Monday, June 17, 2013

Why Oliver Twist is an Ineffective Protagonist

In a half-arsed effort to be more cultured, I decided to read Oliver Twist this week and then compare the book to the Roman Polanski movie.

For the person who has never heard of Dickens in general or Oliver Twist in particular, here is the quick summary:  Orphaned as a newborn, innocent and gentle Oliver Twist finds his way among London thieves and pickpockets, only to find a chance of happiness and family with morally upright benefactors.  Since this is at least a small plot in almost every Dickens book ("morally wealthy and poverty-stricken urchin finds social redemption with charitable middle/upper-class person"), to differentiate this book from all the other adorable protagonists:  Oliver Twist is the one where he says "Please, sir, I want some more."
Wide-eyed, sweet-faced urchins are Dickens' specialty.  If you didn't know that, you do now.

Oliver Twist is considered a classic, and rightly so.  However, I'm 90% convinced that this isn't because of Oliver himself.  This is the book that created the Artful Dodger, the boy-king of the pickpockets who dresses as nicely as can be managed in men's clothes that are far too big for his frame.  (Ah ha, I see what you did there, Mr Dickens.  Symbolism.  Well played, sir.  My high school diploma has come in handy.)  For you 80s kids out there, this is the book that gave us a dog who wears sunglasses and sings Billy Joel songs in New York.
The Artful and the Dodger.  Awesome hat and a cool soundtrack.  Thanks, Mr. Dickens!

This is the book that gives us Fagin, the overlord of the street thieves, who by turns is paternal and generous, only to become vile and threatening.  He rescues boys (and a few girls) from starvation on the street, only to make them into pickpockets, removing forever any possibility of having a "normal" life. 
Fagin, in his crazier mood.

That being said, it's clearly the surrounding characters that made this book the hit it was.  Why do I say that?  There are a few things that I noticed that make Oliver himself a less-than-driving protagonist.

1.  Almost no agency over his own life
I know what some people are going to say:  "But Oliver is a kid.  This book is about how society can corrupt the youngest people and how as such, they are not really guilty."  To an extent, I agree with you.  Dickens was trying to make a point about the "justice" in the justice system.  I get it.  From a literary standpoint, though, can you say you'd rather read a book about pure-as-the-snow Oliver Twist, or about the Artful Dodger, a thief who knows exactly what's going on and makes his own choices about what he will do - even if his adult masters override him sometimes.
Here comes some passive voice which describes our protagonist (I hesitate to say "hero"):  Oliver is farmed out to a baby farm. At nine years old, he is sent to the workhouse.  He is almost apprenticed to a horribly chimney sweep before he is apprenticed to a milquetoast coffinmaker.  After choosing to run away (the first CHOICE he's made), he is drafted into a thieves' gang.  He is arrested and then is rescued by Mr Brownlow.  He is kidnapped back into the gang.  He is sent to rob an old woman with wretched Sykes.  He is shot and once again, is rescued.
There are probably more examples.  It seems like there are only a handful of times where he makes a genuine choice rather than allowing the tide to carry him where it will.  The first time is when the coffinmaker's older apprentice is twitting him about his mother.  Oliver completely loses his sh*t and beats him up.  The fallout from this fight gives him the impetus to run away.  The next time he really shows some spine is when Sykes is trying to force him to break into a house.  He begs not to be forced to rob the house, but is threatened and finally shoved through the window anyway.
Everything that happens to him happens to him.  I felt bad for him while reading, sure, but pity does not a good protagonist make.

2. Lack of "screen" time
For the first half of the book, give or take, the audience follows poor Oliver around, watching him suffer more and more from either neglect or cruelty.  Yet somehow, he manages to retain his goodness and innocence through it all.  Somewhere along the way, I think even the author got sick of his saccharine goodness.  After the ill-starred robbery, Oliver sort of disappears from view, only popping up now and again to have other, more interesting characters comment on how good he is.  Blech.
From the robbery on, we are told about Nancy, a grown street urchin who feel guilt over condemning Oliver to a life of crime.  We are shown - finally - how Sykes really is a douche-canoe.  We learn what Fagin and his adorable gang of urchins is up to.  We see a pair of star-crossed lovers struggle and finally unite.  The bumbling beadle makes a precipitous match.  The bullying apprentice gets in over his head with a life of crime.
Oliver pops in from time to time, usually to say something sweet to Miss Rose, or to pine over the meaningless death of a fellow from the parochial baby farm, but for the most part, he's just the catalyst for a whole lot of fallout for everyone around him.
It's not a good sign if your protagonist can be off-screen and the book progresses meaningfully.

3. No growth, i.e. character arc
Oliver Twist starts off the novel as an innocent, beaten down by circumstances, fighting to be treated kindly.  He is moral, despite having next-to-no religious experience and righteous examples to follow.
He goes through many travails.  What do these experiences do to him?
Oliver is an innocent, formerly beaten down by circumstances, but now being treated kindly.  He is moral, has religion in his life and has righteous examples to follow.  Also, he's the long-lost son of his benefactor and has an aunt/sister figure and money.
So everything really works out for Mr Twist.
But he doesn't really change.
Please don't think that I wanted Oliver to become a hardened criminal; that isn't why people pick up a Dickens novel.  However, when a protagonist's core character is essentially unchanged by the experiences, the story loses some of its punch.
Other people grow.  Nancy (poor, poor Nancy...) decides, despite years of being a street thief and a criminal's consort, that pulling others into it is wrong.
Rose, knowing that her sketchy background would taint the man she married, decides that his love is true enough that he won't regret his decision.
Even Mr Grimwig - who's barely in the book for ten pages - learns that the poor are not necessarily bad, and that good ol' Oliver might actually be worth the air he breathes.
But Oliver?  He's born a saint and he passes through "The End" as a saint. 
If you want an interesting protagonist, make sure they are changed by the experiences they have.

Now, here are the subtle changes made in Roman Polanski's movie:
1. Keep Oliver on the screen.
The whole "Rose" storyline was completely cut out.  It didn't matter, since Rose only appears about 60% of the way through the book and was really just there to be a paragon of virtue.  The story focuses on Oliver and what can he do, and why.  (This alone doesn't make him a more interesting protagonist, but it does make the overall story better.)
2. Show Oliver making decisions for a reason.
Of course, the tot is still a moral innocent.  You can't change that without changing the story.  By removing the "Rose" storyline, the robbery now took place at the only established rich person's house:  Mr. Brownlow's.  When Oliver protests the robbery, you know it's because he feels an obligation and affection for the resident, not because he's a mascot for the Forces of Good.
3. Give the interesting characters more screen time.
When you have Ben Kingsley in your movie, use him.  He can take the dumbest roles and make them awesome.  I'm fairly certain the last scene was inserted just to have Ben Kingsley do some Acting.  Have the Artful Dodger do things - like "dodging" people - rather than pulling mean ol' Noah Claypole (coffinmaker's apprentice) back into the story in the eleventh hour to cause a stir.  Show Nancy and her plight - trapped between the murderous Sykes and her conscience.  By removing non-essential storylines, the director was able to make a stronger storyline.

Despite my criticisms, Oliver Twist is a classic for a reason.  It's just a shame that Dickens' villains and secondary characters tend to be more interesting to read about than his protagonists.  If you read this book, make sure you read it for the overall story, the dichotomy of kindness and cruelty, the plight of the poor and the ineffectiveness of charity.  You'll read about a protagonist; you just won't read about a hero.

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