Teaching Oliver Twist: After Viewing Activities
After viewing all of Oliver Twist, you may wish to choose one or more culminating activities, either from the suggestions here or the "Looking at Film" section.
The Writer's Purpose
- In his 1841 Preface to Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens lays out for his readers the organizing theme of his novel: "I wished to show, in little Oliver, the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last." Take Dickens's statement of purpose as your topic sentence and extend his explanation, writing or speaking in his voice: How did the story of Oliver Twist demonstrate your faith in the ultimate triumph of goodness?
- What are the other messages and themes of Oliver Twist? What did Dickens want his readers to learn and understand? As a class, briefly review how the novel touches on each topic below and brainstorm more themes for the list. Then, have students choose one of these themes and, in the voice of the author, explain how the story explores it, beginning, as Dickens did, with the phrase "I wished to show..."
- the New Poor Law
- money and materialism
- charity and love
- woman as nurturer
- courage and cowardice
- "the best and worst shades of our common nature"
- poetic justice
- Write a one-paragraph description of three of the major characters in the film: Agnes Fleming, Edwin Leeford, and Elizabeth Leeford. In Dickens's novel, these three do not appear until Chapter 51, where their history is briefly given by Monks (Edward Leeford) and Mr. Brownlow in less than four pages. "I couldn't have written any of them," says screenwriter Alan Bleasdale, "without having the scent of them off the page from Dickens." Read Dickens's text, (the "Back Story") then reread your character descriptions. How much material did Bleasdale have to work with? In the text, where do you detect "the scent" of the characters you came to know so well in the film?
- Screenwriter Alan Bleasdale said of Fagin, "He does things which we know are morally wrong, but because he does them with real charm, we don't judge him in the same way." How did you respond to Fagin? Recall a scene that demonstrates Fagin's "charm." Dickens was criticized for making the criminal Fagin an ambivalent character, rather than a purely evil one, yet he is probably the best-remembered character in the novel. Literature is rich with characters who are morally flawed, yet appealing. With a partner, name four or five characters from other books or films who fit this profile. Without disclosing the character's name, write a brief description of each character on an index card. Use the cards for a character identification game: players get a bonus point for convincing a judge that Bleasdale's words about Fagin apply to the character on the card.
- Imagine you are Dickens, writing furiously month to month to meet a printing deadline for the next installment of your serialized novel. How difficult is it to keep control of a complex plot? Try it yourself over a five-day period. On day one, create a catchy title and write a plot summary of your first chapter, introducing at least six characters. Submit another plot summary each day for the rest of the week. Trade your five-part serial story with a classmate and act as editors for one another's work. Are there inconsistencies in the story? Are there loose threads that need tying up? Characters left hanging? If you had a chance to revise, would you begin the story in the same way? What special skills does a writer need to be able to compose a serialized novel under the pressure of a monthly deadline? Refer to the information about serialization at Stay Tuned: The Rise of the Killer Serial. How many authors wrote directly for serialization versus having their completed novels broken into parts?
The Filmmaker's Art
- Select and replay a scene from the film that is at least two minutes in length. Assign students a single film technique or directorial choice to observe and describe.
- scenery (interior set or exterior setting)
- editing (cuts)
- camera angles
Share student notes on techniques. Then view another scene and evaluate how the scene's effects (emotion or tone, dramatic moments, humor, suspense, plot advancement) are created by the series of specific choices the filmmakers made.
- In his serialized novel, Charles Dickens juggled two or three locations and plot lines simultaneously. From month to month he would move freely between them as the plot advanced. The film version borrows this idea, but moves between scenes at even shorter intervals. View one of the segments suggested below (each about ten minutes long), and ask students to count how many scenes the filmmakers juggle, and how many cuts between scenes are in the segment. Then discuss: what is the effect of editing the film in this way?
Start: Leeford leaves Agnes for Italy (around 30 minutes in)
End: Brownlow looks at Agnes's portrait
Start: Brownlow and Mrs. Bedwin (about 19 minutes in)
End: Brownlow at the piano
- Have students experience the role of director by creating a prompt book for a scene from the film. Refer students to the Web feature From Novel to Film, and have them choose one of the scenes to work with. After printing out the script, students should describe the physical scene they are creating and annotate the script by providing stage and line delivery directions, cutting lines as they see fit, and determining the overall message of the scene.
From Oliver Twist to Great Expectations
Pairing this film of Dickens's early novel with a reading of his masterpiece 24 years later gives students an opportunity to track the consistent themes in Dickens's work and evaluate his development as a writer.
- How are Oliver and young Pip alike? How do Fagin and Sikes compare with Magwitch? The novelist and critic Graham Greene argues that "only late in his career did Dickens learn to write realistically of human beings." Do you agree or disagree with Greene? Use characters from Great Expectations and Oliver Twist to support your position.
- In Oliver Twist, Dickens satirizes the notion that the poor are immoral and criminal by nature. "I have great faith in the Poor," he wrote. What is the message of Great Expectations about poverty, wealth, and good moral character? Which of the two novels makes Dickens's case for the poor more convincingly? Why?
- What similarities in plot did you notice between Great Expectations and Oliver Twist? The earlier novel was criticized for the unevenness of its plot and its reliance on coincidence. Does the construction of the plot show that Great Expectations is the work of a more mature, seasoned writer? You may want to distribute the essay on adapting Oliver Twist.
- Create an illustrated timeline. Refer to the timeline of Dickens's life, as well as the map of Oliver's London. Then place scenes and characters from Oliver Twist and Dickens's life in historical context by printing, cutting, and pasting appropriate Dickensian and historical images and events from library and Web research onto the timeline.
- What is the responsibility of the state to its poorest citizens? What should the state require of those who receive its aid? In Dickens's time, both these questions were hotly debated. In our own time, the argument continues.
Use Web or library resources to learn about the Welfare Reform Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1995. Then read Down and Out in Victorian England and do further Web and library research about the New Poor Law. How does the Welfare Reform Act compare with the New Poor Law? Make a two-column chart and answer the following questions:
- What did the bill's backers believe was wrong with the old system of welfare or relief?
- What were the provisions of the new law?
- Was the new law intended to discourage reliance on government relief, create opportunities for work, or both?
- How did the bill address the needs of children in poverty?
- Why was the new system criticized?
- What did the bill assume about the causes of poverty?
Other historic - contemporary issues you could explore and contrast in a similar manner are views on child labor (and the development of child labor laws) and the development of criminal gangs.
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