I've seen the musical play/movie of Oliver dozens of times since I was a kid and generally know the story backwards and forwards. I anticipated there would be some differences between the book and the movie/play but didn't expect to find many surprises. Thus, I wasn't shocked by the changes I encountered but I think perhaps my history with the story may have tainted my view a little bit. (I must also admit that I haven't seen the most recent movie updates put out in recent years so perhaps they are more true to the text)
For those unfamiliar with the story, we're taken on adventures with Oliver Twist…a boy who was born to an unknown woman in a poorhouse and spent his early life in poverty and obscurity. He leaves the poorhouse on an apprenticeship and later runs away to London where he encounters a band of thieves and ruffians and struggles to find his way in the world. That's the high level view of the story.
Being a Dickens novel, there is no shortage of characters or of vivid (sometimes overly lengthy) descriptions of people, places, things and events. In addition, there is frequent coincidental interactions between characters otherwise unrelated but linked through their acquaintance with our young hero. These coincidental meetings are believable at times and at other times Dickens stretches credibility to the limit by having these people's paths cross the way they do. I definitely acknowledge that "It's a Small World" and that karma and coincidental interactions are more frequent than we may admit, but the nature and degree that they happen in Dickens is sometimes comical.
Anyway, the arc of Oliver's life is a generally depressing one. He's scorned, imprisoned, tricked, beaten and wholly maltreated in spite of him being a very angelic and innocent young boy with no vices to speak of. In fact, Oliver's character may be too perfect…with his only flaws being flaws of circumstance rather than flaws of character and behavior.
As I mentioned, I knew the general plot progression from the movie/play, but I was somewhat surprised at a couple of significant differences. The first difference wasn't very striking (the introduction of a second wealthy family) and I could see why they left it out of the movie (it just adds additional levels of detail which is interesting and insightful but doesn't really progress the story in a vital way).
The second difference was much more important and was very interesting to me. (*slight spoiler, but I'll keep it high level*). In the movie/play, the thieves are primarily "led" by Fagin and Bill Sikes. The book actually includes a 3rd character kept even more in shadowy mystery until nearly the end of the book. And once again, this 3rd character is victim to Dickens's crazy circumstantial coincidence in that he has an intriguing tie to Oliver. I found this plot point intriguing and fun to unravel, but again, it wasn't wholly vital to the core of the story so I can see why it's excluded from modern productions. Still, it was a fun new angle for me.
On the whole, I enjoyed this book. It's definitely Dickens…true to his style in many regards. The language. The characters. The settings. All very Dickens. So if you're put off by Dickens, this isn't the story for you. Granted, it is a bit lighter than some of his other works but it is heavier than Christmas Carol or shorter stories and it's definitely not near as light as the treatment given in the play/movie. Furthermore, it's more depressing than the play/movie, so if you're looking for the lighthearted fun of Fagin and Dodger that you know from the modern production ("picking a pocket or two" and such), you may be disappointed.
Overall, it was an enjoyable read. It wasn't as strong to me as other Dickens work but it was still a very worthwhile read and I'm glad I read it.
3.5 out of 5 stars
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