I watched another DVD over the weekend, Polanski's Oliver Twist. Apart from Ben Kingsley as Fagin and Edward Hardwicke as Mr Brownlow, most of the actors were not well known.
I guess the best known version of the book is Lionel Bart's Oliver!, the musical version and an altogether sunnier approach than this. The classic David Lean/Alec Guiness version is the best reviewed. Then there was a TV version written by Alan Bleasdale(co-production between Carlton and WGBH/Boston) in which he wrote a back-story based on some hints in the last chapter of the novel. That version had some well known TV actors in Robert Lindsay, Lindsay Duncan, Julie Walters and Michael Kitchen. Alan Armstrong turned up in both this version and Polanski's though playing different parts.
The Alec Guinness Fagin is such an immense characterization that it must intimidate anyone trying to perform a new version. They tend to go for gimmicks - music, a new back-story - in order to breathe some freshness into such a well known story.
Does Polanski succeed? Not really. Kingsley follows the Guinness path and even has a bit of Ron Moody about him, but nothing original. Nancy is less sympathetic than Shani Wallis makes her in Oliver! Jamie Foreman does not seem as evil as Oliver Reed. One interesting fact - the actor who played Sykes in the TV version was Andy Serkis. Yes Gollum! and King Cong!
I was under 10 when I first saw the black and white version in the cinema. I doubt I will ever find a better one.