A Christmas Carol was first published today, December 19, 1843. I wrote this post in 2009 when I saw the Disney 3-D version written by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jim Carrey with Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, and Cary Elwes. It still bothers me that Scrooge is not shorthand for a redeemed soul. Read on.
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I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little post, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.
Their faithful Friend and Servant,
M.A., December 2009
Stave One: The First of the Three Versions
Seeing the new 3D Disney version over Thanksgiving sent me off to finally read the novella to see if they were making stuff up. Their Ghost of Christmas Past looked like a cousin of Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast, and at one point Scrooge seemed to be paying homage to The Rescuers, so I was concerned, although overall the adaptation was very true and enjoyable.
Turns out the GOCP depiction was accurate. Dickens’s description of the first spirit is elaborate, protracted, and very odd. The figure is old and young: “being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body.”
It holds a piece of holly in one hand, and there’s more:
“But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.”
So the depiction wasn’t a Disneyfication: it is very much like a candle, and it carries its own candle snuffer, which it will use to take leave of Scrooge (Dickens never uses “he” or “she” for this spirit.) Turning Scrooge into a 3” high person as he’s fleeing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, however, was very silly, and not of Dickens. The depiction of Christmas Present is true, and he ages to the point of death at the stroke of midnight just like Dickens says he does.
All in all, the Disney version gives life to the story, although if you want a serious film experience, you must, must go the 1951 Alastair Sim version. That’s a brilliant, artful adaptation with Sim’s masterful portrayal of every cell, fiber, and nuance of Ebeneezer. I believe that the magic is because both the actor and the director were of Celtic blood. More about that here.
Stave Two: The Second of the Three Versions
The Paley Center recently screened Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol. It was the first animated special created specifically for TV, predating Rudolph by 2 years. The Magoo character first appeared in a theatrical cartoon short in 1949 (The Ragtime Bear.) Jule Styne and Bob Merrill were hired to write the score, and then went on to write the score for Funny Girl shortly after.
The songs are good. “The Lord’s Bright Blessing” “Ringle, Ringle” and “We’re Despicable” are appealing but not as sticky or classic as “Silver and Gold” and Holly, Jolly Christmas.” And they decided to reorder the Spirits, so that the Ghost of Christmas Present comes first, then Christmas Past. Ye shall not tamper with Dickens!
I like to think that this sacrilege is why Mr. Magoo didn’t entirely enter the Christmas canon, but it’s more likely that the whole ruse of his being dangerously myoptic seemed progressively less funny as society became more sensitized to people with disabilities.
Stave Three: The Last of the Spirits
The manuscript itself. With all these media versions swirling about, I made the pilgrimage down to see it sitting quietly encased in J. P. Morgan’s study, this year turned to page 38. The script handwriting is dense, tightly spaced.
The New York Times partnered with the Morgan Library to photograph the entire manuscript and allow us to see where and how Charles changed his mind.
One change is that he had a tangent about Hamlet being a chump, which he decided not to use. A scholar suggested Shakeapeare was too popular to attack like that, and it does have the scent of an Oedipal issue.
Dickens did keep his hilarious issues with the expression “dead as a door-nail.”
“Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
Hilarious! I love it!!
Stave 4: The End of It
This tale has not been out of print since it was written in 1843. It helped to create the Victorian Christmas celebrations that took root. Mr. Fezziwig alone could have done that. The fact that he wrote it in 6 weeks is the stuff of genius.
As a character of world literature, Scrooge was given a raw deal. His name is associated with abject misanthropy. Yet the point of the story is his (secular) redemption: at the end we are told he is filled with charity and love and generosity. He is the embodiment of the secular spirit Christmas; his name could have come down to us as its synonym. Why doesn't anyone remember that?
“He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. . . . and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”
Maybe in this century the tide will turn for him. He is the avatar of hope: life can harden our hearts, but Scrooge reminds us every year that it can be different. The past does not have to have power over our future. Thank you, Mr. Dickens. What a beautiful gift you have given us.