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Screenwriter's Straight Talk on 'Oliver Twist'

September 29, 2005 By:
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Ronald Harwood and his Oscar for "The Pianist"
Who will buy this wonderful mourning?

Going back to its enlightening literary source and forsaking the misguided madcap mischief of the bouncy Broadway musical, Roman Polanski's deliciously dark "Oliver Twist" twists and shouts for attention and acclaim even as it surely will alienate those who consider anything but total faithfulness to the Charles Dickens book so much gruel.

Balderdash! Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood plays the pages of the Dickens classic like a pianist, with panache and practicality, pedaling it with the polish of Polish Polanski's own perspective as an outsider. Excising some characters and twisting off other plot points, Harwood harnesses the dire Dickens messages of misanthropy and misery in an enigmatic England as echt as any seen on stage or screen - and in history books.

He has adapted not pickpocketed the author's purpose here, and gives the Dickens to those who trashed poor little Oliver Twist's life for their own puerile purposes.

Working the workhouse system of less-than-merry Old England, Harwood harbors no grandiose illusions that he is Dickens' new partner in crime-writing: I would never be so presumptuous!" proclaims the much-lauded screenwriter and playwright whose "The Dresser" dressed up the Broadway season 25 years ago.

But, he adds, "I also wasn't intimidated" to cut it.

Nor did he have any fear and loathing of the loaded question bound to come up: What about the Jewish issue? The character of Fagin has been portrayed as so patently offensive a Jewish stereotype so often in the past - witness Alec Guinness' unpalatable portrayal of the character in the 1948 David Lean film version - that he's become somewhat of a synonym for anti-Semitism.

But in this adaptation (opening Friday, Sept. 30), while still padding actor Ben Kingsley's proboscis for the part, Polanski and the screenwriter nosed the character away from such stereotypes.

Says Harwood, "Polanski and I are both Jews," and we actually never discussed" the stereotypical renditions of Fagin's past.

Certainly, Dickens "had to be true to the period in which he wrote the novel, and it was an anti-Semitic period."

Yet Harwood hardly sees the character as Dickens sticking it to the Jews. "In fact," he reports, "there were reports that he was embarrassed by the way people [interpreted] that."

Still, Harwood thinks the Lean film version was a meat-and-potatoes dish for those who like their Fagins fearfully anti-Semitic, a bleak house of hate to live in. Not that Harwood blames Guinness - "a great friend of mine" - for the depiction; indeed, he says, "Alex himself was embarrassed by it."

What there is to be proud of in the Polanski-Harwood effort are fully dimensional characters explored from the soul out. Not that the screenwriter expects accolades from everyone - but then, he's used to the occasional brickbat among the bravos.

Good Germans?
"When I wrote 'The Pianist,' " he says of his 2002 Oscar-winning effort on the Holocaust-era film that also garnered an Academy Award for Polanski, "I included a character of a good German," a Nazi who came to the aid of the real-life protagonist, Wladyslaw Szpilman (portrayed by Oscar-winning Adrien Brody).

But the criticism hardly tarnished the gold of his Oscar: "I am devoted to historical stories" showing all sides, he states.

But when Harwood did "take sides," he also came up a winner: His "Taking Sides," about Hitler's "house" musician, conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, won acclaim on Broadway before the playwright adapted it for the screen in 2002.

Indeed, the Holocaust plays poignantly, it seems, in much of Harwood's work; there's some thematic thievery going on even in "Oliver Twist."

"I'm drawn to outsiders," says Harwood of "Twist" and the twist of fate that made the Polish-born Polanski - who lost his parents to Mauthausen and Auschwitz during the Holocaust - one himself.

Harwood, too, learned to think outside the parameters of his own country: Born in South Africa, he immigrated to England 54 years ago while a teen.

But these two outsiders had their "in" jokes to help each other seal their joint jagged pasts.

"We laughed a lot," recalls Harwood of twisted on-set jokes with Polanski, as they shared "Holocaust jokes about Poles, Germans and Jews that were in such bad taste."

Still, life may provide the best punchline of all. "Who would have thought that at age 68, I would get an Oscar?" says Harwood, hardly hardened to his growing fame.

Harwood, whose roots are firmly planted in the iconography of Judaism, is a wordsmith who feels the lure and lull of language - and loathes its misreadings. "I've never been a victim of anti-Semitism, but I feel the anti-Israeli language I hear today is anti-Semitism in disguise."

Yet is masking Fagin's origins - not referring to him being Jewish - a misrepresentation of character when he's so vile and venal? Does the fact that he is Jewish - and looks Jewish - add to the stereotype even if his ethnicity is not mentioned at all?

It's all such a case of mistaken identity, reasons the writer. Whitewashing history - or literature - only leaves less colorful characters, he claims.

Certainly, dramatizing and identifying Fagin as a Jew is a dramatic way of showing a bad side of the Jewish image; yet, of course, it does not mean he should be interpreted as a representation of all Jews.

"There are good people, there are bad people - they're all people," says Harwood, who assuredly will meet the great expectations many people are bringing to his "Oliver Twist."

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