As I started to write this blog post, I realized that my knowledge of South Africa mainly stems from an excellent Disney Channel Original Movie and Matt Damon/Morgan Freeman collaboration, and I needed to do some research.
In my last post, about the 1948 British version of Oliver Twist, I focused primarily on the anti-semitic portrayal of Fagin. In this 2004 South African adaptation/appropriation, Fagin is Rastafarian, so I wanted to see why the filmmakers chose that particular culture to highlight, and especially to label as one of the villains in the film. I couldn’t find any evidence supporting the idea that Rastafarians were scapegoats or persecuted for their beliefs, but there was evidence that they were all lower class, and looked down upon because of their drug usage and their non-belief in politics and Christianity. I think that, and the fact that Rastafari meant they could encompass Fagin’s ridiculous hair from the 1948 version with dreadlocks.
Because this film was based in South Africa, I guess I was little surprised that the racist issues weren’t dealt with or developed more. Again, remember my only knowledge comes from two films that directly address the apartheid, but the only evidence I saw was the white woman running the orphanage with a black nurse and Sikes being white — he has power over Fagin and Nancy. (Also a little fun fact: the actor who played Sikes was also a prison guard in Invictus. They’re all tied together.) I did find it particularly interesting that Sikes was white and Nancy was black, I mean, it took nearly 100 years before racial tensions were finally addressed in America, and we aren’t even fully there yet… but maybe races take a background seat in the seedy underworld.
Boy Called Twist had several similarities to the David Lean version, almost to the point where I wrote in my notes “when is it adaptation and when is it just stealing?” because the opening scene was the biggest callback to a famous sequence I have ever seen; even down to the thunderstorm and the lightning that disorients the audience. But I guess, in a way, it is almost necessary to have those iconic scenes (the children watching them eat from a what looks like a one-way mirror in an interrogation room, please sir may I have some more and the drawing straws, the opening sequence, etc) because those are the things people remember about Oliver Twist.
I had some issues though with the film trying to follow the story so closely, and including elements from a different time period in a modern piece. Obviously, my wealth of knowledge of South African names is slim, and I justify keeping most names (and I definitely support switching Mr. Brownlow to Ebrahim Bassedien) but I just couldn’t wrap my head around keeping Fagin, Fagin. Ignoring the fact that Fagin has come to imply Jewish, it’s also an Irish last name (Fagan). So if they could change Mr. Brownlow’s name , why couldn’t they change Fagin’s? I did enjoy the filmmakers showing Mr. Beatle giving the Sowerberry’s Twist’s papers, which was definitely a detail not necessary in the earlier time period.
There was definitely one stark difference between Boy Called Twist and the 1948/novel versions of Oliver Twist; in this film, Twist actually has a personality. He does things instead of having things just happen to him. In the book, he gets scared and runs away the moment he realizes they’re stealing. He doesn’t in this film. He actually steals purses, gets money from strangers… and who can forget that crazy scene when he’s high and he just steals a beer off the table and takes a drink!!? That’s the most action Twist has done since he beat up Noah.