A Ghost Story for the Ages - Banner

Mr. Magoo did it. So did the Muppets, Mickey Mouse, and Star Trek’s Patrick Stewart. In fact, Stewart did it on television and live on stage in an award-winning one-person performance. Jim Carrey did it (in 3D). Matthew McConaughey did it at a wedding, and Henry Winkler did it in Depression-era New England.

It’s been done on bare stages with no set or costumes, in colorful and elaborate period film extravaganzas, in black and white, with puppets and two-dimensional cartoon figures. It’s been at least two operas, a ballet, no fewer than twenty-one films, and fifty television shows—including episodes of such favorites as Sanford and Son, Sesame Street, The Flintstones, The Odd Couple, Family Ties, and Northern Exposure. (Set during Yom Kippur, the episode was titled “Shofar So Good.”)

It was, however, first (and to many purists like me, first and foremost) a novel. A beloved novel.

It is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the extraordinary tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his Christmas-season visits with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come.

First published in London in 1843 (in desperate need of cash, Dickens wrote the book in a mere six weeks), the book began a tradition of Dickens Christmas tales and virtually invented the modern Christmas. Drawing on the popular European custom of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve (some say to coincide with the Winter Solstice—the longest night of the year), Dickens wove a parable of ghostly visits, human benevolence, social responsibility, innocent childhood, and spiritual redemption.

It was an immediate bestseller—selling out the entire first printing of six thousand copies in a mere five days. (This first printing was released on December 19 and sold out by Christmas Eve.) Unusually high production costs (gold-stamped front cover, gilt-edged pages, expensive hand-colored illustrations by the nation’s premier book illustrator) and a low sales price of five shillings apiece (Dickens wanted the poor he celebrated in the novel to be able to afford a copy) meant that Dickens earned less than a quarter of what he had hoped. Some sources claim he actually lost money in the transaction.

What he lost in coin of the realm, however, he gained in immortal fame. Is there a character in all of Western literature so unanimously despised as Ebenezer Scrooge, so universally pitied as Bob Cratchit, so unconditionally beloved as Tiny Tim?

Is there any person in the English-speaking world who, when confronted with one of the dozens upon dozens of remakes, imitations, and recasts, does not recognize the conceit and know the source?

Imagine what it must have been like to be among the first generation of readers to witness Scrooge’s dismissing his nephew’s invitation to Christmas dinner as “Humbug!” or Tiny Tim’s plaintive prayer, “God bless us, every one.”

Imagine being the creator of such a work! (If only Dickens could have any idea how ubiquitous his concept and his characters have become!)

This is not to suggest, however, that all Christmas Carol adaptations and derivatives are equal. Probably the best film adaptation in “recent” years is the 1992 Muppet Christmas Carol. It is the most faithful to the original text; Gonzo the Great appears as narrator Charles Dickens and quotes verbatim from the novel. Except for the addition of songs (quite nice songs, actually) and a little twentieth-century-American humor, there are no significant changes to the plot, theme, or characters (well, Dickens doesn’t specifically say that Bob and Tim Cratchit are frogs, but one can certainly infer…) Muppet hecklers Statler and Waldorf play the Marley Brothers, Jacob and Robert (get it…Bob Marley?), but this is actually a minor and forgivable change. This is definitely a four-and-a-half-star effort.

One of my all-time favorites is Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962). First of all, I would have just turned seven when it first aired (a most impressionable age), and it was probably my first exposure to Scrooge and company. Second, it also has some very nice songs (I always wondered why it took them so long to release the soundtrack). It does, however, make a few unaccountable changes to the story. First of all, in Magoo, the Ghost of Christmas Present appears before the Past. Odd. Second, at the end of the story, instead of going to his nephew’s house for dinner, Scrooge shows up at the Cratchits’. Odder still. Four stars.

Many people love the 1951 Alastair Sim film, Scrooge, and this is indeed an entertaining adaptation with interesting time-travel effects (a running hourglass and a tunnel of clouds), but there are some purposeless changes that I simply cannot fathom: Scrooge’s fiancée, Belle, becomes “Alice” in the film. She does not marry and have a family (as Scrooge is shown by the GCPr); instead, she has become a spinster, spending her Christmas tending to the ill and destitute. Finally, there is also no suggestion in the novel that little sister Fan died while giving birth to Fred—as she does in the film—or that she entrusted the infant Fred to her heartless big brother’s care—as she does in the film. There’s really no need to make these changes, either. (At least, though, Scrooge actually goes to his nephew’s house for dinner instead of crashing the Cratchits’ party.) Still, I can’t give this effort more than three stars.

Albert Finney’s 1970 musical (also called Scrooge) is fun. There are a few changes—more expansions and elaborations than changes. For example, there’s a long sequence of Belle’s and Scrooge’s courtship before she dumps him, and in the graveyard scene, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come uncloaks his face to reveal a skull. Scrooge falls into his open grave and meets Jacob Marley in hell. (This scene is cut from most television viewings and many DVD editions.) These sequences don’t tell us anything we don’t already know, so they add little beside length to the story. As in Magoo’s, Scrooge shows up at the Cratchits’ house, but at the end of the film, he does say he is going to have dinner with “[his] family.” Something about the way Finney says it chokes me up every time. Three and a half stars for an attempt at faithfulness and originality and for emotional appeal.

I’m not even going to address Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)—probably my least favorite—in which Scrooge (Scrooge McDuck) gives Cratchit (Mickey Mouse) his laundry to take home, and a cigar-smoking Big Bad Pete laughs devilishly as Scrooge falls into the flaming pit of his grave . . . Two stars.

Perhaps, though, as a colleague of mine—for whom Mickey’s… is the Christmas Carol—suggests, it’s the first Carol of our childhoods that we love. For him it was Mickey, for me Magoo.

And therein lies, I think, the wonder of A Christmas Carol—the secret of its immediate success and its lasting appeal. It’s not the Ghosts. It’s not the Miserly Curmudgeon. It’s not the virtuous Poor Family or the Sick Child. It’s not even Christmas, as fictional Scrooge knock-offs Connor Meade (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) and Dr. Joel Fleishman (Northern Exposure) have shown us.

It’s the undeniable psychology of hope that flows through every telling, retelling, or revision of this immortal tale. We cannot change the past; as the ghost of that name tells Scrooge, “these are the shadows of things that have been. That they are what they are, do not blame me.” But we do not have to allow the past to determine the present—or the future: “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends . . . but if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”

Things can work out all right.

And, ultimately, isn’t this what we want from the literature we love and study and teach? Don’t we want to know that Prospero will be restored as Duke of Milan? That the Younger family will be allowed to move into their new house? That Heathcliff and Catherine have been united in their afterlife?

Don’t we want the assurance that, whether the Ebenezer Scrooge of the day is a computer-enhanced human, a nearsighted cartoon character, or a duck, we can rest assured that he—or she—will see the error of his ways before it’s too late?

Mickey won’t have to do McDuck’s laundry. Magoo will bring jars full of razzleberry jelly.

And Tiny Tim will not die.

Whatever any of us may think about adaptations, revisions, and translations—and I say this as an obsessive-compulsive who has read A Christmas Carol every year since 1974 (this year will be my forty-first reading)—you have to admit that something that is so adaptable, that is so tempting to adapt, that invites so many creative persons across generations and art forms to take it and make it their own . . .

. . . is a pretty awesome piece of literature.