Villain got heart too: review of Oliver Twist (1985 BBC TV adaptation)

1330854631What distinguishes Charles Dickens from his contemporary writers is his belief in redemption, forgiveness, and benevolence of a human spirit triumphing over poverty, guilt, and death, the three cardinal ordeals of existential phenomena. For almost every character in his oeuvres, including villains, heroes/heroines, and even minor characters, has some shred of redeemable traits, if not goodness in the case of swindlers, pickpockets, or murderers. The question of morality in the Dickensian world is never proprietarily imposed upon the reader, and thereby leaves out harsh puritanical judgment of a character because humans are more sinned against than sinning. That’s the beauty of Dickensian reality set in the background of the stuffy Victorian reality. That’s why I can’t hate any of his characters, such as Bill Sikes, The Artful Dodger, and even Fagin from Oliver Twist in the parade of humanity.

The TV adaptation of the novel by BBC (1985) is truthful to the original context, capturing every moment of emotions and feelings as finely portrayed by a skillful cast of the characters. The story of an impoverished orphan child whose resilience and innocence got him through misadventures and ultimately rewarded him with a bounty of loving family and well-deserved munificent largess may look to be a typical rags-to-riches fable. But such a presumptuously precarious judgment of the story will deprive the reader of the beauty of Dickensian characters as aforementioned.

Take Bill Sikes, a tall and lean professional burglar whose callous treatments of Nancy, his live-in girlfriend also a pickpocket, and his loyal mutt Bull’s eye are downright contemptible. It goes without saying that this Bill Sikes character is in no way likable or pitiable. Yet, such egregiousness that only invokes contempt is what makes Sykes a fortiori pathetic. After he killed his beautiful-hearted Nancy in a paroxysm of rage, Sikes shed a cascade of tears that looked to me more of guilt and regret than of any other reason I could think of. As a matter of fact, watching the Sikes character shedding tears perturbed my heart because I could glimpse at his heart hardened by his life of poverty that had led him to the life of crime.

What about Fagin, a boss of juvenile pickpockets, who is driven half mad at the thought of his being hanged at Newgate? Maybe it’s because his character was visually manifested on screen, but he also won my sympathy over such madness, which made me wonder if his insurmountable surge of remorse for his crime made him mad. Also, the artful Dodger, the most skillful pickpocket of the gang captured and tried at the court, was the figure of pathos. Would he have fallen into the world of crime had he been born into a well-to-do family? Or if a divisory lot – that is, a play of chance given by goddess Fortuna – had been favorable to him, would he have found himself in where he was?

Call it childlike credulousness or a feminine streak of maudlinness, but I don’t want to make draconian measures against these antagonistic characters by putting them into a Procrustean bed of morality one by one. For it is necessary without a gesture of condescension or insolent attitude masked in charity to get into the inside world of the characters to understand what made them choose the life they lived in the face of poverty, hopelessness, and loneliness. I cannot help thinking that a game of chance each of them tried to get was against him and scoffed at his attempt to make it right in his life. In that regard, this is the question that Dickens asks to us: what would you do if you would put yourself in their shoes?  Dickens tacitly implies that only the goodness of our heart that comes from our empathy can save the world. Come to think of it, it is no wonder why Catholics and Marxists alike wanted to claim Dickens to be one of their own in his era. For these reasons, his novels should not be confined in a genre of Victorian literature because the subjects are timeless, and the characters appealing with universal traits of humanity that know no cultural, linguistic, and social barriers.

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Our Mutual Friend

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Mornings in Avonlea always start with the calliphony of euphonious “good morning” exchanges between and among whomever you meet in the street, banterings of the townspeople on just about anything from what they ate yesterday, to the books or magazines they have recently read with relish, and to their projections on the next episode of their favorite TV movies including “Oliver Twist,” “The Brief,” “Mind Your Language,” “Macgyver,” etc.  And of course, they do gossip in the grapevine about anything they see or hear prodigious and pronounced from the quotidien landscape from their suburban life as it is our indelible human evolutionary trait to be incessantly curious about the lives of others. In this Darwinian regard, Mrs Brenda Beaver and Mrs. Mary Collie are probably the very essence of collective human curiosity. They are good chums together bound by mutual cultural interest, roles and duties of married women with children, and vivacious loquacious nature.

IMG_3789As usual, Willie’s Fruit Cart is the first business enterprise that heralds a beginning of every day. The merry women of Avonlea are loyal customers of Willie’s fresh and scrumptious fruits because the products are organically planted, cultivated, and handpicked by the conscientious farmer Wille himself.  Naturally, it is no surprise to spot both Mary and Brenda chatting away around the cart on every saturday morning. “Hi, Brenda! You bought some fruits there. Did you get them from Willie’s Food Cart?” Mary opened the day’s bantering (or gossiping, depending upon your point of view.)  “Hi Mary! Yes, I needed to get some fruits for my family because my daughter Betty is on a  diet. I told her she would not need to lose weight, but you know, girls are girls. (sigh)”  Having said it with a touch of motherly concern for her daughter’s growing self-conscious image about herself, Brenda looks ruefully at Betty picking up more fruits from the cart. Mary ‘s innate empathy connects her into the inner world of Brenda and commiserate with her incidental m melancholy. So she decides to turn Brenda’s attention to something provocatively productive.

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“Brenda, you surely read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, right? I finished reading it last week and have to tell you my honest review of it. Well, although I admire the author’s resilient and independent spirit in combination with her high intelligence and academic achievement against the vicissitudes of her childhood fraught with economic insecurities and shiftlessness of her parents, her situations did not seem to be as destitute and adverse as Judy Redfox’s in our own town. ” After decanting what she had in mind about the book, Mary feels that her mind could never be clearer and sober. Mary’s zeal soon grasps Brenda’s inquisitiveness, so she asks her to go on.  “You know, the Redfoxes who moved into our town two years ago and have since lived on Bell Street? Well, their only child Judy has been supporting her mother and father since she was eighteen years old by working at odd jobs and going to university at the same time. She worked through her way to university with financial aid from the state and the government. She even joined the National Guard to receive tuition assistance – all because of the fact that her parents lack practicality and totally depend upon their daughter for subsistence and everyday drudgery. I firmly believe that Judy’s travails are incomparable to what the best-selling author went through in her early life as narrated in her famous memoir in all aspects. Judy’s everyday life is a testament to resilience, courage, and determination because although Walls achieved her career and materialistic success, Judy still lives in the existential labyrinth of endless impecuniousness, arbitrary filial responsibilities, and ambivalent future of her own.

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Having read The Glass Castle when the book came out for the first time, Brenda knows what Mary talked about enthusiastically and can’t help agreeing to her friend’s point of view. For the author of the book’s now public travails do not amount to what her town’s Judy has been going through. Although Judy has never confided her feelings about her hard life to anyone, Brenda can see her unparalleled difficulty in life that Judy has to bear with all her might, with all her spirit, and with all her intelligence, to get by. Of course, you can not compare one’s life to the other’s, as that’s what social conventions and religious tenets have been conditioning the minds of people. But for all Brenda and Mary see, Judy is an unsung heroine whose existential tasks akin to the Eleven Labors of Hercules are worth the writing of her own memoir in future. So what the merry women of Avonlea will do next is to stop by where Judy works today and treats her with some nice lunch to cheer her up to let her know that she’s not alone.

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The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

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It was my first moment of spiritual Eureka mixed with awesomeness and bewilderment in terra incognita when I first read The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. It was a wonderful pictorial book painted with the scenes from the Disney’s classic animated film version. To the child’s eye, it was like a fiesta of vivid colors and vivacious characters set in motion in the heart of jungle I had never seen. What’s more, the animals were so humanlike and likable into the bargain that while reading the book, I almost forgot that they were beasts speaking their own language, which I was able to understand through the presence of Mowgli, who looked a lot like Tarzan in diminutive stature and size wearing only a loincloth and long dark hair. Mowgli’s knack of communicating with his beastly friends who were always there for him even compelled me to try talking to my domestic puppy Nena at that time by using a quaint conflation of the human alphabets and the doggie phonetics to a moderate success.

Now I am pitchforked forward in 2018, but the childlike sensation of reading The Jungle Book still resonates strongly with me in defiance against the existential horrors of life that I deal with everyday. Amid the the detritus of daily chores and duties, I turned to Disney’s remake of The Jungle Book (2016), which I chose to watch on my Kindle Fire a few nights ago. At first blush, I had a certain indisposition to watch the highly-acclaimed film: although I am not altogether unreconstructed in terms of watching a film version of classic literature, I tend to shun adopted film versions of classic literature because of the gratuitous rendering of post modernist revisionist interpretations of the books they put on screen. But such misgiving was proved to be an unnecessary mental albatross.

The Jungle Book is a cinematic eye candy to children and adults with its stunning visual impacts and a spectacular scale of the story set in the background of a deep jungle somewhere in India populated with a cast of magnificent characters representing human characteristics in different forms. To classify this film as an anthropomorphic children’s film is to miss the essence of Kipling’s allegorical allusion of our human nature to multifarious animal forms: Sloth, Integrity, Conscience, Humor, Greed, and Vengeance, all of which is manifested in contact with the nature itself whose essence is of neutrality. It is in this background of nature, which is neither paradise nor hell where our human nature becomes conspicuous in its very essence, a primeval form. The manifestation of such human traits is a fortiori overcome by the figure of Mowgli, a feral child brought by a benevolent wolf family. Mowgli is an emblematic of resilience, independence, and courage against the gravitas of trepidation, death, and despondency.

9780385389839Given the authenticity of the storytelling aligned with the original context by Kipling and the performance of the characters studded with breathtaking scenes of nature so characteristic of Disney’s creative imaginativeness, it is a film worth of the spending your time on screen. It is a kind of film that stimulates your mind by inviting you to think about a meaning of our human life and existence and of our purpose of life. It will also thrill your heart with the adventures of Mowgli in the heart of the jungle and the stereoscopic views of the nature on screen created by a wonderful collaboration of our timeless human imaginations and 21st century feats of technological bona fides.

Passing over

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Divine Pleasure of Reading travels
To the world of imaginations
Perceived by the eye that decodes
Words thru a rapid firing of cells
At the behest of the frontal lobe
Mustering the neuronal minions
To the seat of the noble spirit of
Feelings breathing life into letters
Linking to the sovereign experiences
With the intellectual flexibility to the
Fore to prepare your soul to pass over
To the beyond and the far beyond thither
In a brand new mind evolving evermore.

  • AUTHOR’S FOOTNOTE“Passing over” as used herein is interpreted as immersing yourself in the world of a book you are reading or you have read by identifying yourself with the characters and/or the authors. The term was coined by the late American Roman Catholic priest and theologian John S. Dunne (1929-2013). He referred it to a spiritual experience of entering into the psyches of others and building empathy with them in order to understand their woes, travails, and frailties. This simple but profound concept of spiritual togetherness is wonderfully cogently  applied to the principles and development of our reading brain as the apotheosis of why we read in Proust and the Squid by Dr. Maryanne WolfHence this seemingly riddle-like poem of mine reflects a meaning of reading that depicts a reading process starting from the sensory perception of texts to decoding the perceived texts through reptinotophic organization in neuronal circuits, and to the understanding of the texts in our brain, the final destination to get ready for a journey into the minds of others. 

Divine Serendipity

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Of all the quotations about learning from one’s experience, none is more tangibly perspicacious than one from the English Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821), who sagaciously said, “Nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced.” How rightly so when it reflects a posteriori empirical truth. In fact, nowhere is this more evident than in the case of our health, which is subject to illness due to causes preternatural however trivial or diminutive they may be. For being the experience of a painful ordeal, I say that illness has inculcated in me a profound reverence to the disciples of Hippocrates and medical efficaciousness. I could not have been more appreciative of the remarkable medical progresses we often take for granted, one of which is the benevolent agency of antibiotic that has been saving lives of people from infections since its discovery by Dr. Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) in September 1928.

fleming-rm-af-swDr. Fleming’s finding of Penicillin was something of serendipity or more likely divine providence. Dr. Fleming, an erstwhile captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War I, began researching antibacterial substances at St. Mary’s Hospital in London after witnessing so many deaths of soldiers due to rampant pervasiveness of infections even though the wounds were not seriously intractable. Then one day in August 1928, Dr. Fleming left his bacteria cultures stacked up on a bench before embarking on his family holiday. On his return in September, he found a mould growing in one of his sample cultures, destroying the bacteria. What’s more, the mould produced a substance that destroyed the bacteria responsible for scarlet fever, diphtheria, pneumonia, and meningitis. Dr. Fleming first named it “mould juices” in 1940. Then in 1940, two medical researchers from University of Oxford named Ernst Boris Chain and Howard Florey succeeded in mass-producing penicillin. The concerted collaboration of the three trailblazers of the first modern antibiotic awarded them with the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1945. Indeed, the laborers were worthy of the rewards.

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The discovery and development of Penicillin is akin to Prometheus’s stealing of divine fire to mankind.  By the end of 1940, more than 250,000 patients a month were treated with the antibiotic for a variety of infections that had meant a death sentence for thousand years, ranging from the time immemorial to the medieval when a scourge of the Black Death swept away thousands of lives to even the simple cases of abscess, especially prevalent in the 17th century London where more than 200 people died therefrom, and to the early 20th century case of Alexander of Greece who contracted sepsis from the bite wound by his pet monkey while trying to pacify a fight between his dog and the monkey and died shortly after from the infection. Furthermore, the use of  antibiotic enabled doctors to perform more invasive –i.e., opening a surface of skin and infiltrating into the inner layer of skin with surgical tools – without having to worry about the high risk of infection.

To think that I could have been in the canon of the dead! Dr. Fleming’s breakthrough discovery of penicillin that has heralded all other subsequent medical and medicinal munificent largesses contributing to the human race imbues me with exultation at the blessing of having born in this post-penicillin era when I don’t have to have occasional bloodletting for frequent dizzy spells, to have my tooth crudely pulled out without Novocain by a barber, or to endure the gruesome pain of going through a surgery without anesthesia. On a very rare moment of personal note, I wonder if my existence in this era I am living is whether or not truly divine providence. If so, then let it be, and I am all the more certainly happy that I began to live once again in this post-antibiotic era.