Job description: There comes a time in every filmmaker's life when the urge to do a period piece strikes. It could be a sword-and-sandals epic, something grim and Russian, or perhaps something by Jane Austen. Some, on the other hand, simply say the dickens with it, and turn to the old master himself. The impressive canon of Charles Dickens has been luring filmmakers almost from the birth of cinema - the first Dickens adaptation, The Death of Nancy Sykes, was shot in 1897 - with more than 100 versions of his novels made during the silent-film era alone. The broad sweep of his stories, his eccentric characters, and the grim, grimy backdrop of the Industrial Revolution are simply too tempting to ignore. Dickens, incidentally, had a lifelong desire to be an actor, and reportedly kept a mirror by his desk so he could act out his characters' expressions as he wrote. Recently seen in: Roman Polanski is the latest director to succumb to Dickens' spell, and draws on his own deprived wartime childhood to bring the tale of Oliver Twist vividly to life. A frail Barney Clark stars as the hapless orphan, while Ben Kingsley almost steals the show as a shrivelled, snaggle-toothed Fagin. The sets and costumes are lavish, and Prague, where much of the film was shot, is by turns gloomy, forbidding and grand. Most likely to say: 'Please, sir, can I have some more?' Classics of the genre: Lon Chaney stars as Fagin opposite Jackie Coogan in Frank Lloyd's 1922 version of Oliver Twist. Then there's David Lean's 1948 adaptation, hailed by many critics as a masterpiece. John Howard Davies is the orphan, Robert Newton the blackguard Bill Sykes, and Alec Guinness almost unrecognisable as Fagin. Or, you might prefer Carol Reed's musical version of 1968, Oliver!, with Mark Lester as Oliver and Oliver Reed in demonic form as Bill Sykes. Director George Cukor and producer David O. Selznick teamed up for a cracking adaptation of David Copperfield (1935), with unforgettable performances by Basil Rathbone, Edna May Oliver and W.C. Fields. If you prefer something more contemporary, check out Bill Murray in Richard Donner's Scrooged (1988), a reworking of A Christmas Carol, with Murray in top form as a misanthropic television executive, who's scared into seeing the error of his ways. Ultimate avatar: Lean's Oliver Twist was excellent, but discerning film buffs regard his Great Expectations, made two years earlier, as even better - the 'definitive great adaptation', if you like. From the gripping opening sequence of a convict stumbling across a storm-shrouded moor to its savage skewering of the rigid caste system of Victorian England, this is a powerful piece from the greatest British director of his time. It starred Anthony Wager as the orphan Pip as a child, John Mills as the adult Pip, Guinness as his friend Herbert Pocket, and Marita Hunt, looking scarily like Queen Victoria, as the sinister spinster Miss Havisham. Not to be confused with: Merchant Ivory productions, anything with Emma Thompson in a bodice, Jamie Oliver.