Charles Dickens' 19th-century tale of a London orphan rescued from a life of street crime has already been adapted umpteen times: for movies, Broadway, TV, even a Disney animated feature with talking dogs. So why on earth would another version, with Sir Ben Kingsley as the kiddie-thief gang boss Fagin (a figure often criticized as anti-Semitic), be just the thing to appeal to director Roman Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood, fresh off the Oscar-winning Holocaust drama The Pianist?
''Roman said he wanted something he could make for children,'' says Harwood. (Polanski, who turns 72 this month, has two preadolescent youngsters Elvis and Morgane with his 39-year-old wife, French actress Emmanuelle Seigner.) ''We were looking for a year after The Pianist. I read fairy stories and sub-J.K. Rowling stuff, but I'm not drawn to that kind of fantasy. One day [Roman] telephoned me and said, 'Oliver Twist.''' That was November of 2003. By Christmas, Harwood had finished the adaptation, and by June 2004, Polanski was in Prague filming the reported $60 million production, both on soundstages and on a massive, meticulously period-accurate outdoor street set. Says Harwood: ''It was the quickest thing I've ever known. No hiccups it just went.''
Was the 18-week shoot hard on 11-year-old Barney Clark, a comparatively inexperienced actor, in the title role? No way, says his 23-year-old costar Leanne Rowe, who plays Bill Sikes' doomed girlfriend Nancy. According to Rowe, the lad was indefatigable: ''He was having the time of his life. He had to be dragged off to his lessons at lunchtime when he wanted to sit and have a chat with us. I'm sure his tutor had the hardest job on set, trying to keep Barney's interest on math and English rather than filming a movie.''