Which Is The Best Oliver Twist Adaptation?

Out of the numerous adaptations of Oliver Twist which ones stand above the rest?

Oliver Twist is probably Charles Dickens’s most well-known work, as such, it has been adapted numerous times over the years in various mediums. 

Some adaptations try to be as faithful as possible to Dickens’s novel, while others draw inspiration from his concept or characters to create something new and original. 

But which adaptations are the best?   


Twist 2021 sky original

Sky’s 2021 film Twist is a modern retelling of Charles Dickens’s classic novel. Set in present-day London, Twist follows the story of Oliver Twist who has been living on the streets since his mother’s death a few years prior. 

Unlike the sweet Oliver in Dickens’s novel who is quite naive and doesn’t know how to survive on his own, Twist’s Oliver is full of street smarts and a talented graffiti artist and free runner, frequently using his abilities to outrun the law. 

In fact, it is while he’s escaping some police officers that he bumps into the Dodge and Batesy who quickly introduce him to Fagin. Through this chance meeting, Oliver gets pulled into a revenge plot, art heist, and blossoming romance.

Compared to the novel, which is driven by drama and tragedy, Twist is more action-based, with the plots and heists becoming the focus of the narrative rather than the characters themselves. 

The free-running skills shown by Rafferty Law (yes, Law as in Jude Law) as Oliver and Nancy, aka Red, played by Sophie Simnett are impressive, creative, and highly entertaining, which should come as little surprise as all the parkour was coordinated by Australian free-runner Dominic Di Tommasso. 

Nancy who has been reimagined as Red in Twist has been aged down, becoming Oliver’s romantic love interest in the film instead of a young boy’s crush as she is in the musical Oliver! Changes were also made to Dodge and Sikes, who were both gender-swapped for this version of the story, played by Rita Ora and Lena Headey respectively. 

Headey does a good job and comes across as menacing and manipulative, though I feel she lacked some of Bill Sikes’s unpredictable rage. Rita Ora is fine as Dodge pulling off some of the charms the Artful Dodger is known for, but completely lacks any of the charisma.

Michael Caine as Fagin is about what you would expect, though personally, I didn’t like the decision to make his motivation for the heist revenge, I would have preferred it if he was simply fuelled by greed and the desire to escape any debts he may have.

While Twist is an entertaining watch, one thing I thought was severely lacking was any emotional depth, the film is more focused on being family-friendly than other tellings of the story and as such there are no deaths or overly depressing moments which I think makes the film quite one-note. 

The film makes a fair attempt at converting the story for the present-day with good music and character traits that make sense but overall lack substance.

Oliver Twist-1982

animated oliver twist 1982 film poster

This made-for-television adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel was part of a series of animated Dickens adaptations made by Burbank Films Australia between 1982 and 1985.  The animation condenses Dickens’s story to just over an hour, presenting Oliver’s journey from the workhouse to the streets, to being shot, and finally to find a permanent home.

While the film attempts to be as comprehensive as possible, including as many details as it can in the limited time frame, the resultant dialogue is expository and stilted; however, the voice actors make an effort to deliver it with conviction.

Presuming that the voice actors are Australian themselves, they deliver the lines with exaggerated cockney, or posh English accents, it's almost as though they have been directed to make the accents as thick as possible in case anyone was doubting where the characters are from. This is a little distracting at first, but you soon get into the flow of it.

The animation style is not quite as clean or detailed as other films made at the same time, and I think this contributes to the lack of emotion I felt from the characters. Bill Sikes in particular didn’t seem very menacing or intimidating at all (though Bullseye, his dog, did), I think this was partly due to the voice actor as well who just didn’t quite seem able to get to that place.

Overall, the film tries hard to stay faithful to the source material, which is appreciated, and does it best considering it’s a TV film with a more restricted budget for animation than feature films.

Oliver Twist-2005

oliver twist 2005 film shot

Although Oliver Twist is a very English novel, this adaptation of the story is actually an international effort as an English, Czech, French, and Italian co-production. 

Despite the majority of the film being set in London, it was filmed in the Czech Republic. The film is directed by Roman Polanski, known for films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Pianist.

Polanski’s version of Oliver Twist is slightly grittier and grimmer in tone than other adaptations. Unlike the musical Oliver! where some of the darker moments are broken up by songs, there’s a constant feeling of depression in Polanski’s film. 

However, somehow there is very little tension; the film seems to stick to the same tone throughout with no peaks or troughs to liven things up, resulting in a film that is not as interesting as it has the potential to be.

Having said that, most of the acting is very good, Ben Kingsley kills it as Fagin, he’s perfect in the role, and Leanne Rowe as Nancy and Jamie Foreman as Bill Sykes both do a great job too, though I would have liked it if Foreman had been a little more extreme with his interpretation of Sykes. 

The real surprise was Mark Strong who steals every scene he’s in as Toby Crackit, it’s as though he doesn’t realise he’s in a Polanski film and instead acts as though he’s in a musical, a breath of fresh air in an otherwise deliberately depressing film.

Harry Eden plays the Artful Dodger well, but I think both he and Barney Clark, who plays Oliver, possibly struggled with the Dickensian dialogue as it didn’t always come across as natural as the adult actors.

Barney Clark doesn’t exactly have much to work with as Oliver is not being given too many lines and Oliver Twist is a bit of a wet rag as a character anyway, he does an okay job but the performance could be better.

The screenplay, written by Ronald Harwood, omits Oliver’s stay with Rose after he is shot and introduces a different subplot of Fagin and Sykes planning to murder him instead, I think this works well and ups the stakes (despite the strange lack of tension I mentioned earlier). 

It also shows Oliver’s final meeting with Fagin from the novel to end the film, providing a satisfactory sense of closure for Oliver and the audience.

Oliver! – 1968

Oliver! the musical snap shot

Oliver! Carol Reed’s film musical adaptation of Lionel Bart’s stage musical of the same name, is probably the most iconic adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel. Although set in London, like 2005’s Oliver Twist the film was not shot on location but at Shepperton Studios. It was also heavily influenced by the 1948 non-musical adaptation.

Largely due to the fact that it’s a musical, Oliver! Does a magnificent job at capturing the emotional turmoil of the characters while also seamlessly intertwining more light-hearted humorous moments. 

Ron Moody and Jack Wild as Fagin and the Artful Dodger respectively are joys to watch and it’s no wonder they were nominated for several awards for their performances, with Ron Moody winning a golden globe. 

Shani Wallis is also excellent as Nancy giving a charismatic emotional performance. Possibly because of this, Mark Lester’s performance as Oliver appears even more wooden than it might have otherwise, plus Lester did not do his own singing and was dubbed by the music arranger’s daughter Kathe Green, not uncommon for films, but Green wasn’t even credited until 20 years later in 1988 which irks me.

Maybe it’s because I grew up with him so there’s a sense of nostalgia around him, but I have to say I think Oliver Reed’s performance as Bill Sikes is my favourite interpretation of the character. He truly feels threatening and unpredictable, yet also manages to be vulnerable after he realises what he has done to Nancy.

Dodger and Fagin are also more sympathetic in this film, both showing genuine concern for Oliver, with Dodger repeatedly trying to help him in getting away from both the police and Bill. 

In other adaptations, Dodger seems content to let Oliver be caught and shows no concern for him at all. Perhaps the addition of a little empathy to their characters is why they both get a slightly more positive ending, walking into the sunset to continue their lives of crime rather than being seen sent to prison or hanged.

The choreography of all the dance sequences is also amazing, and the choreographer, Onna White, deserved the honorary academy award they received. This is aided by Carol Reed’s direction allowing the scenes to really pop.

Oliver & Company – 1988

Disney's oliver and company animated film

Oliver & Company is a 2D children’s animated film made by Disney, inspired by Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Disney’s adaptation reimagines Oliver as an abandoned kitten in New York who falls in with a group of dogs working as pickpockets for their human owner Fagin, who is in debt to the villainous Bill Sykes. 

While on his first outing as a pickpocket, Oliver gets picked up by Jenny, a kind girl struggling with loneliness due to her parents being away. Soon enough though, Oliver involuntarily ends up back with the gang where Fagin has the idea to hold him for ransom, putting Jenny in danger in the process.

Oliver & Company is a sweet enough story, but I wasn’t enamoured with the songs, I think they could have been better lyrically. I did like Disney’s characterization of Oliver though, he is written with much more confidence than in the novel and other adaptations, so his voice actor Joey Lawrence had more to work with and delivers a good performance. 

Dodger, voiced by Billy Joel, is aged up and is more of an adult role model to Oliver as opposed to a peer, I would have preferred Dodger to only be slightly older than Oliver, but I understand that aging him up worked better for Disney’s interpretation. 

Fagin, voiced by Dom Deluise, is a more sympathetic character in this adaptation coming across as more tragic than greedy, especially due to the change in power dynamics between him and Bill Sykes. 

Whereas in the book Fagin and Sykes have a more equal partnership relying on each other to maintain their livelihoods, in Oliver & Company Fagin seems to be deeply indebted to Sykes who is alluded to be part of the mafia and well off financially.

Twist – 2003

Twist 2003 canadian film poster

The Twist is a modern reimagining of Oliver Twist, with Dodger rather than Oliver at the center of the narrative. A Canadian drama, Twist follows Dodge a sex worker and heroin addict working for Fagin and the allusive Bill Sykes. 

Dissatisfied with his life and no longer wanting to work as a prostitute, Dodge spends as much time as possible in the café where  Bill’s girlfriend Nancy works. 

However, he is soon turfed out; to avoid working Dodge recruits Oliver who is new in town and a product of the foster care system, having been passed around from family to family since he was young. 

While Oliver seems like a way for Dodge to delay work and avoid a beating from Sykes, he becomes the catalyst that brings his whole world down around him.

Twist is a very interesting interpretation of Dickens’s characters, taking some of the homoerotic subtexts from the book and building on them, bringing them to the forefront. It is not exactly an enjoyable watch as the more you learn about Dodge (played by Nick Stahl) the more tragic he becomes. 

If you’re hoping for a neat and happy ending like the novel, then you’re better off watching the musical because you certainly won’t get that with Twist. Having said that it is a captivating piece of drama and worth the watch if you’re prepared for a grittier, depressing story.

Oliver Twist – 1997

disney's live action oliver twist

Another Disney adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic story, only this time it’s live-action. After being thrown out of the workhouse, Oliver travels to London to find his family; the only clue he has is his mother’s locket. However, when he gets there he meets Dodger, and his initial plans get put on hold as he falls into a life of pickpocketing and thievery under Fagin’s guidance. 

After training for 3 months Oliver gets caught while attempting his first real job, luckily he is acquitted and goes home with a young woman called Rose and her uncle. Although things seem to be looking up for Oliver, Fagin and Bill Sikes can’t risk Oliver peaching on them and deciding they must steal him back. 

This interpretation of Oliver Twist doesn’t feel the need to remain completely faithful to the source material, while the major plot points are mostly kept the same, the film is more action-based than other adaptations. 

Oliver is also different, unlike other versions of the character where he seems helpless in every situation and just has to put up with things happening, this Oliver (played by Alex Trench) is bolder and highly motivated to find any remaining family he may have. 

While I think this improves the character and gives him more personality than the damp rag he is usually portrayed as, it could have been enhanced further if Trench’s acting was less wooden, like Mark Lester in Oliver! Trench doesn’t always deliver the dialogue naturally.

Oliver Twist – 1948

oliver twist 1948 black and white film

A British classic and the second Charles Dickens novel to be adapted by director David Lean (following a 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations), Oliver Twist 1948 is one of the most critically acclaimed versions of Dickens’s tale and came 46th in the British Film Institute’s (BFI) list of top 100 British films. 

Widely regarded as a fresh take on the turmoil of poor orphan Oliver, Lean’s film was received favourably, despite some backlash over Fagin’s looks, and was heavily influential to the adaptation of the 1968 musical Oliver! 20 years later.

The film has an impactful start with Oliver’s pregnant mother dragging herself to the gates of the workhouse begging to be let in. It immediately gives the film a darker and more gothic tone, which is revisited later on when the nurse who attended her and stole her locket (Oliver’s only form of identification) dies but is not consistent throughout the film. 

Lean also includes quotations directly from Dickens’s novel in the film, however, these only appear in the first half which is also a little inconsistent. The Oliver in this adaptation, played by John Howard Davies, has more wit about him than in other versions, making him a more active character to follow rather than a subject that simply has things happen to him. 

Alec Guinness delivers exactly the kind of performance you would expect from him as Fagin but doesn’t add anything new to the character (however, this was 1948 so it was probably more innovative at the time), and Robert Newton is suitably menacing as Bill Sykes. 

Kay Walsh’s portrayal of Nancy is good but, in my opinion, is let down slightly by the script. Nancy doesn’t interact with Oliver much initially and doesn’t show much sympathy towards him; this makes her change of heart come across as rather sudden and out of character.

However, Nancy’s murder is excellent (well, not excellent, but you know what I mean), relative to other adaptations, I think Lean’s film portrays Bill’s killing and Nancy’s dying in a simple yet harrowing way. 

The film is also one of the few versions of the tale to include the secondary antagonist Monks without making it feel as though he is shoe-horned in, which is appreciated. Overall, the film is solid with good direction from Lean and a talented cast, the script just needed to be honed a little more.

Oliver Twist is a timeless tale with a sympathetic protagonist, interesting characters, and poignant social commentary. It has clearly inspired many creators and most likely will continue to do so in the future.

A graduate from UEA with a BA in English Lit. with Creative Writing. An aspiring writer and editor, loves anime/manga, films and books.

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