Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Redeeming Fagin "the Jew"?

Oliver Twist is not my favorite Dickens' novel, but "Boz" and I go way back, so I watched Masterpiece Classic's first installment of The Tales of Charles Dickens series.

This movie-length version zips along at a much faster pace than the novel, and in about thirty minutes Oliver is out of the workhouse, past the undertaker's workshop, in London, and being introduced to Fagin (played by Timothy Spall). And I'm all excited and thinking about the use of color, the musical score, the beefing up of Oliver's personality when--Oh my word! They didn't...

They did. They made Fagin a Jew, again.

In case you don't know, there is a long, perturbed history behind this. Fagin is considered the 19th century literary equivalent to Shakespeare's Shylock.

Historical Side Note: After Dickens became friends with James and Eliza Davis, a Jewish couple, Eliza expressed disappointment over his portrayal of Fagin. Dickens (after some initial defensiveness) stopped the printing of Oliver Twist and removed most mentions of Fagin's Jewishness from the last, unset chapters of the novel. (He also, presumably, created Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend as attempt to atone for Fagin.) But the miserly, demon-like image of Fagin "the Jew" had already been born.

The other versions of Oliver Twist that I've seen have blended together in my mind, but my impression was that contemporary directors tended to downplay or ignore Fagin's Judaism. (Some quick internet research shows that this isn't true, but I haven't seen/remembered all those interpretations.) I do remember frightening portrayals of Fagin, but he was also clever, almost to point of being a lovable, unrepentant rogue. This has been what I remember instead of a continuation Dickens' stereotype.

In a PBS interview, Timothy Spall said that his goal was to make Fagin more sympathetic, which seems like plausible idea to me (after all Fagin is the first remotely kind face Oliver meets in the novel). Spall is a good actor (I thought the scene where Dodger finds him praying was well-done), but his talent seems to have been poured into creating another Jewish caricature. Spall's Fagin is ingratiating, awkward, anxious... morally and physically weak. Spall even says, "Fagin seems to be used to getting hit a lot." Sympathetic apparently equals downtrodden and helpless.

I can't help feeling that the Jew as powerless victim isn't an improvement on Dickens' stereotype. Nancy and the Artful Dodger were each given moments where, futile or not, the viewer saw them set their teeth and go against the flow of circumstances--making them tragically heroic. Fagin kept folding like a card-table; somewhere along the way he'd lost the one admirable trait Dickens gave him: his resourceful mind. Without spoiling the ending, I can say that there was a moment where Fagin almost regained his dignity, but it wasn't enough for me. The focus of the scene was not on Fagin but on the prejudice that surrounded him, and he seemed like a flustered rabbit swallowed by hounds rather than a man overcome by tragedy.

I think I still feel a little stunned, both by what was attempted and what I actually saw. Has anyone else seen this? Thoughts?

(Image from BBC America Shop.)

1 comment:

  1. I haven't seen this particular take on the story. Unfortunately I can no longer see Timothy Spall without thinking immediately of Wormtail from the Harry Potter movies -- a character who can turn himself into a rat, which of course only adds to that whole ugly-Jewish-stereotype problem.

    On a slightly different note: cartoonist Will Eisner did a graphic novel titled "Fagin the Jew" -- his attempt to retell the story from Fagin's POV and try and undercut those old stereotypes. I've not actually read it myself, but it remains one of those books I'd be interested in reading sometime if I ever come across a copy.