When Cameron Mackintosh – megaproducer of huge hit musicals such as The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables and Cats – announced that not only was he bringing Oliver! to Broadway but was also planning a remake of the film version of that same musical, the musical theater fandom, true to its habits, immediately united behind the opinion that this was the most unthinkable idea ever. The 1968 film is a masterpiece, it raked the Oscars! went all the fan forums. Nobody can top Shani Wallis' Nancy! Cammack's just after the money! The Oliver! musical film of 1968 seems so dearly loved by everybody and it is true that it collected an impressive number of awards (including Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, and a Golden Globe for Best Film – Musical or Comedy), which made me wonder what indeed might be Mr Mackintosh's motivations behind a remake. Well, I watched the film and my extremely unpopular opinion is: Mr Mackintosh, please get that remake going!
As you will know if you've read the Dickens novel, seen any version of the musical or read my Oliver Twist post, the story follows young orphan Oliver Twist from the misery of a parish workhouse to the dangers of London's East End, eventually leaving him to the care of kind, long-lost relatives. For understandable reasons, the musical simplifies the plot somewhat and cuts some of the characters that show up near the end of the book. However, Oliver does encounter e.g. London's quickest pickpocket the Artful Dodger, his employer Fagin, soulless criminal Bill Sikes and his devoted girlfriend Nancy who comes to a tragic end.
The beginning of the film is actually quite promising. Like the stage musical, it opens with the hungry workhouse boys singing Food Glorious Food, and the way the grey-clad, depressed children shuffle in unison with their food bowls held out makes quite an impact. The next musical number, where Mr Bumble the workhouse beadle walks Oliver down the snowy streets announcing there's a Boy For Sale, is the best moment in the film if you think in terms of capturing the spirit that Dickens was going for in his book. However, Mr Bumble's actor Harry Secombe gets all the glory in this little scene because by now it has become very clear that Mark Lester, our Oliver, can't act for dear life. From here, the film just goes downhill.
|Mark Lester's Oliver asks for more|
Alright, so Mark Lester isn't quite up for the job of being the main character. Can we find any others in the cast who could save this film? I already mentioned Jack Wild, and he certainly lights up the screen every time he appears with his adorable top hat. He's got the voice, he's got the look, and he's got the moves. So does Ron Moody, who reprised his role of Fagin which he had originated in the stage version. Moody handles the transition from stage to screen expertly, and he has great chemistry with Jack Wild's Dodger.
|Two great talents at work: Ron Moody as Fagin and Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger|
In my opinion, a really good film adaptation of a musical balances on the fine line between respecting the original stage version and bringing in something new. While us musical fans are anxious to see that a film musical stays true to our favourite songs and characters, it is equally important that the filmmakers take into account how different the stage and the film are as story-telling media, and try to make the most of the cinematic tools. Many things look great on stage but don't serve any purpose on screen – such as the numerous, never-ending, over-choreographed dance numbers in the Oliver! film. Of course, dance numbers are an integral part of most musicals and I probably don't respect then enough because I understand very little about that art form myself, but the way every single group scene in this movie turns into an elaborate dance sequence where every movement is choreographed, it just annoys me. They could have easily shortened some of those massive dance routines and kept in My Name instead, because it builds up Bill Sikes' character so well that I get chills each time I listen to it, and if Bill doesn't get his song we really don't get to understand what lies in the depths of his pitch black soul.
All the things that I've complained about so far – the casting and acting choices and the treatment of the musical numbers – are really connected to one major issue: the overall style of the film. It seems to me that the production team was going for a nice, family-friendly version of Oliver Twist's story. Why else would they make Nancy into every little girl's role model and refuse to show us what a gritty place the poor side of London really was, instead giving us a humongous, over-long dance party where we see members of every possible profession smiling and skipping around, apparently just to show the newly-arrived Oliver what a charming, welcoming place Victorian London is?
I refuse to give Oliver! the excuse of "it was made in the sixties so it's just a little outdated from a modern point of view". Sound of Music and My Fair Lady are both film musicals made in the sixties, and they are still great to watch. Many people seem to appreciate Oliver! out of nostalgia, and I can understand them. I grew up with the Sound of Music film like many people probably grew up with this film, and I can't honestly say whether I find it hard to criticize my childhood favourite simply because of the golden gleam of nostalgia or because it really is that good. So fans of the 1968 Oliver! film, I'll gladly let you continue loving that film, if you let me anticipate eagerly the remake that Mr Mackintosh promised.