It was inevitable that a musical version of Dickens's second most popular story would eventually be created, I suppose. And 1968's Oliver!, based on a lauded Broadway production, was considered a great success, winning a slew of Academy Awards and launching several songs that people are still humming decades later ("Consider Yourself", "Who Will Buy This Wonderful Morning", "You Gotta Pick a Pocket or Two", "Where Is Love"). And the film is still a favourite, to judge by movie site comments.
But it's ain't Dickens. Way too cheerful for one thing. Dickens did include plenty of comedy and playful touches in even his most serious dramas. But Oliver! (that exclamation point gives it away before the movie even begins) is almost unrelenting in its cheeriness. All that singing and dancing that sometimes seems to go on forever. At least three times the plot comes to a dead stop to accommodate production numbers taking over what seems to be the entire city—once, just when it seems impossible it could get any bigger, bringing in an entire parade.
And it's so squeaky clean. The slums of London are picturesquely slummy. The urchins, starting with Oliver and the Artful Dodger, are cute as heck and strategically scuffed. Nancy looks like a Beatle girlfriend circa 1966, with gleaming blond hair and pretty frocks.
Even the thug Bill Sikes, played with due malevolence by Oliver Reed, is magnetically thuggish. He provides the darkest moments of the film, hitting the lowest piint with a isturbing murder of Nancy.
And Fagin. Ron Moody won accolades for reprising his stage role in the film as the lovable scoundrel.... What, you didn't know from the book that Fagin was such a sweetheart? Sure, he's mercenary here but, underneath that, heart of gold all the way. Which requires a major rewrite of Dickens's pathetic end for the old gent. Oliver! closes with him and the Dodger literally singin' and dancin' off into the sunset to a bright future life of petty crime.
With the supposedly bad guys getting all the attention, Mark Lester as Oliver is lost in the soft-shoe shuffle. However, he gamely pulls off the role of the vulnerable innocent, without whom none of the surrounding hoopla would make any sense. And he seems to have a sweet singing voice—though it was revealed decades later that his singing was dubbed by a young woman. Ah, well, he is cute.
As might be predicted, Oliver's sad back story is given short shrift, Monks is dropped from the plot altogether, Mr. Brownlow's household is reduced substantially, and the boy's revealed heritage simplified.
So, is Oliver! worth seeing? Not for Dickens, not for Oliver Twist. But maybe for a British version of a big-budget, Hollywood-style musical—considered by many critics to be one of the best film musicals ever made.