Teaching Oliver Twist: Looking at Film
Name a book you have read that could easily be made into a film. Identify a book that would be very difficult to adapt into a screenplay. What are the differences between these two books? What are the challenges filmmakers face when they set out to bring a novel to the screen?
Screenwriter Alan Bleasdale, who dramatized Oliver Twist, was delighted to have the opportunity to adapt a Dickens novel. But he faced more than a few challenges. Copy and distribute The Adapatation to help students understand some of the choices he made.
Part I: Adapting the Plot
- What were the problems Bleasdale identified with the plot of Oliver Twist?
- Oliver Twist was published as a serial novel (see the information about serialization at Stay Tuned: The Rise of the Killer Serial). How does Bleasdale think this may have contributed to the way the novel's plot was laid out by Dickens?
- What is the novel's "back story"? What did Bleasdale have to do in order to bring the "back story" to the front of his screenplay?
- In the novel, the reader does not learn Oliver's identity until very late in the story. Bleasdale lets the viewer in on the secret in the first episode. If there is no mystery for the viewer, where does the dramatic tension in the screenplay come from? How does Bleasdale retain a sense of mystery in the film version?
- Often in films, screenwriters adapt the plots and change the endings of previously published books. What do you think about that? What are the rights of the original author? Are there limits to how much something can or should be changed? How would you feel about this adaptation if you were Dickens?
- Look up the definition of "coincidence." Write a short personal narrative about a coincidence you experienced. Would this narrative work as an episode in a novel, play, or film? Why do you think the producer and the screenwriter of Oliver Twist agreed that a plot based on a series of coincidences was "a big problem for a modern audience"?
Part II: Developing Characters
- What tools and techniques can a writer use to develop characters in a novel?
- Did Alan Bleasdale use a narrator in his screenplay for Oliver Twist? Read aloud or distribute a passage of narration from the novel found in the Web-based version of the teacher's guide (or in your own copy of Oliver Twist). What can a filmmaker do to replace the information about character and setting that is lost when a narrator is eliminated? (Answers could include using dialogue, the actors' abilities to communicate emotions and inner thoughts, scenery, costumes, sound.)
- Reverse the screenwriting process. Take any scene from the film and rewrite it as narration and dialogue, using a page from any Dickens novel as a model for style. Start with a clip from the film or a portion of script in the From Novel to Film section. How did you replace with prose what you saw and heard in the film?
- Go through a list of the major characters in Oliver Twist and assign a rating, 1 - 5, for how completely or convincingly each character is developed in the film. As a class, discuss your top-rated characters and explain the basis for your rating.
Now reread Bleasdale's comments about character development in the film. Which major characters in the film were minor characters in the novel? Which characters did Alan Bleasdale wish to alter, and why? Are your top-rated film characters those who are closest to the pages of the novel, or the modified or newly drawn characters?
Part III: Dialogue
In the From Novel to Film feature, students can read excerpts from the text of Dickens's novel and link to the film script (and actual video) for the same scene. Study the pages side by side and examine how Alan Bleasdale used and adapted Dickens's dialogue for his screenplay.
Discuss Bleasdale's adaptation in the context of these different elements:
- Length: Has Dickens's original dialogue been shortened or expanded? Speculate why Bleasdale made the changes he did.
- Language: Specifically, how has the wording been changed? What do you think Bleasdale's aim was? Does the new dialogue have the same tone? The same meaning?
- Genre: To adapt a novel for the screen, is some change in dialogue always necessary? Why? Is there speech that works in a novel that doesn't translate to the screen, and vice versa? Where?
- Audience: Bleasdale adapted the novel to make it more appealing to a modern audience. Identify specific points where he did this.
Part IV: Reading vs. Viewing
- What is your favorite book? Has a film ever been made of this title? Have you seen it?
- If you have, tell about your reaction to the film. Did the images and presentation of the characters match up with the vision and understanding you took away from reading the book? How were the plot, characters, dialogue, and setting adapted for film?
- If you have not seen a film version, would you like to? What advice would you offer a screenwriter and a director on how to preserve, on screen, what is best about the book? What is the biggest challenge the filmmakers will face?
- Did you ever see a movie that was made from a book you hadn't read, and then go back and read the novel? What was your reaction to the book? Did your feelings about the movie change after you'd read the book? How much do you think the order in which you experience something -- novel first, then movie; or movie first, then novel -- affects what you believe is the best "presentation" of the story?
- Write the screenplay for the opening scene of a film based on your favorite book. What will be the opening shot? Which character or characters will appear first? Write the opening dialogue or voiceover narration. Include notes on casting suggestions, costumes, music.
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