Sexing up classic tales on TV: an unwelcome ‘Twist’

As networks turn meaningful classic tales into shallow procedural cookie-cutter TV shows, viewers who are searching for depth are left bored and frustrated.

Barney Clark playing Oliver Twist in Oliver Twist, 2005.

After the new Ghostbusters film came out, with its much hyped gender-swapped cast, I saw a lot of speculation about what the next new female-led reboot would be: there was talk of an all-female Goonies, Die Hard, and Wedding Crashers. But not much of that movie speculation (if any at all) ran towards old novels: Thomas Hardy, George Elliott, Charles Dickens.

Yet that’s exactly where the minds of network TV producers went. In fact, NBC’s decision to turn Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist into a “sexy contemporary” procedural with a “struggling 20-something female” in the lead role was so unlikely, it suggests that network executives chose the project by playing Mad Libs.

This kind of seemingly thoughtless modern update is not a totally new concept, of course. But I fear it’s a bad sign, not just that classic novels are being disrespected, but of the great dearth of creativity in the entertainment industry at present.

Hollywood, under the pretext of offering something ‘new’ or subversive is actually trying to stuff Dickens’ story into a very familiar box.”

To understand my frustration with the Twist idea fully, you’ll need to know a bit about what the book Oliver Twist is, and what the story meant in its time. Its author was a 25-year-old journalist who had just scored a huge success with the comedic novel The Pickwick Papers, but his second novel was worlds away from that jovial tale. Oliver Twist was a story of poverty, hunger, and crime, focusing on a brave but deeply vulnerable little boy suffering the consequences of some of the worst ills of the era.

The book attacked government policies that hurt the poor, it held up practices like child labor to the harsh light of day, and it even dared to depict thieves and prostitutes—like Nancy, the young woman raised by criminals who selflessly gives everything she has to save young Oliver from a fate like her own. Nancy, simultaneously a fiery spirit and an abused drudge, is portrayed with both honesty and sympathy—not what some readers expected in 1837.

Oliver Twist first edition

Frontispiece first edition Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Wikipedia

In the preface to a later edition of the book, Dickens wrote, “Once upon a time it was held to be a coarse and shocking circumstance that some of the characters in these pages are chosen from the most criminal and degraded of London’s population.” He himself, however, “saw no reason … why the dregs of life … should not serve the purpose of a moral.” He was not ashamed to show crime and degradation as they truly were, “to attempt a something which was needed and which would be a service to society.”

It’s the typical ‘Strong Woman’ mold: a fragile-looking shell of a girl who can drop-kick a villain twice her size without breaking a sweat.”

In short, Dickens’s brilliant creation broke all the rules and colored outside all the lines for all the right reasons. To bring attention to important social issues, to educate, and to make his readers think. Which is exactly why it’s such a travesty that early 21st-century Hollywood, under the pretext of offering something “new” or subversive, is actually trying to stuff Dickens’ story into a very familiar box.

Take the descriptors NBC uses one by one. With a 20-something lead instead of an innocent orphaned child, we lose the sense of helplessness that makes Oliver’s story so poignant and gripping. Make it a 20-something female, and I have a sneaking suspicion that she’ll fit the typical “Strong Woman” mold: a fragile-looking shell of a girl who can drop-kick a villain twice her size without breaking a sweat. Such a fearless action hero is nothing like Oliver as he navigated his own crime-ridden world. He was more victim than hero.

And then of course there’s the sexiness. Today we could no more accept a non-sexy young woman in a lead role, than Dickens’s more delicate readers in the 1800s could accept the realistic depictions of criminals. It just isn’t done. Strong, sexy, and female must go together; it’s an immutable law, from network TV to HBO to the big screen.

I want an Oliver Twist TV show that makes audiences uncomfortable or deepens their compassion or inspires their idealism. But instead we’ve been given one more cookie-cutter procedural-with-strong-sexy-woman.”

Put it all into a procedural—that most reliable of NCIS-like genres—and we have a tidy, familiar little package to open every week. Turning classic tales into procedurals seems to be a popular formula: consider the Sherlock Holmes remake, Elementary, and Fox’s new show called Camelot, which will turn King Arthur into a police procedural, too.) But I worry that Twist would be closer to that sexed-up miniseries version of Northanger Abbey a few years back where Jane Austen’s young heroine kept having erotic fantasies that played out in front of us. It leads me to believe that if a Twist remake is done, we’ll see little of the original thinking, the unforgettable imagery, the sense of justice and mercy, or the moral complexity that made the novel a classic.

I can’t answer the question of how this twisted idea was conceived. (I did ask one of the show’s writers about it via Twitter, and never received an answer.) But I can say that with it, Hollywood appears to have reached the nadir of its creative powers. It’s not just a bizarre idea, to me, it’s a dull, unimaginative, safe idea. To take a powerful, meaningful book and to systematically obliterate everything that made it great (the characters, the social commentary, the depth of feeling), diminishes all that was “edgy” about the original.

MORE TO READ: ‘Wonder Woman’: a new kind of hero who’s a princess, but not a girlfriend, or sidekick

I want an Oliver Twist TV show that makes audiences uncomfortable or deepens their compassion or inspires their idealism. But instead we’ve been given one more cookie-cutter procedural-with-strong-sexy-woman, which exemplifies everything that’s shallow and hollow about contemporary Hollywood’s content creation. If it plays out as I predict, the show won’t be, as Dickens put it, “a something which was needed,” or a service to society.

Maybe it’s not fair to hazard a guess before it’s certain that the show will even get picked up by the network, but these things have become depressingly predictable—unlike Dickens’s work, which was always full of life and full of surprises. One can only hope that when/if Twist releases (it has a script commitment, but no date yet), the show proves me wrong. But I’d be surprised as the Dickens if it did.

Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.

Gina Dalfonzo
Gina Dalfonzo
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog, and is working on a book about faith and singleness. She lives in northern Virginia.

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