The story of plucky Oliver Twist is one of Charles Dickens’ best-loved tales. It has been made into a movie (twice), a TV movie, a TV series, a miniseries, a stage musical called simply Oliver! ... and the movie version of that stage musical. Oh, and a Disney animated musical, Oliver and Company.
You might think that we would say that the Disney version is the most fun to watch. But, even though pop stars like Bette Midler sing in it, the plot is only very loosely based on the novel. It’s about stray pets in New York!
Better start with the Oscar-winning musical version called Oliver! It has many famous scenes and songs, and even though it is about poor kids, parts of it are very funny. And of course the singing and dancing are great.
It was the career highlight of Jewish composer Lionel Bart, who wrote the play version and the wonderful songs for it. And as we said, it won the Oscar (beating out another Jewish musical—Barbra Streisand’s Funny Girl)! In fact, Oliver! won 5 Oscars, plus an honorary one for the choreography… and it was nominated for 11!
While Oliver is one of Dickens’ many rags-to-riches characters, Fagin (say: FAY-gin; it rhymes with “pagan”) is one of his best and most complicated villians. Fagin is one of many Jewish characters from classic literature (see a list of those in the Bonus section here), but since this story has been retold so often, he’s one of the most famous.
Fagin has been played by many great actors over time. In the first movie version, in 1948 (yes, the same year Israel became independent), he was played by Alec Guinness-- who later played Obi-Wan Kenobi! In the second big-screen version, in 2005, he was played by Ben Kingsley. He was played by in the 1997 mini-series version by Richard Dreyfuss… and in Oliver! by Jewish character actor Ron Moody (later in Mel Brooks’ second movie, The Twelve Chairs). Ron was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance here.
One of the reasons so many fantastic actors are drawn to the role is that Fagin is so complicated a character. On the one hand, he is a crook who teaches kids to be crooks. He coaches them in how to use their small hands to pick wallets out of pockets and purses. If they get caught, they would not be killed as an adult would for stealing, but punished and sent to work in a place they could easily escape. If they did get away with it, Fagin takes the money for himself!
But ... he then spends it on the kids. They all live together in Fagin’s shack, where they have food and clothes and warm beds. Which is more than they had when they were homeless! In a way, he’s sort of a Robin Hood figure. So Fagin has a good side, too, doing what he can for homeless kids who society has abandoned.
As a Jew, Fagin is on the outside of society himself, and would have very hard time making an honest living. He lives in the 1800s, still a very anti-Semitic time, even though it is hundreds of years since Shakespeare wrote his 1590s masterpiece about anti-Semitism, The Merchant of Venice. (Yes, that play was set in Italy ... but Shakespeare lived in England, just as Dickens eventually would).
There is a Chasidic story about a rich man who takes all his money, buys a diamond, and sews it into a pocket in his hat to keep it safe. Only, while he is crossing a bridge, the wind blows his hat into the river, where it sinks! Something like that happens to Fagin in the end ... which makes us wonder if Dickens read some Jewish stories while researching his Jewish character!
While Fagin is a crook, he does help others even worse off, and you could argue that his becoming a thief was not entirely his choice. You might even think that since the rich ignored the poor and gave them no chance to advance in a class-based society, it was inevitable that they got stolen from! It’s not as if they were “playing fair” themselves!
Dickens disagrees. Even though he is sympathetic, he punishes Fagin, to say that just because you don’t have anything doesn’t mean it’s OK to take what isn’t yours. Oliver Twist, on the other hand, also is poor, but good and honest ... so Dickens rewards him in the end with one of his signature, um, “twist” endings. Dickens believes that a thief who is poor isn’t “better” than one who is rich… and that goodness is ultimately the road to success. That’s a very Jewish value!
No doubt actors and audiences will return Fagin over and over in the future as they have in the past, trying to unravel this perplexing pick-pocket philanthropist!