver meat.

Oliver runs away from Mr. Bumble and heads to London, where he's invited to join Fagin (Alec Guinness wearing a ridiculously large nose --  the anti-Semitism isn't subtle) and a gang of orphans who roam the streets steeling whatever they can. Fagin is unscrupulous, vile, and conniving, but he comes off as a better person than the Beadle.

Eventually, Oliver is taken in by a rich benefactor, Mr. Brownlow (Henry Stephenson), who coincidently proves to be Oliver's grandfather. We learn that Mrs. Corney (now Mrs. Bumble) concealed evidence that would have shown Oliver’s heritage. Brownlow promises that Mr. Bumble  will never hold a position of responsibility again. When Bumble complains it was his wife who caused the trouble, Brownlow assures him that, according to the law, he is responsible for his wife’s actions, which brings Bumble’s famous response, “The Law is a ass.”

The story is pretty much the same in director Carol Reed’s 1968 musical version of the story, Oliver!, which won that year's Oscar for Best Picture. Oliver (Mark Lester) still endures great hardship before his eventually happy ending. And the Beadle, Mr. Bumble (Harry Secombe) is still a very poor representative for the church.

We do have a glimpse of a couple of other clerics following a wedding, while the Artful Dodger (Jack Wilde) gives Oliver a tour of London. the two men seem quite unsympathetic to children. Particularly poor children. 

I should have noted that in both films, the workhouse walls are decorated with signs that read “God is Life,” “God is Good,” and “God is Love,” though the authorities of the workhouses do nothing to show the truth of these statements.

Both Bumbles and the workhouses they superintend receive our lowest Movie Churches rating of One Steeple.

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