Now that I finished Oliver Twist for my Early Victorian Novels class, I can finally write this meta! Time to dive into the world of kitty!Oliver and Dickens!Oliver and see what got cut from the original story and how Disney…. Disney-fied it.
Oliver Twist is a novel by Charles Dickens, written in the first half of the 1800s. It’s really important because this was a time the novel was still “developing.” Jane Austen followed by the romanticist movement of the previous era had just given the novel as a genre some legitimacy. Previously, people read biographies and epic poems (think Ancient Greece and Rome), and books on history. Fiction and novels were not what they are today. So when Austen and her fellow compatriots began to embrace fiction and write stories (not that they were the first), the novel actually started to take off.
Oliver Twist is a mixture of realism and melodrama all wrapped up in a pretty package. Without further ado, let’s begin.
Once Upon a Time in London New York City
Dickens set his story in London because that’s where he was and he was trying to tackle the problems of English society (workhouses, utilitarianism, New Poor Law, crime). Disney relocated kitty!Oliver to Manhattan because why not? We’re a “big old, bad old, tough old town, it’s true,” so all the clichés of living in New York must be enough to substitute for 1800s London.
I want to start by comparing the openings. Oliver and Company opens with a depressing montage and the song Once Upon a Time in New York City. Below is that montage—your heart will break.
If you know anything about Oliver Twist, you know he’s an orphan, as is kitty!Oliver. You probably assume he’s had a tough life (because why else would there be a book about him), as has kitty!Oliver with his never getting adopted and living on the streets and getting caught in the rain.
Dickens’ book opens with this massively long sentence: Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small—to wit, a workhouse and in this workhouse was born, on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events, the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.
What a doozy! Oh and the chapter title is: Treats of the place where Oliver Twist was born; and of the circumstances attending his birth.
If we compare these beginnings they both introduce us to our Olivers at the earliest stages of their lives. I found it interesting that Disney sets up the location right away as Manhattan and gives us a big long song about how hard it is to live here, while Dickens writes later more about the circumstances in England and the laws that hinder growth. For Dickens, these problems could exist anywhere. It just so happens right now they’re existing in England. Disney, on the other hand, says this is just Manhattan so get used to it.
Cause a dream’s no crime
Not once upon a time
Once upon a time in New York City
Both Olivers have the same dream—they just want someone to love them. Which makes sense since that’s what all kids (and cats, let’s be honest) want. There is one more part of the song I want to cover, that’s not apparent unless if you’ve read the book.
So, Oliver, don’t be scared
Though yesterday no one cared
They’re getting your place prepared
One of the main plot threads in Dickens’ book is who Oliver’s father is, which, from watching the movie, you know was completely cut out (as was kitty!Oliver’s mother). Spoiler alert: though Oliver was born in a poor workhouse, his father was middle class and Oliver is actually entitled to some of the inheritance. We discussed in class how Oliver grows up among the poorest of poor, a ward of the state, and is surrounded by criminals and yet he speaks like he received a middle class education. Disney does that too with this line: find a way to stay alive, cool cat in a cruel world, knows good from bad. How does he know good from bad? No one ever taught him. kitty!Oliver is also naturally good. This is a flaw of melodrama.
Melodrama’s so much fun
In black and white for everyone to see
(Billy Joel’s song Zanzibar—Joel voices Dodger in the film)
Dickens embraces melodrama, creating his characters extremely good or extremely evil. As a result, Twist is totally pure of heart and innocent and also speaks like a gentleman at age eight. But, since Oliver’s father is middle class, Oliver’s diction could be a result of predestination of some sort. Oliver and Company certainly toes that line with “They’re getting your place prepared.” Oliver was always meant to have a family and be loved.
In both versions, (The Artful) Dodger is the first member of Fagin’s crew that Oliver meets. It happens much sooner for kitty!Oliver—whereas Dickens!Oliver was relocated from one workhouse to another, nearly sold into a dangerous chimney sweep apprenticeship, and then sent to work for a gravedigger. There, Dickens!Oliver meets Noah, someone I’m coming back to because ohmygosh did Disney have fun with that one. After an incident at the house, Dickens!Oliver runs away to London and meets Dodger on the road.
Disney really one kept one piece of Fagin’s crew in tact and it is this sentiment: “You’re in the gang now. The gang is family.”
Dickens does not shy away from portraying criminals in his novel, something Disney definitely did. They whitewashed Fagin’s crew instead of embracing the corruption. Disney’s crew of pickpockets steal junk that no one would want. Dickens’ are the real deal. The plot of the adaptation really diverges as a result.
Fagin is transformed into a terrified, shaking, fearful little man at the sight of Sykes. Sykes is Fagin’s buddy in the book, and now he’s a scary loan shark that wants his money repaid. Props to Disney for trying to flesh out some of Dickens’ black and white characters, but since we never learn what Fagin needed the money for (dog food?), the effort falls flat.
The Disney-fied version of Fagin’s crew in the film are just a bunch of cute dogs that crack jokes.
However, both Olivers do not immediately grasp they are a crew of pickpockets. When they get taken out for their first job, it goes horribly wrong—more on that to come.
Fagin and his crew ultimately become heroes in the Disney story, so where Dickens got to give everyone their comeuppance in the book, only Sykes is punished (getting run over by a train).
Oliver Gets Rich!
Oliver gets taken out on the job and botches it. In the book, Oliver gets arrested, wrongly accused of stealing. He goes to jail, but the guy he “robbed” has a change of heart and wishes he be let go. Oliver goes home with Mr. Brownlow, a wealthy dude, where he would have lived happily every after if not for Fagin being terrified Oliver would squeal on them. As a result, Fagin has Oliver kidnapped and brought back to him. Later, they take him to rob a house since he’s small enough to fit through the window. Oliver gets shot trying to warn the family and is left to bleed out in a ditch before he comes to and goes back to the house he tried to rob for care. Miraculously, these people fall in love with him, too, and want to keep him forever.
Okay, so. What did Disney do with this? Disney decided to kinda mush all those nice rich people into one: Jenny. I have no idea what Fagin’s crew were trying to steal from Jenny and her butler since Tito was just messing with the car’s wires, but Jenny finds Oliver and dubs him the cutest kitty ever and takes her home with him.
Fagin’s crew, of course, think Oliver is going to be tortured and they vow to rescue him. Here, Fagin’s crew think they’re doing something good, that they’re saving their friend. None of that is in play in Dickens’ story. Dickens’ crew were just trying to save their own skin by making sure Oliver didn’t squeal.
Back to Oliver, he has a grand old time with the rich folk in both versions.
Remember when I mentioned Noah? Lets go back to that. Georgette is Jenny’s pet dog and she has a very high opinion of herself. She also does not like sharing. She’s bitterly jealous Jenny has a new favorite. She is the only antagonist kitty!Oliver faces in his new life.
She is a very loose interpretation of Noah Claypool. Noah is this awful little shit that had been apprenticing for the same gravedigger Oliver was sent to. He’s also jealous of Oliver getting more attention and praise than he. Georgette helps Dodger and co. break Oliver out, thus returning him to Fagin so she can reclaim Jenny’s attention. Similarly, Noah starts the fight that prompts Oliver to run away to London, where he gets wrangled into Fagin’s crew. Georgette and Noah are both vessels that deliver Oliver to Fagin.
Noah really amused me when he later joined Fagin’s crew and I thought turning him into Georgette was hilarious.
Disney greatly condensed the timeline and made heroes out of villains in this adaptation. But if you look hard enough, there are small homages to Dickens’ story that made me grin.
1. Nancy was turned into Rita. Don’t talk to me about Nancy because I have a lot of feels. Nancy is part of Fagin’s crew and she’s intensely loyal, but also kind to Oliver. Rita is asked by Sykes’ bodyguard dogs why she stays with the gang just like Nancy is begged by Dickens!Oliver’s middle class friends to leave and start over somewhere else. Rita is also kind to Oliver when he arrives and is the only one to express doubts over taking Oliver from Jenny’s house when she sees him all content and sleeping. Similarly, but much darker, Nancy hopes Oliver died the night he got shot so he would be free from having to come back to Fagin’s crew.
2. There is this pointless guy in the novel that says Oliver is going to be hanged. Over and over again. The movie makes no mention of this, but we do see Tito and Fagin hanging on two separate occasions. It amused me.
3. The portrait. When Dickens!Oliver first stays with Mr. Brownlow after he gets sprung from jail, he becomes enamored with a portrait, not knowing it is his mother. In the movie, Jenny has many portraits on her walls of dogs and Francis stops to admire them.
4. The opening montage plays itself similarly to Dickens!Oliver’s trip to London. He’s ignored on the roads and sometimes harassed by people, much like no one stops for kitty!Oliver. When a little boy wants to play with him and is pulled away, it is akin to Dickens!Oliver finally getting help from an old woman. Then there’s a line about how it was the first nice thing to ever happen to Oliver and cue Dickens’ melodrama.
5. Sykes in the Disney film has two scary dogs as his henchmen. Dickens!Sykes has a pet dog that he abuses constantly.
6. Perhaps Oliver Twist is most famous for asking for seconds. In the Disney film, Jenny gives Oliver more without even asking.
Oliver and Company isn’t even an hour and a half. It’s a very short film that greatly condenses Dickens’ 168,000 word book. As a result of altering Fagin and Sykes’ characters, while excluding others like Monks, the story changed drastically. We no longer have the hunt for Oliver’s father and Monks trying to conceal Oliver’s true parentage, but a story more about Fagin trying to repay a debt to Sykes by kidnapping and then ransoming Oliver to do it.
Disney’s attempt to flesh out Fagin might have worked if they hadn’t made him have a change of heart so quickly. In the end, Disney’s interpretation of the characters are just as flat as Dickens’.
Have you read Oliver Twist? What do you think of Oliver & Company?