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December 7, 2012

The Christmas Gift That Changed David Abrams’ Life

Posted by tom

David Abrams is the author of FOBBIT, a comedy about the Iraq War that Publishers Weekly called “an instant classic” and named a Top 10 Pick for Literary Fiction in Fall 2012. In this piece, David talks about how the movie musical Oliver! and the book OLIVER! AND HIS FRIENDS changed the course of his life and helped shape him into the writer that he is today.

As much as gingerbread, Bing Crosby, and the happy sibilant rip of wrapping paper, I associate Christmas with bowls of gruel, barefoot orphans, and singing prostitutes.

When I was five years old, my parents took me to see a movie that, at the risk of sounding hyper-dramatic, would change the course of my life. Everything I am as a writer today --- the way I create characters, the lines of dialogue I put in their mouths, the fateful twists of plot --- can be traced in a direct line back to the 1968 movie musical Oliver! This was my first formal introduction to Charles Dickens, and it would permanently shape my impression of him as a bearded, pouch-eyed man who made squalor and misery something worth singing about.

It would be at least another decade before I read one of Dickens’ novels --- and another two decades after that before I actually sat down with OLIVER TWIST --- but I was already connecting our greatest dramatic novelist with doe-eyed urchins, plucky pickpockets and tradesmen dancing jigs through the streets of London. Yes, in hindsight I realize Hollywood bastardized the story and took most of the teeth out of a sharp-edged social satire, but at the time I was mesmerized by the sight of all that color and movement and music pouring off the screen. Indeed, it was a fine life, as prostitute Nancy (Shani Wallis) sings to us in the exuberant tavern scene.

Oliver! was released in the second week of December, and, if my often-unreliable memory serves me well, my parents took me to see it at the State Theater in Kittanning, Pennsylvania. I walked into that theater a child, but I emerged two hours later as a writer-in-training, already thinking well beyond his years to the artful ways in which novels are built, layered with characters’ lives, and braided into a satisfying whole.

Not that I was deconstructing narrative in terms that clearly back then. I was probably more interested in the box of cinnamon imperials my parents purchased for me at the snack counter, not noticing that even as I was enraptured in the joys of candy, Oliver was begging Mr. Bumble for more porridge.

Oliver! worked its way into my system and stayed there as a story with which I could identify: lonely little boy feels like he’s all alone in the world, quietly sings himself to sleep at night, likes older women. Yes, that was me.

My love affair with the orphans of Charles Dickens solidified when my parents placed a thin, rectangular gift for me under the Christmas tree that year (at least I think it was Christmas; maybe it was my birthday and my faulty memory, ever the storyteller, wants to dramatically change it to Christmas).

I ripped away the sibilant paper, tearing a gash across the face of a book: OLIVER! AND HIS FRIENDS by Mary Hastings (“freely adapted from Charles Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST”). My parents could have given me a Red Ryder BB gun or a pony and I would have ignored them for this treasure --- a book whose cover shows Oliver (Mark Lester) surrounded by a gold-hued collage of his friends from the movie (though “friends” is a loose term since a glowering Bill Sykes is on there, too). Inside, each page of text was accompanied by a full-color still from the movie. Though I was just beginning to read and most of the words were beyond my vocabulary, I spent hours and hours with that book, reliving Dickens’ novel through the pictures. I entered his world, I became best friends with the Artful Dodger, I considered myself part of the furniture. Without even noticing it, I had surrendered to the writer and passed through that permeable wall between reality and fiction.

Freely adapted --- or corrupted, as the case may be --- OLIVER! AND HIS FRIENDS has proven to be one of the greatest Christmas presents I ever received: the gift of story.