Christmas Carols

I’m generally not one for traditions or custom. I tend to see these as the enemies of thought and imagination. (Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”) I have always craved the new, the roads I haven’t yet traveled. Trying a new restaurant is more fun than revisiting an old haunt.

That said, tradition and custom can act as an anchor, a reference point, or just a comfort. I do have a few customary comforts. For instance, my bottle of champagne on the Solstices (one for sorrow, one for joy). Also, for New Year’s and my blog anniversary.

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, it’s watching as many versions of A Christmas Carol as I can.

It starts with a re-read of the Charles Dickens 1843 text (which is in the public domain and freely available). It’s hard to explain exactly why this story is so profoundly affecting to me. I’m not one for favorites, but bamboo under my fingernails I might confess to loving this story above all others. (Though it does have some close competition.)

A big part of it is the redemption theme and sheer joy that comes at the end when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning. The lifting of a long darkness of the soul. A smaller part is that, in terms of structure and character, it’s just a really damned good story. And how tasty the writing is. (For the life of me, I can’t understand why I’ve never read more Dickens. I keep meaning to.)

I want to share both the Preface (which always makes me smile and gets me in the mood for the story) and the opening text, which always makes me laugh. It’s kind of hysterical and sets an interesting tone in what becomes a very serious and deep story.

Here’s the Preface:

I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, 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, C.D.

What a great, and personal, way to introduce your story. Love it! (Reading it now makes me grin.) BTW: to “lay a ghost” means to get rid of it (as in “laying to rest”).

Here’s the opening text:

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.

(The ‘Change is the Stock Exchange.) Dickens continues with the part that always makes me laugh:

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.

“…or the Country’s done for,” makes me laugh out loud, because I’m already grinning about the door-nail. What’s a little odd is that it’s really the only overt humor in the piece (or “humour” as Dickens would put it). Some of the story gets pretty dark, but there remains a light undertone even so (especially in some of the dialog Scrooge has with Marley’s Ghost).

§

There are three adaptations I consider canonical and always try to catch:

Scrooge (1935). Seymour Hicks as Ebenezer Scrooge. The first feature-length sound version. When the movie was filmed, Hicks had over 2000 performances as Scrooge in stage productions. He’d also been in the 1913 British silent movie version. Suffice to say the role fits him like an old shoe.

This version amps up the social consciousness of the story (very true to Dickens’s original intent — the story is meant as an attack on the class structure of the time). There is a lengthy inserted scene early on contrasting the Lords and Ladies of London feasting at a banquet while the poor beg outside for scraps.

Of my three “canonical” versions, this one has the most Bob Cratchit-looking Bob Cratchit. That banquet scene aside, the script is very faithful to the text (hence my considering it canonical).

One distinction of this version is that Marley’s Ghost is visible only to Scrooge. We only see a door or window open (with a little stage trickery). It’s Hicks’s performance that sells it.

I watched a colorized version on Amazon Prime, and it does seem colorizing old B&W prints has come of age. It was pretty well done and not distracting in the least. No complaints. Given how bad those old prints are, the colorizing actually helped the clarity — more contrast than faded B&W prints show.

A Christmas Carol (1938). Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s interesting how much film technology had changed in just three years. The prints of this version always look better than those I’ve seen of the 1935 version.

This version greatly expands the role of Scrooge’s nephew Fred. For instance, there’s a long scene in church with Fred and his fiancée, Bess, and the movie starts out with Fred having fun sliding on the ice and meeting Peter and Tim Cratchit, two of Bob’s sons.

This version also has a rather well-fed jolly Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart). After the opening scene at Scrooge’s business place, once they leave the office, Cratchit starts playing with some boys throwing snowballs and ends up throwing one at Scrooge!

(Mrs. Cratchit is played by Kathleen Lockhart, and one of the daughters is played by June Lockhart. Yes, that June Lockhart. Lassie’s mom. And a space mom.)

I also used to get a big kick from Leo G. Carroll as Marley’s Ghost. I’d only ever seen him as Alexander Waverly on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. It’s been enough years since I was enamored with that show (wanted to be a spy) that it no longer gives that sense of frisson, but it sure used to!

Scrooge (1951) Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. Getting into the modern era of filmmaking almost two decades later.

This one has Kathleen Harrison as Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s housekeeper. (She’s one of the three that steal and sell Scrooge’s things in the future visions. Some adaptations only feature her in this scene (or not at all); some feature her in other scenes interacting with Scrooge.)

I noticed this version, in the first scene, swaps the order of nephew Fred’s visit and that of the two gentlemen seeking charity donations. In the text, Fred’s exit coincides with their entrance. In this version, Fred visits after they leave.

A tiny thing, but I always wonder about the logic involved. Why the swap? What was deemed better about the change (or worse about the original)? With adaptations, it’s the variances — and their motivations — that interest me most.

For example, two (of many) judgement points for me with the story is: (A) Whether the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge on a journey to points around the world where people are celebrating Christmas. It’s skipped entirely in many adaptations. (B) Whether the Ghost of Christmas Present has Ignorance and Want, those unfortunate children of man. Big points off any adaptation that fails to include these. This version has both.

§

I watched all three on Christmas Eve. Couldn’t pick a favorite; I love all three equally. Each has strong points and weaknesses.

Some of my other judgement points:

Scrooge’s door knocker. It turns into Marley’s face as Scrooge comes through the door. Most adaptations just superimpose the face over the knocker. Given when these were made, no complaint. Extra points, though, for pulling off a morphing trick (as described in the text) where the knocker evolves into Marley’s face and then back into a door knocker. Double extra points if Scrooge looks behind the door at the back of the knocker (as also described in the text).

Each of the three Ghosts, how they’re cast and how they’re implemented.

How the Cratchits are cast and implemented. The variance in both can be considerable. The main criteria, as always, is fidelity to the text (at least in spirit if not literally).

And, as with any adaptation, the Big Three Judgement Points:

  1. What did they presume to change?
  2. What did they decide to remove?
  3. What were they arrogant enough to add.

Perhaps my wording gives away that it’s #3 that usually bothers me the most. Very few adaptors are on par with the source material, which tends to make additions stand out like thumbs with gangrene. I’m rarely okay with additions.

Removals are the least problematic. There are many valid reasons for removing parts of the original (usually for time or relevance — text has more freedom to linger and digress than film or television — you might be surprised at how small most movie and television scripts are).

My three canonical adaptations of A Christmas Carol all do pretty well against my judgement points. Which is why they’re canonical with me and so beloved.

§

On Christmas Day I watched two modern versions, both worthy (but somehow being modern puts me off ever so slightly — the story seems to belong to an age):

A Christmas Carol (1984). George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge. I hadn’t seen this one in years, but this year it was on one of my streaming platforms.

It’s a generally worthy version, but much of it felt grim, joyless, and even a bit pro forma to me. Scott doesn’t quite pull off the joy Scrooge experiences Christmas morning. I wonder if this version was done, not so much of love and desire, as of it seeming like a good idea at the time. I have no major complaint about it, but I’d have to rank this one last among the five good ones I’m listing here.

This one has a number of additions (and what did I just say about that sort of thing, eh?) along with some odd changes. Fezziwig, for instance, is a little guy, and Fred seems especially mellow (he’s usually played as very hearty). He’s played by Roger Rees, which seemed an odd casting choice to me. Lots of additions in the three Ghosts, too.

On the other hand, this one features a young attractive Mrs. Cratchit (Susannah York). A more serious upside: with modern technology the Ghosts are getting better.

A Christmas Carol (1999). Patrick Stewart as Ebenezer Scrooge. Probably my favorite modern version (so long as we don’t consider the Mr. Magoo version modern — that was my gateway drug to the story and still my favorite).

This version earns points for its show-don’t-tell opening (of Marley’s funeral) and for the bit of dialog about being dead as a doornail. Also because Stewart is an outstanding actor who’d already done a series of one-man readings of A Christmas Carol on Broadway and in London. I think he was more comfortable in the role than was Scott.

This one also gets the visitation times right. Tonight at 1:00, tomorrow night at 1:00, and the night after at midnight. Many versions have Marley’s Ghost saying the visitations will all come tonight at 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00. (One version gets cute and says the third Ghost will appear in his own time — which, in fact, is exactly how the story plays out — the third Ghost shows up on the heels of the second one.)

This one also gets right the aging of the Ghost of Christmas Present. (Both these modern versions include Ignorance and Want lurking under his robe.) It’s a worthy version. It even has some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flourishes from the text.

§

Well, that was the good. Turns out there’s a bad. And an ugly. (So ugly!)

§

Scrooge: A Christmas Carol (2022). A Netflix 3D (half-assed) animation. A musical. Massive changes to the text. Scrooge has a dog! I lasted about five minutes and turned that shit off. It was just bad. (Critics apparently agreed.)

Should have known better. Anything made by Netflix has high odds of sucking. They occasionally come out with a gem, but most of their original material is just awful. They seem as bad at picking good stories as Sandra Bullock is at picking good movie scripts (example: Speed vs Speed 2).

A Christmas Carol (2019). Guy Pearce as Ebenezer Scrooge.

Opening scene: Some rando in the graveyard peeing on Marley’s grave. Pan down to Marley in his coffin. Where the piss rains on his face, waking him up, and, um, pissing him off. OM(f)G. Where do I begin? With the infantilism? With the crude shitting all over a classic work? With the sheer arrogance of the idiot who wrote this crap?

Couldn’t turn it off fast enough (and I want to horsewhip the writer).

§

I’ll end with one more quote from the book. Above I mentioned that the “children of man”, Ignorance and Want, are an important part of the story for me. They are, in many ways, what Dickens was really getting at in this story.

I’ll let Dickens speak for himself:

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The bell struck twelve.

And still today, 179 years later, Ignorance and Want remain critical social problems. Socially, we’ve hardly evolved at all.

§ §

Stay caroling, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

18 responses to “Christmas Carols

  • Wyrd Smythe

    A Christmas Carol is one of the more adapted stories in literature. See this Wiki page for a long list of stage productions and various adaptations.

    I didn’t have room in this post to talk about adaptations much, but A Christmas Carol is significant in my thinking because of all those adaptations. In particular, because of the variation among those myriad adaptations.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Remember that the 12 Days of Christmas start on Christmas, so these days we should all be relaxing and taking a breath from the year. It’s the “sabbath” of the year!

    I like to call this time Chillaxmas!

  • Katherine Wikoff

    Mr. Magoo was my gateway, too! Merry Christmas to you! (And Chillaxmas, too!)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      For a children’s cartoon, it’s surprisingly faithful to the text and spirit. My sister still considers it the “scary” adaptation. She did not like the Ghost of Christmas Future!

      Merry Chillaxmas to you and yours!

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    W/r/t your adaptation lament; but first. I haven’t watched any CHRISTMAS CAROL in maybe 40 years? So … .

    I think the propensity for re-making classics is: 1) there’s a built-in audience/market, i.e. less risk. 2) A new story? Really? Wasn’t it you who said there are only seven? 3) building off of 2 – is the THEME can be be modernized, or updated. In this case the “redemption theme”. I think a modern day scrooge would make for a good movie. Yes? complete with smartphone and social media. Ghosts? sure. A lot of people still believe in them. As a matter of fact, just this Christmas I was being told a story of one. Maybe Scrooge finds his personality make-over in therapy?

    Of course that won’t fly if the classic is dependent on a specific time in history – say the Civil War. OUTLANDER plays with that, though. Via TIME TRAVEL. A modern woman finds herself back in time 200 years; but with all her skills and knowledge. And then, of course, the human themes remain – love, creed, sadism, patriotism, etc. and so on.

    One more thing. There are a couple of book tuber girls who have an ongoing open debate – Tolstoy versus Dickens. They read one of each and then debate them. They did Christmas Carol up against Tolstoy’s … I forgot. It’s fun.

    cheers

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Regarding your point (1), that is often the case, and that cynicism often shows through in the final product. Remaking a classic can be a labor of love, though, and that also generally shows through. It can make a real difference.

      Regarding (2), indeed, there are (supposedly) only seven basic plots (A Christmas Carol falling somewhat into #4. The Voyage and Return in its structure, but probably more aptly described as #7. Rebirth and Discovery. To some extent, it also files under #5. Comedy. As you can see, the categories are very broad and reductive. (Kinda have to be if they’re to include all the stories told.) What’s different about an adaptation is the makers claim to be retelling a known story, a story already told. That involves a specific plot and specific characters.

      [And then they often go and make major changes to those, but still call it an adaptation (because marketing). I wish we were sensible enough to accept the moniker “Inspired by” or “Loosely based on” but those don’t market as well (because people).]

      There are some modern day takes. In a very abstract sense, Groundhog Day follows the redemption theme, although the “ghosts” are the magic mechanism that keeps Bill Murray trapped in the same day. But speaking of Bill Murray, he stars as Scrooge in Scrooged (1988), a modern-day retelling (and a pretty decent one). He’s a TV executive.

      There are a number of stories that use the time travel of a modern back to “olden times” idea. Most famous is probably Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Same idea as in Outlander — using modern knowledge to accomplish amazing feats in the past. Octavia E. Butler has a story, Kindred, about a modern Black woman suddenly transported back to deep south slave times. In her case, it involves repeated trips there and back.

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    So yesterday I watched the 1988 Scott version, or some; and had this thought:

    That remakes, or adaptations, are interpretations of classic themes, or stories. George C. Scott’s interpretation of Scrooge. Of course it’s going to be different from the original- that of which came out of Dicken’s mind. Same for the director, etc.

    Question: How would Tom Cruise interpret/play the part? Gene Hackman? Brad Pitt? And so on.

    If you had the money … you know there’s a curious audience.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The 1984 version with George C. Scott was directed by Clive Donner, an accomplished director, so watching the film it can be hard to tell how much of the interpretation belongs to Scott and how much to Donner. As someone who trained to be a film director, I’m naturally biased towards the director! 😎😁 But with equally accomplished actors, one would expect considerable input from them. It varies a lot depending on the actor and the director. Some directors are tyrants who want things done exactly as they envision; some are more prone to let the actors contribute more (or even much or most).

      Cruise, Hackman, and Pitt. I can see it, but it would, I think with Cruise and Pitt, involve changing the story considerably. At the least, make it modern. Hackman could do a period version pretty easily, I’d guess. Hard to say. A lot would depend on the script and director. I’m somewhat of the opinion that famous names can detract from certain roles. It’s hard to forget, for instance, that you’re watching the great George C. Scott. Even the Patrick Stewart version has a whiff of star casting, but Stewart, through his stage readings of the story, has mastered the part and was more able to “disappear” into it.

      If I had the money, oh, yeah, you betcha! (But I’d cast all unknowns.)

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    I finished watching it. I take your point as to the actor / director dyad. W/r/t The Christmas Carol – the story doesn’t move me. So … I like romance and adventure (rescue/hero) rather than morality tales.
    Anyway, have you given writing a screenplay a shot?

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    Those are great! So much comes to mind in reading them. One thing is how those big questions don’t ever get answered. Here we are 50 years later, 2/3 generations, billions of more people, and millions of films made and still … ?

    Yes, the technology has made it all the more easier to create, but better? No.

    Another thing is, I think, you WERE ahead of your time. The 3rd film that you wrote seems like a precursor to Improv. (which btw, my son teaches and coaches now in north Hollywood. He also has classes on script writing, or “write your fucking pilot”.

    So fun to look back in time. And ask “What if?” cheers

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I think maybe when it comes to humans, those big questions don’t have answers so much as points of view. Stories, especially, tend to be opinions. (Or just ripping good yarns; those are valid, too.)

      Sturgeon’s Law is that 90% of everything is crap, but the 10% that isn’t give an artform reason to exist. I’ve seen lots of good new films, but they usually aren’t the blockbusters. Bullet Train, with Brad Pitt, is a hoot, for one, and I’ve enjoyed both Knives Out and the new sequel, Glass Onion. The new Top Gun was really good, too.

      Nah, dude, I wasn’t ahead of anything! 😄 Improv is an ancient art in all forms of performance. We were just aping filmmakers we’d learned about. A general rule in film analysis is that everything you see and hear was planned, but there are exceptions where a director uses improv. Often, the more money involved, the more things are carefully planned.

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    Sometimes the actor “improvs”, yes? And then we have some really good ‘adaptation’. Yes?

    So yeah, it’s complicated – the making of a good/great film. Given that we have only so much to work with.

    I did watch BULLET TRAIN. Thought it unremarkable.

    Anyways …
    Don’t go dark on me. Did I ever tell you about the time …

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Keeping in mind we might mean different things here, to me, improv is more associated with live performance, especially musical (especially jazz and blues). For actors, I’d guess (and I’m pretty out of touch these days, so caveat lector) improv is used a lot as an exercise tool to grow as an actor. It also pops up in some kinds of comedy, especially stage comedy. Some standup comedians use a lot of improv — very noticeable in those who interact with the audience.

      But most stage plays, actors are supposed to stick to their lines. (Improv skills come in handy when they forget!) Most film scenes are shot multiple times, so it’s usually important for an actor to repeat the same exact same performance each take so the scene can be cut together. A key film actor skill is the ability to repeat all those small actions on each take. Let alone the dialog!

      I think we’re talking about two things, though. I don’t see what a single actor does, improv or not, even as the star, as the basis of an adaptation. I would put it that George C. Scott interprets the character (Scrooge). Not through improv, but through his considered opinion on how to play the role. The “improv” — defined as a contribution from the actor — comes earlier in discussions with the director as they develop the adaptation. It’s actually a triad: writer-director-actor. But the writer is often so separate in time (did all their work first), it boils down to director-actor come time to shoot. As I said, some directors let an actor bring the character to life largely on their own, others want it done exactly their way. It’s a spectrum, how much input a director is open to. Some are famous for “none at all” others for letting actors do their own thing. But the needs of stage and camera generally push improvisation itself into development, rehearsal, or vamping for fun.

      True dat Bullet Train isn’t remarkable. Just silly fun that doesn’t take itself seriously. Kinda reminded me of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels or Smokin’ Aces. But I’ve always had a soft spot for assassin movies.

      • Mark Edward Jabbour

        Yes, we’re definitely talking of different things. “Improv” has become a subset of “comedy”. It began, I think, in the 70’s in Chicago. Amy Poehlor and Tina Fey were firsts (?). It’s sort of like baseball. In that each performance is unique. Yet, there are rules. If that makes sense?

        Unlike stand-up comedy, or comedic movies/film, where the performance is scripted via the actor/director/producer interaction. In Improv comedy each performance is … in the moment? It’s a new art form. There are now venues/clubs devoted to “improv”. It’s a new (but old) art form.

        I could go on, and on … but. Never mind.

        Do you know of Dessa? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dessa She’s a white, female, hiphop, singer/writer/poet/performer from the Twin Cites. She’s got a great number: “Fish out of water.”

        You’re 3rd script for film class brought that new art form to my mind, is what I’m saying. Is all.
        cheers, mi amigo

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Totally with you on improv itself! We did it in high school acting classes in the early 1970s. It was a long-established actor’s tool even then. As you say, new (but old). It’s the clubs and public awareness that’s new, and I think you’re right that all started in the 1970s. Chicago Second City, most likely, or similar. Yeah, totally onboard there. We just wandered down a rabbit hole with actor improv and adapting an existing work. #nevermind

        Never heard of Dessa, but I’m pretty out of touch with the music scene! Or the “local” scene. Just don’t pay it much attention anymore.

        Our third film was improv, yes, but that was nothing new. We weren’t tapping into any trend or being innovative. Trust me, film improv is as old as film cameras! Film history has lots of examples. There’s just more public awareness of it now that it’s become a thing. (Yet another way for people to make money. Come to think of it, I think what happened in the 1970s is that it became monetized. Like so many things in modern life, the internet being a prime example.)

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