The Children. Where the Wild Things Are. Children on screen regularly evoke social anxieties or critique, as filmmakers play with our associations of the child with innocence and nature.

Films like Sin Nombre (Mexico, 2009) document life under a marauding, unforgiving neoliberal capitalism.

The first edition cover of Oliver Twist, illustrated by George Cruikshank: “It’s all among Workhouses, and Coffin Makers, and Pickpockets” reported Lord Melbourne to Queen Victoria, who replied, “I don’t like those things.”

Dickens’ endangered child appealed to the Victorians as a “little citizen...whose relation to the social realm is made necessary by the fact of their endangerment.”

The “radicalishness” of Dickens’ novel hinges on an abstract, fundamentally sentimental image of childhood.

From the playful, slightly devious Spanky of the pre-WW2 Our Gang series to the streetwise Iris in Taxi Driver (1976), children’s cinematic roles tend to play off the trope of innocence.

David Lean stays close to the text and texture of Dickens’ novel, as a diminutive and softly lit Oliver here asks for “more.”

The Oliver in Carol Reed’s 1968 film is impish, yet still fundamentally naïve.

Roman Polanski’s updated Oliver lacks the wide-eyed innocence of Reed’s and Lean's.

“I know there is goodness in him, goodness and innocence,” says Mr. Brownlow of Polanski’s Oliver – perhaps to ensure the audience’s sympathy for a more sullen Oliver.

As the credits role, Oliver is affirmed as the saintly innocent in need of protection, and as such, the lever of social critique Dickens and Polanski intend.


Capitalist childhood in film: modes of critique

by Susan Ferguson

This paper explores the latent political meanings of cinematic representations of capitalist childhood. The films it examines—three adaptations of the Oliver Twist story, Slumdog Millionnaire and a lesser-known Korean film, Treeless Mountain—have much in common: they feature abandoned or orphaned child characters who negotiate precarious existences in a rapacious crisis-ridden capitalist world. But the filmmakers’ evolving imaginings of childhood—from the Victorian vulnerable child to more postmodern understandings of children as agents in their own right—invite distinct political responses. While the Dickensian mode of critique rests problematically on an abstract idealized notion of childhood, attempts to update the image of childhood on screen—as in Slumdog—lead to a depoliticization of childhood within the text. Treeless Mountain and other similar “global child” films, however, forge a new—and newly political—filmic approach to childhood. In exploring children’s subjectivities, they pick up on children’s creative, sensual and active engagement with the world, a way of being in the world that Walter Benjamin explores and that children’s geographers have documented in numerous field studies. As such, they reject abstract, idealized conceptions of children as victims or agents. Yet, in capturing the imaginative, embodied ways in which children (re)produce their lives in the neglected landscapes of global capitalism, they retrieve the political, critical, potential of childhood. Rather than the sentimental paternalism of the Dickensian critique, “global child” films suggest a politics of transformation and solidarity.


The child can be, and almost always is, a powerful presence on the screen. As “modern society’s myth of both origins and destiny, our explanation of who we are and what we will become” (Gillis, 33), the child bears a varied and often contradictory but nonetheless intense symbolic weight. From denoting innocence and nature to eroticism, evil and anti-authoritarianism, childhood has long been a handy and effective device for filmmakers aiming to awaken in their audiences a sense of social anxiety and/or, more usefully, social critique. Indeed, the latter, the capacity of the cinematic child to inspire critique, is often inextricably tied to the former, her capacity to elicit sympathy, pathos, and thus fear and anger. This “Dickensian” mode of social critique relies on foregrounding sentimentalized images of the innocent, natural and often helpless child struggling in a harsh and unnatural world. However effectively this fits the “political and emotional agenda of the interested adult critic,” Karen Lury suggests, it “fails to act or represent [the child’s] own interests and desires” (109).  Rather, it relies on an essentialized abstraction of childhood, albeit one that contains real-world meaning insofar as it invites a sense of moral outrage tinged with nostalgic misgivings about contemporary society.

But at a time when the Western conceit that casts childhood as a period of innocence and wonder is increasingly difficult to sustain, filmmakers are striving to update the image of the child, depicting her as an active participant in her own world, as a “subject” or “agent” in her own right, not all that distinct from adults. Their efforts correspond with the scholarly trend over the last twenty years away from positioning the child as a passive “object” of socialization (James and Prout, Qvortrup et al). This shift in approach in Childhood Studies and related disciplines also has its difficulties. There is a tendency, as Alan Prout and others have pointed out, to emphasize agency and being at the expense of children's socio-political marginalization and their socio-biological developmental realities. And certainly the dominant, Hollywood image of the (postmodern) child similarly neglects these constraints on child agency, offering up a newly—albeit differently—essentialized child. In the process, the cinematic child loses its fangs. Rather than functioning as a lever of social critique, childhood as portrayed in films like Slumdog Millionaire (discussed below) arguably contributes to the naturalization and celebration of capitalist individualism and inequality.

Many independent filmmakers, however, have updated the cinematic child in a way that retrieves the potential critical meaning of childhood while avoiding the sentimentalism of the Dickensian treatment. In offering “new representations of a child’s subjectivity, new filmic apprehensions, or imprints, of child identities” (Wilson, 332), their films explore children’s subjectivity in a non-essentialized manner, focusing not simply on what she does or doesn’t accomplish in the world, but also on how she exists in and interacts with and within the world. Though they abandon the simple representation of childhood as vulnerable and innocent, they do not abandon social critique. Far from it. Like Dickens’ 19th century novels, films such as Machuca (Chile, 2004), Treeless Mountain (South Korea, 2008), Ballast (USA, 2008), and Sin Nombre (Mexico, 2009), (hereafter referred to as “global child” films) document the hardships of capitalism in its marauding, unforgiving neoliberal form. But the films’ political work operates at a distinct emotional level, one that doesn’t rely on and is arguably more profound than the moralism and nostalgia associated with the Dickensian mode of critique. In exploring children’s subjectivities, these films foreground the intuitive, embodied ways of knowing that children display sometimes when they work and always when they play. That is, they pick up on children’s creative, sensual and active engagement with the world, a way of being in the world which, as Walter Benjamin observes lies dormant within adults (the intended viewers) who have long ago out-learned—but not wholly forgotten—it.[1] [open endnotes in a new window] Such a Benjaminian mode of critique arguably invites a more visceral, less rationally contained response than do films deploying the traditional Dickensian critical tropes. But it is nonetheless a response with a radical political edge in its potential to inspire historical, and thus political, consciousness of the sort that can lead to a politics of solidarity and transformation.[2] That is, the image of the child in these films finds its critical, radical edge in its potential to awaken in viewers their (childish) sense that the world could be other than it is.

The Dickensian mode of social critique

Contemporary reactions to Charles Dickens’ 1837 story, Oliver Twist, or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, were mixed. While Queen Victoria found it “excessively interesting,” her prime minister, Lord Melbourne, was less enthralled, reporting to the Queen that “It’s all among Workhouses, and Coffin Makers, and Pickpockets . . . I don’t like those things”(Horne, xiii). But it is Reverend R. H. Barham who identified what was both unsettling and enthralling about the story: “There is a sort of Radicalish tone about Oliver Twist,” he commented disapprovingly shortly after its first installment appeared in Bentley's Miscellany (Horne, xiv).

The novel’s radicalishness is evident in the way in which the text parodies the inhumanity of the treatment of the poor. With his many quips and stories, such as the one about the “experimental philosopher’s” horse who would have lived on even less than a straw a day had he not first died, or the pauper who obstinately “chooses” to die on the street, Dickens exposes the cruel absurdity of the Malthusian-inspired 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. That Act made workhouse labour a condition of relief, instituting the principle of “less eligibility” to dissuade the “undeserving” poor from applying (Berry, 32-36).[3]

But the novel’s political meaning also has much to do with the social realism of Dickens’ writing. The story exposes the underbelly of 19th century industrial capitalism, the poor and criminal elements, and their lives as they negotiated the degrading conditions of the parish workhouse and London slums. Scenes constructed around food and the lack of it, passages evoking the odors and other sensations of the streets and markets, and recurring references to death by starvation or hanging forcefully evoke the embodied way in which an urban, rapidly industrializing capitalism is lived. And insofar as Oliver traverses between this impoverished, insecure everydayness (where, significantly, he finds some refuge and friendship among thieves), and the genteel, tranquil pleasures of his time spent with Rose and Mr. Brownlow (where he also confronts the greed and dishonesty of his half-brother Monk), he comprises the narrative device by which Dickens reveals society’s internal relationship of hardship and privilege.[4]

Oliver, however, is much more than this. Dickens was at the forefront of a current of 19th century writers—literary, scientific and popular—who drew upon not just the child but the victimized child in particular as a lever of social critique (Berry). The endangered child appealed to the Victorians because she was at once subject and object: a moral self, a being with an “interiority” that mattered, and a social self, a being of this world. Berry writes,

“Children in distress can be seen as little citizens, persons whose sovereignty as selves is secured by their unformed and innocent status as children, but whose relation to the social realm is made necessary by the fact of their endangerment” (4).

And the child orphan arguably throws this tension between self and society into even greater relief. Extracted from familial associations which would otherwise mediate the child’s relation to society, the orphan is both more radically individualized and more starkly embedded in impersonal social forces. Her very existence as an orphan short-circuits any question of parental responsibility for her well-being and demands a societal, hence political, response.

Dickens’ Oliver is indeed the archetypal victim. He’s an innocent, homeless waif who escapes the tyranny of the workhouse matron and parish beadle only to fall prey to the “artful” manipulations of a den of thieves. His helplessness is extraordinary, with almost every change in fortune attributable to others, be it his arrest for a pick-pocketing he witnesses but does not commit or Rose’s secret counsels with Nancy to secure his ultimate release from Fagin and Sikes. While not entirely lacking, Oliver’s agency is always ambivalent. For instance, he lashes out violently at Noah Claypole, the charity boy apprenticing with the coffin-maker, and subsequently decides to run away to London. But this occurs only in response to the extreme provocation of Noah’s ruthless, relentless taunting (Dickens, 47-55). Even the pivotal workhouse dining hall scene in which Oliver begs for “some more” is not in fact his initiative. Rather, he draws the short straw, and “desperate with hunger and reckless with misery,” he heeds the goading of the other boys to advance upon the master (Dickens, 15). However powerfully this scene goes to the heart of the social issues of the day, representing the daring and dangers of the poor making their claim on the rich, Oliver remains more conduit for the wishes of others than agent in his own right, “an empty stage on which . . . historically typical forces contend” (Eagleton, 128).

This “absence from his own narrative” (Eagleton, 128) centrally defines the Dickensian use of the child as a mode of social critique. Oliver may be a moral—in fact saintly—being, his goodness and innocence evidence of the state of nature from which he sprung.[5] In this he resembles the free subject of liberal philosophy. Yet he is hardly an autonomous being. Rather, he is bound by the society in which he moves—a condition that overdetermines his being, robbing him of a robust agency, and rendering him more object than subject in the world (Berry, 55-58). As vessel for such freighted meanings—the natural goodness of mankind threatened by brutish social forces—Oliver invites the reader’s sympathy and anxiety. He taps into their nostalgic connection to childhood as a time of innocence outside of history, and fears about its loss, functioning as an objectified “other” through whose putatively innocent eyes the status quo is judged (Mecchia). The political, radical edge of the novel thus turns on a highly abstract, idealized understanding of what a child is, and the fundamentally sentimental urge this image produces to protect that (never actually existing) child and return to the (never actually existing) state of nature Oliver represents.[6]

Film versions of the novel do not fundamentally alter these Dickensian qualities, although their evolving representations of Oliver are in keeping with a broader trend of representing children in U.S. film. According to Kathy Merlock Jackson, the “innocent child in jeopardy” (35) of the silent film era partially gave way to the more happy-go-lucky pre-WWII child of the sort featured in the Our Gang series or Shirley Temple films. After the war, however, children’s darker side was also featured. Not only does the child monster appear by the 1970s (e.g., The Exorcist, 1973; The Omen, 1976), but even good kids were increasingly depicted as “lonely, searching, and often deeply troubled...more worldly and precocious” (Jackson, 184) as in the streetwise Tatum O'Neal (Paper Moon, 1973) or Jodie Foster (Taxi Driver, 1976). Taken together, the three film versions of Oliver Twist examined here follow exactly in this trajectory.[7] From pure innocence and vulnerability, to the playfully good, to the more complex and knowing, Oliver’s transformation reflects the shifting perceptions of childhood in the film industry.

In his 1948 Oliver Twist, director David Lean stays close to the original story’s text and texture, with camera work and editing that convey a sense of poverty amidst plenty, the criminality of law and order, and the sensual disorientation of being a small body in a big city. Oliver is both saintly and naive, his expressions often uncomprehending, his face softly lit. Aside from the workhouse dining hall scene and fight with Noah, Oliver is passively reliant on the kindness or cruelty of others. Even in the culminating scene, in which Bill Sikes drags him onto the steep London rooftops, he screams for help only after the crowd below has been alerted to his whereabouts by a falling brick. Chance, fate and adults control his destiny.

Twenty years later, Carol Reed’s Oliver! portrays the orphan as innocent and goodly as well, but in keeping with the upbeat nature of the musical genre, more impish. He is a playful, more active lad, scrambling onto dining hall tabletops and window grates, temporarily escaping capture after his timid request for “more” is denied. Similarly, he scampers with Dodger through the London streets, seemingly anxious to join Fagin’s crew “on the [pick-pocketing] game.” And later, setting out alone on an errand for Mr. Brownlow, Oliver is at least partially author of his own destiny: distracted by a street puppet show, he lets his guard down long enough for Nancy and Bill to grab him and return him to the criminal underworld.

It’s not until 2005, with Roman Polanski’s version of the novel that we meet a more complex, less pure, Oliver. To begin, he is more confident. In the pivotal workhouse scene, there is a slight swagger in his gait on the long walk up the dining hall to ask for more, and the ensuing scene shows Oliver giving chase, but not his ultimate capture. Polite and generally compliant, he lacks the sweetness of previous versions. From his initial encounter with Dodger, he seems aware he is implicated in something immoral, first accepting the bread he knows is stolen, and then following his new mate back to their “lodgings” with a sullen resignation. He even appears mildly put off by the mock formality of Fagin’s elaborate bow of greeting. Without diverging radically from the storyline, Polanski gives his child protagonist some say in the unfolding events, including a scene in which he deliberately (if meekly) foils the burglary Sikes has implicated him in.[8]

Yet Oliver retains the aura of innocence and vulnerability that characterizes the Dickensian mode of social critique. Indeed, Polanski works to strike a balance between a knowing and naive subject, so that while his Oliver conveys some skepticism and sullen awareness of his circumstances, he still registers confusion and shock at his new mates’ thieving practices, and he is quiet and reserved before both Mr. Brownlow and Fagin, indeed graciously thanking them for their kindness. “I'll always remember it,” he tells Fagin. And in case the audience fails to pick up on Oliver’s traditionally childish qualities, Polanski writes it directly into the script: “I’ve never met anyone so green,” exclaims Dodger’s sidekick Charlie, as Oliver appears (but maybe not fully) to believe the boys have themselves made the wallets and handkerchiefs they turn over to Fagin. Similarly, Mr. Brownlow’s comment, “I know there is goodness in him, goodness and innocence,” may well speak to the filmmaker’s concern that a more sullen Oliver requires an explicit verbal affirmation of these qualities to ensure his audience extends their sympathy.

While Polanski’s orphan appears more agentic than his forerunners, he ultimately serves as a pawn in a game over which he exerts no real control. Buffeted between the kindness and cruelty of adults, his fate is sealed only when Sikes slips and hangs himself on a rope used to aid his escape along the London rooftops. The film’s final scene shows an expressionless Oliver sitting in the carriage pulling away from the prison where he has just visited Fagin, Mr. Brownlow’s protective arm wrapped around his shoulders—a wiser Oliver perhaps, but nonetheless a child in need of protection. 

Polanski’s portrayal of Oliver is of particular interest because he struggles to update Oliver so that his depiction fits more easily with contemporary sensibilities about childhood. Yet, he cannot afford to go too far in this direction without undermining the critical sensibilities of the story itself. Oliver cannot be both a self-creating, savvy child and a lever of social critique, evoking sympathy and anxiety from the audience. Thus, even in 2005, the tension between the Victorian and postmodern representations of the child is resolved in favor of the former. As I show below, this same tension surfaces in Slumdog Millionaire, but is resolved in favor of the postmodern child. It is one of the more remarkable achievements of the global child films I then turn to discuss, that their depictions of childhood evade this tension, reconfiguring the cinematic apprehension of childhood in a way that gives rise to a distinct mode of social critique

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