Adapting Dickens… versus “vulgarising Dickens”

// 2 April 2009

BBC - Drama - Oliver Twist - Photo Gallery.jpgThe Big Hollywood blog is up-in-arms about a BBC and PBS co-production of Oliver Twist*.

More specifically, the blog is up-in-arms at the perceived “vulgarising” of the book, by:

Casting Sophie Okonedo as Nancy

Yep, they are arguing that casting a black woman in Oliver Twist is vulgarising!

Now, it’s just plausible that Twist’s villain, the violent and vulgar Bill Sykes, would have an African-English girlfriend, but there’s not a hint of that in Dickens’s novel. Clearly the producers are imposing an ideal of a colorblind society on a story where it adds nothing, is unnecessary, and is quite a distraction for those who know the original novel. The character, however, is as complex and benevolent as in the original story, which is all to the good.

Thus, while being somewhat distracting, the transformation of Nancy into a black woman does no major damage to the story. Other changes, however, do, and some are really contemptible, all pushing in the same direction.

Ohhh, well, at least it wasn’t “contemptible” casting, hey?

I don’t think this is an example of colourblind casting, it’s an adaptation. As in, adapted to chime in more with the audience, not transliterated directly from one type of media to another.

Perhaps Nancy’s character was white in the novel, but, as Feministe points out:

No word on whether it’s a travesty to cast a bunch of tall, fit celebrities with working teeth as Dickensian Londoners.

It’s fundamentally racist that some lack-of-historical accuracy (casting unrealistic white actors) goes unremarked, but casting a black woman in the programme is somehow “imposing an ideal”. Then there’s the patronising point that it “does no major damage to the story”.

Feministe puts it really well:

Not that the selection of an unknown would have made the complaint any less racist, but this isn’t just any actor he’s complaining about. It’s Sophie Okonedo. Dirty Pretty Things Sophie Okonedo. Hotel Rwanda Sophie Okonedo. Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo!

This is not a problem for Masterpiece. This is a coup. It’s like if they’d gotten Emma Thompson for their version of Sense and Sensibility.

So it’s super-racism! Her skin color is not only more important than her ability to act Nancy, her career is beneath his notice because she’s a black woman.

Big Hollywood’s irritating commentary continues:

Among the less offensive changes are the transformation of wealthy benefactor Rose into a Victorian female version of Sam Spade, aided by her housekeeper, Mrs. Bedwin, in forays into the mean streets of London in search of Oliver. Clearly this is an attempt by the producers to create another heroic female figure in the story, and the presentation of Mr. Brownlow, another benefactor, as impatient and too willing to believe Oliver a thief makes the point that much more obvious: Men bad, women good.

Again, I think this change has been made in order to present a story which many modern female viewers would probably find unsatisfactory, not to say irritating, if it was too close to the original.

However, the fact that the blogger equates “stronger female characters” with “portraying men as bad” speaks volumes.

Fagin, brilliantly portrayed by Timothy Spall, is a very obviously bad sort, although the producers seem intent on suggesting that what has driven him to crime is anti-Semitism, more than any choice of his own. They do, however, largely present him in his full, evil selfishness, lest the viewer fail to recognize the immense, consistent horribleness of the male sex.

Although I’ve not seen this programme, I frankly have a hard time believing that “portraying individual male character as bad” (just like he is in the book!) means “denigrating men as a sex”.

The anti-Semitism stuff is probably more related to needing to explain and contextualise the anti-Semitism of the character. Is Big Hollywood really arguing for a completely faithful depiction of Fagin? The Fagin of the original novel was an anti-Semitic stereotype.

Is the blogger arguing that it’d have been better for the BBC/PBS to do a faithful adaptation, anti-Semitism included, than an adaptation which portrays anti-Semitism as a bad thing and, to boot, casts a black woman? Hmm! I know what I’d rather my license fee was spent on…!

The worst of the lot, of course, is Bill Sykes, brilliantly portrayed by Tom Hardy (Band of Brothers). His Sykes is a good deal less powerful and formidable than the character embodied by Oliver Reed’s excellent performance in the theatrical musical film version, Oliver!, but he’s a thoroughly rotten villain, as in the original novel.

Even here, though, the producers introduce elements that water down the power of the original story. The characterization of Sykes continually introduces a strong element of anxiety in the character, suggesting a more modern point of view in which, as with Fagin, people are driven to crime by poverty. This reaches a ridiculous peak when Sykes deliberately hangs himself in one of the film’s climactic moments.

I have a tiny bit of sympathy for the blogger’s annoyance at this change to an actual element of the plot. But only a bit – nothing’s offlimits to change and adaptation, after all. But the idea that people didn’t think crime was related to poverty in Dickens’ time is just silly – it makes me think he’s missed the entire point of Dickens. Although his individual characters were often almost caricatures of good and evil (as in the case of Sykes), the social commentary in his novels is about the causal relationship between poverty and crime.

So, to sum up Big Hollywood’s complaints about this adaption: the cast includes a black woman, female characters have been given more satisfying roles, male violence has been highlighted, it’s been made less anti-Semitic and it suggests that crime and poverty are connected.

I guess there could be a legitimate complaint about some of this, but it’s not one Big Hollywood makes: you could argue that a production like this risks invisibilising racism, sexism and anti-Semitism in the book and in Victorian London, shying away from confronting the reality of history and Dickens to make them less offensive. But, well, it’s a balancing act, isn’t it? It’s a fictional adaptation (and it’s something lots of fictional adaptations do to one degree or another) not a documentary.

*Note: the BBC is referred to as the “UK-government-controlled British Broadcasting Corporation”. Heh!

Comments From You

Janis // Posted 3 April 2009 at 1:41 am

“So, to sum up Big Hollywood’s complaints about this adaption: the cast includes a black woman, female characters have been given more satisfying roles, male violence has been highlighted, it’s been made less anti-Semitic and it suggests that crime and poverty are connected. ”

Yup, I can see why they’d be annoyed, as opposed to the ridiculous dumbing down and …well, in fact completely re-writing of actual HISTORY in the offensive series, ‘The Tudors’.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 3 April 2009 at 10:50 am

Adaptation appears to have been undertaken in a sensitive manner – but wait I forget adaptation highlights male violence against women – can’t have that can we? Such a mythical portrayal means all men are violent. But if that is the case why then are women routinely depicted as victims of men’s casual violence in so-called ‘action films.’ Narry a word of complaint from men when this occurs.

Dickens did caricature many of his fictional characters but his central aim was to raise public awareness of the appalling poverty working-class women and men struggled to endure.

Excellent news Sophie Okonedo has been cast as Nancy. But if this blogger wants 100% accuracy I wonder if any of the ‘poor’ characters will be shown with missing teeth, suffering from malnutrition and this means their being severely underweight not just wearing ragged clothing.

Everytime women are given a little more air-time or given roles which do not depict them stereotypically as either sexualised or victims then immediately some men cry ‘foul’ and ‘what about the men!’

Anne Onne // Posted 3 April 2009 at 12:13 pm

Wow, sometimes I have aesthetic problems with ‘liberties’ taken with a plot, but in the end, it’s an adaptation. By definition, YMMV. Filmed in a different context to the times it was written, for a different audience. And it’s only one of, what, a dozen adaptations of Oliver Twist? If it offends their artistic sensibilities, there are others they may find more to their taste. Not to say someone can’t complain, but to point out that a story which is adapted many times should be adapted in different ways: I certainly don’t want to watch the same identical remake of Oliver Twist over and over again!

However, it’s not really about keeping to the plot, really. Even the original novel’s plot itself is more than ‘these people are all bad because they’re bad and that’s the end of it!’ Full of Victorian cliches it may be, but it’s not without its nuances. Something we seem to want less of in our entertainment these days. Reminds me of the complaints that the new Battlestar Galactica was too nuanced, because it wasn’t just goodies vs evil aliens any more!

But seriously, what’s up with the ‘har this adaptation is so feminazi! men are evil! har har!’. Hilarious. Because in the real story, those male characters’ serious problems weren’t already integral to the plot, or anything. It speaks volumes when someone insists that some minor female characters getting a bit more attention makes the whole male gender look bad (I wonder what gender the angelic Oliver or his benefactor are, hmmm?), and that this is the adaptation’s fault, when the most demonised characters in the plot were always male. Nothing new in how it’s portrayed, except maybe extra depth, which the same reviewer pans.

Because fleshing out female characters makes men look bad, and fleshing out the ‘evil’ male characters makes men look weak and not evil enough, apparently.

It’s fundamentally racist that some lack-of-historical accuracy (casting unrealistic white actors) goes unremarked, but casting a black woman in the programme is somehow “imposing an ideal” Repeated for emphasis. A rather groundbreaking cartoon called ‘Avatar: The last Airbender’ is set in an Asian-inspired world with POC as the main characters. Now they’re filming a film. Guess how non-POC all the cast are? (Dev Patel’s late inclusion doesn’t really help, since he’ll be the one POC, playing the ‘baddie’, theoretically leaving the only POC in the film only playing the antagonists. Great.) Weirder than the idea of casting an originally all white cast as characters that are pretty unequivocally POC, is the level of defense this decision is getting (wonderfully torn apart here ). People go so far to try and justify the idea that POC shouldn’t play anyone, ever, unless they are so explicitly written as being POC as an integral part of the character. Or unless they fulfil the role of POC as we see fit in society (hint: no shortage of POC playing criminals, I see). We just can’t see them as protagonists or nuanced characters, and it sucks.

I would be afraid that an adaptation that uses POC in a situation where there would be overt racism might play the colourblind ‘racism isn’t a part of this plot la la la’ card, which would by my main reason for being wary of how characters are cast, depending on the actual story.

However, one thing’s for sure: we desperately need more varied and nuanced casting of POC at all ages.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 3 April 2009 at 12:42 pm

It’s also historically innaccurate to imagine that Victorian London was exclusively ‘white’. One of the effects of ‘Empire’ was that most major cities had black people in them from the eighteenth century- just look at some Hogarth prints from the 18th C to see the number of black people in everyday scenes, in crowds, and of course as servants. Black people didn’t just disappear in the nineteenth century- although they often were wiped out of history. Just think of the number of family portraits that had their black servants painted out in the later 19th and 20th centuries. So, while Nancy may not have been black in the book, this is not necessarily because Dickens couldn’t have imagined her to be black, or because it wasn’t a realistic option amongst the 19th C London poor.

Secondly, Dickens was an astute social commentator who was well aware that poverty causes crime, and indeed, that is often a central theme of his writing. I haven’t read Oliver Twist in years, but I think to imagine that he (or a large part of Victorian society) simplistically equated crime with innate badness is just innacurate. [as you point out!]

Posie Rider // Posted 3 April 2009 at 2:05 pm

Hear hear! Nobody seemed to mind when the ‘fit’ Keira Knightley was cast as Elizabeth Bennet, or the gorgeous Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane Eyre, a heroine who’s ‘plainess’ is critical to both the plot and the themes of the novel.

Oliver Twist is a work that has been persistently, if not perrenially, vulgarised both in musical adaptations and endless bandwaggon jumping happy-go-lucky adaptations with laughing peasants and smiling beggers. Any adaptation that tries to bring the protest against social conditions at the heart of the novel back to the fore can only be applauded, and a talented actress of any colour playing Nancy is far more in the spirit of Dickens than Keira Knightly et al with a bit of back combing and a ghastly cockerney accent.

Alice // Posted 3 April 2009 at 4:04 pm

Sophie Okonedo was excellent as Nancy; I saw the adaptation.

Also, as Feminist Avatar says, it’s perfectly plausible to portray Nancy as black.

Anna // Posted 3 April 2009 at 5:55 pm

‘I think to imagine that he (or a large part of Victorian society) simplistically equated crime with innate badness is just innacurate’

Victorian society as a whole did; Dickens (amongst a few others – notably Booth, Rowntree and Webb) saw that was not the case and went a long way to challenging the individualistic attitudes of the contemporary period.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 3 April 2009 at 6:30 pm

@ Anna- I don’t think that is entirely true. The wealth of charities, industrial schools, and ‘poor-saving’ organisations, while incredibly paternalistic and dominated by middle-class values, were based on the idea that the the criminal poor could be re-educated. Victorian concepts of poverty are extremely complex and, of course, a lot of it is informed by notion of the ‘deserving poor’, aka widows, children, the disabled and elderly, and the ‘non-deserving poor’, aka people who are able to work, but don’t, and this informed both their reception by the Victorian public, and their punishment by the courts. I think though that Dickens et al were important for highlighting that poverty was caused by the social system and challenging the notion that people’s place in society was entirely their own responsibility/ God-ordained.

maggie // Posted 3 April 2009 at 7:30 pm

What? Sophie was brilliant in this role. The whole production was excellent.

Anji // Posted 3 April 2009 at 11:12 pm

Hang on, where exactly did Dickens specify that Nancy was white? For that matter, where did he specify that any of them were white?!

polly styrene // Posted 4 April 2009 at 7:31 pm

We should probably go further. Why are characters in Dickens played by people who weren’t even alive in the 19th century? And why are adaptations on television at all when that wasn’t even invented then.

I’ve never read Oliver Twist but does it actually say Nancy is white?

Feminist Avatar // Posted 5 April 2009 at 10:40 am

” a couple of young ladies called to see the young gentlemen one of whom was named Bet and the other Nancy. They wore a good deal of hair not very neatly turned up behind and were rather untidy about the shoes and stockings. They were not exactly pretty perhaps but they had a great deal of colour in their faces and looked quite stout and hearty. Being remarkably free and agreeable in their manners Oliver thought them very nice girls indeed. As there is no doubt they were.”

From the google books version of Oliver Twist. This is Nancy’s introduction into the text. There is other descriptions of her clothing in later scenes, but no references to her skin colour that I could see.

On the other hand, Fagan is consistently referred to as ‘the Jew’ in the text (as in the ‘the Jew said’ or ‘the Jew drank some gin’) rather than by his name.

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