New adaptations underscore the resilience of Dickens and Austen

Though written long before the invention of cinema, the work of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen contains some of the most cinematic fiction ever published: panoramic stories with lurid plot twists, unforgettable characters and more stage directions than your typical shooting script.

But in tackling “Oliver Twist” and “Pride & Prejudice,” directors Roman Polanski and Joe Wright faced some daunting tasks.

Polanski, who with screenwriter Ronald Harwood adapted Dickens’ novel about an orphan boy who falls in with a gang of London pickpockets, was determined to tell a harrowing story, full of moral complexity, informed by his own experience as a foster child in war-ravaged Poland. As a boy’s adventure tale, it’s closer to “The Pianist” than “Harry Potter.”

Joe Wright, who made his bigscreen debut with “Pride & Prejudice,” hadn’t read the famous novel before tackling the project — a fact that couldn’t possibly sit well with Jane Austen fans and book clubs.

He was also late to the party. The last 10 years have witnessed a shelf-load of bigscreen adaptations of Austen, ranging from Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility” to “Clueless” and two separate “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries.

As with any classic adaptations, there are always critics lying in wait, poised to jump on any deviation from the source material.

Polanski’s solution was to hew as close as possible to Dickens’ writing, while cutting a clear and linear path through a novel that’s loaded down with auxiliary characters and plotlines.

The result is less airbrushed Merchant Ivory than tough-minded survivor’s story. Polanski’s protagonist, played by relative newcomer Barney Clark, “goes through hideous adventures,” Harwood says. “But he survives morally intact. That seemed most important.”

The adults he encounters on his adventures can be remarkably cruel and manipulative, but Polanski is careful to show their tender side as well.

“What I find most compelling in Dickens is the richness of character,” Polanski adds. “The characters, and what they represent, are universal. Only the costumes have changed.”

“Oliver Twist,” the director says, “reminds me of many things I went through. I was exactly the same age when I found myself parentless, wandering through the country. I know what it is to walk for miles with bleeding feet and to be hungry. But that’s not what makes children suffer. It’s to be parentless and longing for home.”

Though the reviews were mostly favorable, “Oliver Twist” didn’t connect with a wide audience Stateside. But Polanski, who recently traveled through Europe and South America for its foreign premieres, is heartened by the response in other markets.

“The problems expressed in the book are universal,” he says. “There are the same types of immigration problems in other countries: people are flowing to London by the thousands, finding themselves without a roof over their heads. That’s generated incredible poverty and crime.”

Like Polanski, Wright was drawn to the social realism of his source material.

His “Pride & Prejudice” is interlaced with long and graceful tracking shots designed to map out the social hierarchies of the period. The household of the film’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, played by Keira Knightley, is a high-spirited but dilapidated estate, mud-spattered and teeming with livestock.

Elizabeth’s precarious place in the social pecking order is clear, as are the dire ramifications should she not find a suitable mate. Her sisters are scarcely adults and painfully vulnerable, which wasn’t obvious in the 1940 version with Lawrence Olivier and Greer Garson.

The child of puppeteers, Wright says the fact that he didn’t “study literature at Oxford or Cambridge” was a valuable asset. “I didn’t get much of an education,” he says. “I go into projects not because I have something to teach — though I hope I have something to say — but with an interest in what I can learn.”

Though Wright was aware of previous versions of “Pride & Prejudice,” he didn’t dwell on them. “I came to (the novel) with fresh eyes, which was quite important,” he says. “If I had looked over my shoulder and seen the hordes of Jane Austen fans and worshippers, I would have gotten very frightened.”

The success that “Pride & Prejudice” has found thus far at the U.S. box office suggests Hollywood’s Austenmania hasn’t crested, despite scores of Austen adaptations in recent years.

“We didn’t shy away from the mention of Jane Austen. She’s a brand,” Focus marketing prexy David Brooks says. “This book is the most popular of her work. We embraced that.”

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