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KS3/4 English: Oliver Twist (1948)

Exploring audience's inferences about the narrative

Main image of KS3/4 English: Oliver Twist (1948)
AuthorJessica Hardiman
TopicOliver Twist
Key Words Dickens, Victorian, Lean, pathetic fallacy, atmosphere, adaptation, suspense, Oliver
Show full lesson spec

The opening sequence of this, the second of Lean's Dickens' adaptations

A useful extract for teaching how Dickens' subtle implications can be interpreted through close textual analysis.

This lesson idea works without any prior knowledge of the story of Oliver Twist. Students are taught to infer and deduce from close textual analysis, and will scaffold their ability to do so through their analysis of the film's opening sequence. This lesson can be used to encourage close reading of both media, and is also useful for discussing the purpose of summaries, and how to write one.

Lesson Objective

  • To understand how Lean makes the audience aware of background to the novel, without using a narrator.
  • To be able to summarise information given in the first chapter.


Show the students the very first scene of the film, ending before Oliver's mother is seen dying in the workhouse. Ask the students to take notes about:

  • what they can see/hear
  • what they can infer from this about what is happening in the film
  • what they can infer about what atmosphere the director wishes to create, and why this might be.

Students should feedback their ideas. This may be a suitable opportunity to tell/remind students that there are possible alternative interpretations, and that these are equally valid, if supported with a clearly explained example of textual evidence.

When taking feedback as the students to use modal verbs to explain the inferences they made.


Main Attraction

Ask the students what a summary is, and when it might be necessary to summarise something. Relate this to the role of a director adapting a film: what possible challenges might a director face when adapting a novel into a film?

Read the first and second chapter of Oliver Twist as a class, beginning immediately following the death of Oliver's mother. (Depending on the ability of the class, this may take two lessons, the first being one in which the students stop after the next activity.)While reading, ask the students to focus on picking up what happens in the story, who the characters are, and what details they find out.

The students feedback their findings. Ask them, in a pair, to decide on a maximum of six small set scenes to recommend to David Lean (excluding the set piece they have already watched). Ask students to have reasons to explain their choices ready to feedback to the rest of the class. (Extension: ask students to think about whether they would keep exactly the same order as Charles Dickens' first chapter, or whether they might change this. Whatever their decision, ask the students to explain their reasoning to one another.)

At the end of this feedback, ask the students to suggest possible ways that the director might be able to convey the key points without including every detail given by Dickens. Ask the students whether they feel that film provides an easier medium for condensing details.

Now, ask students to write up a short summary of the first/second chapter (suggested word limit: 150 words), in letter format (as if writing to David Lean in advance of the filming of the first chapter), practising condensing the information into the key points (not excluding any details they feel essential to the forthcoming plot). Students should add to this their suggestions (gathered in the secondary part of feedback, above) for how the summarised version might be filmed.


End Credits

Slightly more time should be spent on this plenary in order to enable the students to apply their work on summaries/ atmosphere/ film techniques to a detailed discussion of the film.

Students should now watch the remainder of chapter one, and discuss what they felt the director prioritised in his version. Which parts did he omit/include? Ask the students to explain their ideas. At this point if time permits invite the students who completed the extension on ordering the events to suggest how Lean manipulated the opening chapter, and how this contrasted/compared to their ideas.


External Links

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Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Oliver Twist (1948)Oliver Twist (1948)

Read more about this film

See also

Thumbnail image of Lean, David (1908-1991)Lean, David (1908-1991)

Director, Writer, Editor

Thumbnail image of Dickens on FilmDickens on Film

The 19th Century literary giant has long been a favourite of filmmakers