Oliver Twist and the Art of Adaptation

Posted on 22 February 2012

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By Claire Walla

Everyone knows the story of Oliver Twist, the little orphan who takes to the streets of London and learns to live as a pick-pocket after being punished for asking, “please sir,” for more food.

But, not everyone knows the same version of the Dickensian tale.

The original novel was penned by Charles Dickens in 1838, and since then several adaptations of the original text have made it onto stage and screen. This notion — adaptation — will be the focal point of an event this weekend, Saturday, February 25, at Guild Hall in East Hampton.

After a 7:30 p.m. screening of the 1948 film version of “Oliver Twist” — it is, after all, the 200-year anniversary of the birth of London’s most feted chronicler of lowly street urchins and portly rich folk — actor Alec Baldwin will lead a Q&A with writer Jon Robin Baitz, during which another veritable Dickensian writer will come to the forefront of their discussion: David Lean, the man who adapted the book for the silver screen.

“[Adaptation] is particularly difficult with Dickens,” Baitz said in an interview this week.

A celebrated writer in his own right, Baitz’s play, “Other Desert Cities,” is currently running at the Lincoln Center Theatre in New York where it has received rave review. Baitz, who lives in Sag Harbor, knows a thing or two about adaptation, having rendered Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” for a theatre production in 1999 (which ran at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor in 2000). Baitz has also adapted novels and plays for the screen, including an as yet unproduced version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic “Tender is the Night,” as well as his own play “The Substance of Fire,” which was released theatrically in 1996.

“Oliver Twist,” like much of Dickens’ work, was originally written as a serial and published in monthly installments over time. Like all serials, Baitz explained, it relies on plot, and “Dickens is also great at digression.”

The resulting novel is a long-winded, sometimes meandering storyline, rich with details and diversions and peppered with more plot points than can possibly fit into a single, two-hour film. In that sense, Baitz continued, the art of adaptation comes down to one word: compression.

“You have to impose a sort of censorious logic on [film] adaptations,” he added, because in no other way can you reduce a several-hundred-page text to a tightly bound screenplay that accurately reflects the essence of the original story.

Compression is different from condensation, he cautioned. Rather than completely eliminating story elements, a skilled adaptation will reveal details in shorter, more subtle ways.

“’Oliver Twist’ is interesting because it is beautifully compressed,” Baitz said. Part of the film’s success, he speculated, is probably due to the fact that Lean worked as a film editor before becoming a writer. Even though “Oliver Twist” is a scant 105 minutes (or about 100 pages), compared to the almost-500-page novel, Baitz added, “it doesn’t lose the sense of the book.”

“I think people don’t understand how much craft there is to all this,” Baitz continued. “Movies are magic and alchemy. Knowing what to put where, and when… it’s all very difficult to pull off.”

Baitz added that the adaptation process for him is in fact very tactile.

“I sort of tear the book apart. Literally. I paste it up on a wall and put red pencil through different parts — that’s what I do with my plays,” said Baitz who is currently working on an adaptation of “Other Desert Cities.”

“Then, after the initial act of compression,” Baitz said, “I sort of create a wall with big empty spaces to fill.”

Compression is difficult, he added, because knowing what to put in where is just as important as knowing what to leave out.

“I think it becomes more difficult [to adapt a novel for film] when there’s a degree of psychological complexity that’s entirely internal,” he said..

Baitz pointed to his adaptation of “Tender is the Night,” for example. Not only were two different versions of the book published in England and the United States; but the story is weighted in emotion.

“It’s a book about madness, and dedication, and devotion, and self-sacrifice, and the cost of all those things,” Baitz continued.

To capture this on film, Baitz said he wrote a screenplay that “concentrates on what the engine of the story is.” In other words, he focused on plot and characters’ actions rather than thoughts.

The case was similar with his own play, “The Substance of Fire,” which Baitz also wrote the screenplay for.

“The play had left sort of vast areas of blank space where you [the viewer] were asked to supply your own narrative,” he explained. “I just made it a straight, conventional narrative [for the screenplay] and it worked very well.”

Again, Baitz was careful to make a distinction between compression and condensation, because adaptation — while reducing a narrative — does not necessarily cut the story to make it fit.

“Compression means that you keep the energy, what I call the temperature,” he explained. “It’s like, when you’re cooking a whole meal, knowing what to take out when. It’s all about synchronicity.”

Tickets for “Oliver Twist” and the discussion at Guild Hall (158 Main Street, East Hampton) are $17 ($15 for members) and can be purchased by calling 324-0806.

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