Plot: This glorious musical (and Oscar-winner for Best Picture) is based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Oliver is an orphan who so outrages the staff at the orphanage by asking for a second bowl of gruel that he is sold to an undertaker as an apprentice. He runs away from the abuse, and is taken in by a group of child pickpockets, led by Fagin (Ron Moody). He is arrested for picking the pocket of a wealthy man, who becomes interested in him, and takes him home. Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), a murderous thief who works with Fagin, kidnaps Oliver to prevent him from giving away the details of their enterprise. Bill kills his girlfriend, Nancy, when she tries to help Oliver escape. Bill himself is killed, and Oliver is returned to his friend, who turns out to be his uncle.
Discussion: Dickens wanted his readers to contrast the harshness of the approved establishment, the orphanage and apprentice system, with the friendly welcome of the street people’s demimonde. Fagin and the boys give Oliver his first sense of family, singing warmly to him that he is to “consider yourself one of us!” They are the first to see him as an individual instead of as a troublesome animal, and the first to give him any affection.
Note how some of the characters calibrate their moral choices. Bill Sikes seems entirely amoral, willing to do anything to further his own interests. Mr. Bumble and Mr. Sowerberry, both considered by themselves and those around them to be sterling, law-abiding citizens, are not much better. Like Bill, they have no compunctions about putting their own interests first, no matter what the cost is to others. But Nancy and Fagin have limits. They will engage in small crimes, but have some sense of fundamental integrity.
Parents may want to talk to older kids about Nancy’s relationship with Bill, and about the mistakes people often make when they think that loving someone can change them, or that someone who abuses others will not ultimately abuse them as well.
Questions for Kids:
· Why does Mr. Sowerberry insult Oliver?
· Oliver wants someone to “buy” his happy moment and save it for him. If you could pick a day to have saved that way, what day would you choose?
· Why did Nancy stay with Bill?
· Why does Mr. Brownlow think that he can trust Oliver? How does that trust make Oliver feel?
· What would Mr. Brownlow have done if he had not turned out to be related to Oliver?
Connections: David Lean’s superb “Oliver Twist” (with a long-delayed release in the United States for what was considered an anti-Semitic depiction of Fagin) is an outstanding version of this story, which was also adapted by Disney as “Oliver & Company.” Oliver Reed (nephew of director Carol Reed) played Athos in “The Three Musketeers.”