A Christmas Carol (1843)
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
With Disney’s new 3-D computer-animated A CHRISTMAS CAROL leading the weekend box office, and with the holiday season rapidly approaching, now seems like a good time to take a look back on the previous screen incarnations of Ebeneze Scrooge. Rubber-faced comic star Jimy Carrey is far from the first actor to embody the cold-hearted old sinner conceived and created by author Charles Dickens in his 1843 novel, A Christmas Carol (sometimes known by the longer title A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas). Dozens of actors (and at least a few actresses, including Susan Lucci in the 1995 TV movie EBBIE) have played variations of the role on stage, screen, and radio. Everybody from Alistair Sim to Albert Finney, from George C. Scott to Patrick Stewart, has taken a turn as old Ebenezer, and such is the strength of the source material that almost all of them are interesting in their own way.
But what of that original material? Thanks to Hollywood, novels, stories, and fiction in general have come to seem almost like nothing more than fodder for adaptations; in fact, a book almost isn’t a success in its own right — it’s merely a rough draft for the filmic treatment, and if Hollywood doesn’t think it’s worth filming, then — hey, it must not have been worth reading in the first place. And sometimes it’s not worth reading even if there is a film version. There have been more than a few cases where the film has almost completely supplanted the novel in the public consciousness, and this is certainly true in the realms of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. A brief list might include Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wizard of Oz, Psycho, and even The Exorcist. Let’s face it: a big part of the reason that Stephen King is so well known (besides the fact that he’s a bestseller) is that so many movies have been made from his books that you don’t have to read at all to hear and know his name.
All of which returns us to our point about A Christmas Carol: Charles Dickens original literary version of the story is a genuine classic in its own right that deserves to be read. In fact, instead of running out to see the new Jim Carrey film, it would probably be a better investment of your time and money if you were to pick up a copy of the novel at your local library or bookstore, then read it, at least to yourself and preferably aloud to those you love, be it family, friends, spouses, or lovers. The novelette runs only five chapters (or “staves,” as they are called), so it is hardly an overwhelming investment of time; the returns will be greater than you can imagine.
Of course, being so short, it’s not as if the Dickens tale is filled with plot details that had to be excised for the movie and television adaptations. You’re not going to find all sorts of sophisticated ideas that had to be toned down to make a mass-appeal movie. The truth, of course, is that Dickens was writing a popular tale, so it’s not as if the filmmakers had to move it any further in that direction.
No, what you will derive from reading this story is the richness of the language, the magic of a prose style perfectly calculated to tell the tale at hand. The brief excerpt at the top of this page should give you some clue as the amusement that awaits you: the overemphatic stress on a point that could have been made in a single sentence, the attempt to convince the reader as if overcoming some sort of resistance to the idea being stated — this points to a joy at the use of words as tools of entertainment. By the time Dickens moves into the second paragraph of the story, featuring his doubts regarding what is particularly dead about a doornail (as opposed to a coffin nail), you will know beyond any doubt on your part that you are indeed in for a fine evening’s entertainment. (Oh, did I say this story is best read around an open fire in the quiet hours of the evening? Well, there now.)
Your tongue will occasionally stumble across a Victorian colloquialism, but you should be able to figure out the gist from the context. (I myself am still not sure what “good upon ‘Change” means, except that it seems to imply Scrooge’s name was the equivalent of legal tender [i.e., money]; therefore, it had some intrinsic value or validity for whatever it was applied to.) Whatever the stumbling blocks, they won’t be enough to impede you from enjoying a rich piece of fiction that will delight you, no matter how many times you’ve seen the story acted out.
Depending on which adaptation is most familiar, you will encounter a few surprises. For example:
- In the various flashbacks depicting Scrooge’s younger self, Dickens does not chart his rise as a successful businessman – a fact given closer scrutiny in the 1951 film starring Alistair Sim.
- The Ghost of Christmas Past, often portrayed by a woman on film, is described as a “strange figure – like a child; yet not so like a child as like an old man viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the apperance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions.”
- Perhaps most interesting, despite the numerous dramatic depictions of Scrooge as a gray-haired old man, Dickens never specifies his age, beyond calling him a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner” – which seems to be intended as more metaphorical than literal. From the details given in the story (Scrooge has a young nephew, married but without children), we would infer that Ebenezer is middle-aged.
It is also worth noting that, for an author not associated with the horror genre, Dickens well knew how to manipulate his literary elements to produce a shuddery effect. A Christmas Carol may be best remembered for its sweetness of spirit, embodied in The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Present, but Marley’s apparation – bound in chains, jaw dropping open when he unties the handerchief holding it in place – is an effectively ghoulish one. And the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – shrouded in a black robe, face unseen beneath a hood, voiceless – eerily evokes the figure of Death (imagery put to good grim use in film versions, even the comic spoofs). With these sublimely spooky moments – along with a ghostly carraige and the bizarre moment when Marley’s face replaces the knocker on Scrooge’s door – the novelette easily lives up to its subtitle A Ghost Story of Christmas
Dickens’ ultimate triumph is that he sells Scrooge’s transformation. As greedy and avaricious as the character is, somehow the seeds of redemption have been planted, so that we believe whole-heartedly his change of heart at the conclusion. Confronted by the ghostly visitations on Christmas Eve, anyone might proclaim themselves a changed man; Dickens convinces us that Scrooge will follow through in the days and years to come. And not merely out of self-interest (he wants to avoid the lonely death shown him by the Ghost of Christmas Future) but out of a new – or, more precisely, renewed – connection with humanity.
I won’t belabor my point any further, except to say that I try to revist this enchanting story every Christmas season. This is not meant to dissuade you from watching the many wonderful film and television adaptations; rather it is a suggestion that you visit the wonderful source material. Instead of watching a particular version of A Christmas Carol for the umpteenth time, why not take those two hours and read it? You will be glad you did.
And then, after emmersing yourself in Dickens’ fanciful world of Yuletide spirits and ghostly visitations, you may find yourself with a whole new appreciation of the adaptations that followed.
[NOTE: This article is the first in a series. Subsequent installments will examine some of the more notable film and television adaptations of Dickens’ story.]