Let's Twist Again: Hollywood Plans a Dickens Sequel That'll Upset Purists

Let's Twist Again: Hollywood Plans a Dickens Sequel That'll Upset Purists
When Dickens Was Sacred: John Howard Davies in David Lean's "Oliver Twist" (1948)
(© Cineguild)

Sony Pictures has announced that it is to make a movie about Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger meeting as adults 20 years after the end of Charles Dickens’s 1838 novel. This in itself is not dispiriting, though Dickens purists may disagree.

As Peter Carey’s 1997 novel “Jack Maggs” demonstrated, imagining the futures of Dickens’s characters (in that case, Magwitch and Pip of “Great Expectations”) can honor and inform the original book – a literary concept known as “post-colonialism.”

 

Sony’s “Dodge and Twist” shares a plot element with Tony Lee and artist Paul Peart Smith’s unpublished 2007 comic book “Dodge & Twist,” which was set 12 years after the original novel. Lee has Oliver reluctantly joining the Dodger in a scheme to steal the Koh-I-Noor diamond from the Great Exhibition of 1851. In the film, the Hollywood Reporter discloses, “The two are on opposite sides of the law and get embroiled in an affair to steal the Crown Jewels.”

The similarities were not lost on Lee, who posted several complaints on Twitter claiming that he met with one of the film’s producers, Ahmet Zappa, in 2008 and 2009. Zappa responded to Lee in a tweet, saying that he had not stolen the idea.  

Stylistically, the two projects might not bear much resemblance. Whereas Lee’s story and Smith’s drawings are roughly Dickensian, the movie may be more comedic.

According to the Reporter, the people behind the picture – producers Zappa (son of Frank) and Matt Dolmach, and screenwriter Cole Haddon (NBC’s “Dracula”) – will be “taking a page out of the recent Robert Downey Jr.-starring ‘Sherlock Holmes’ movies.”

The Holmesian influence, if true, should set alarm bells ringing because of the gimmickry and flippancy that characterizes Guy Ritchie’s  “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) and “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” (2011). While the BBC’s “Sherlock” brilliantly transposed Conan Doyle’s Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) – psychological complexity intact – and Watson (Martin Freeman) to contemporary London, the Ritchie films are little more than showcases for Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law’s ironic banter and the bland action setpieces. These films are so smugly distanced from the original spirit generated by the neurotic Baker Street sleuth and the good Doctor, his friend and witness, that they deride it.

Classic books are fair game for literary and cinematic pillage these days – so, too, history (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”). Not every appropriation is insulting. Like “Jack Maggs,” “Death Comes to Pemberley,” P.D. James’s murder-mystery sequel to “Pride and Prejudice,” similarly adds to our understanding of Jane Austen’s 200-year-old masterpiece.

The same cannot be said for the various sexed-up “Pride and Prejudice” novel sequels, which have been inspired less by Austen’s Darcy than Colin Firth’s chest and sopping shirt in the 1995 BBC miniseries.

No matter that they may originate in genuine affection for their sources, larky movies and pastiches that colonize the turf are even less likely to offer insight or pleasure. If and when “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” gets made, I will watch it under duress, or torture. I can’t judge this year’s Sundance entry “Austenland,” based on the Shannon Hale novel, until I’ve seen it, but I suspect the time will be better used opening “Emma” or “Persuasion” again.