Monday, December 22, 2003

A Christmas Carol Review

There is no Christmas story I love more than Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. In my mind it is practically scripture, a story whose truth-telling power is comparable to that of the parable of the prodigal son. Why? This article puts the story’s appeal succinctly, but there's more to be said regarding each point. To wit:

Moral resonance. Well yes–it's a powerful tale of redemption, and a chilling ghost story too. The moral force of A Christmas Carol, the language of dread and relief which Dickens worked into his little book, often strikes contemporary readers as strange, since for us all the 19th-century signs and elements of death and the grave which Dickens employed–the white shroud, the rattling wheels of the hearse–appear distant and therefore easily denied. But Dickens's world was one that still knew very, very well how close the other side is, how a chill or a cough could send one on to one's reward. The medieval morality, mystery and passion plays all depended, to one degree or another, on the nearness of the unseen world, of the judgment which stood ever present as we make our way through the world. Modern day ghost stories generally fail to call up an awareness of mortality, which is our loss. To the extent that Dickens, through the power of his plot and his words, can get 21st-century readers to remember, in the words of scripture, that "if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of edarkness wherein there can be no labor performed"–then his book is worth its weight in gold.

Victorian truisms. I won’t go too far into philosophy here: suffice to say that it is not unreasonable to have a view of history which allows one to discern in particular moments of historical development truths that last–not just for material reasons, but because, embedded as they are in particular historical and cultural constructions, they nonetheless are a kind of "epiphanic truth": a revelatory insight into something which was always there and always will be, even if apart from our language and perspectives we cannot see it entirely for what it "really" is. (Charles Taylor is the best exponent this kind of expressivist theology, though he is only refining what the Romantics discovered first.) What’s my point? My point is that a Victorian Christmas is just one of hundreds of possible Christmases from across the whole breadth and history of Christendom: and yet, it is not unreasonable to say that those busy-body Victorians–and most especially Charles Dickens–got something about Christmas right. The Ghost of Christmas Present is perhaps the closest approximation we are likely ever to get of that gift-giving figure who haunts all our stories about the holiday: a spirit of charity, full of laughter but also a hard work ethic, with a kind of reforming earnestness, resulting in the consecration of that revelry which once typified Christmas into a force for spreading cheer and doing good. One can get Marxist and talk until endlessly about how Christmas was domesticated, turned into a private merchandising opportunity, but in the end that misses something essential–that there is a spiritual force behind the sharing, the giving and receiving, of the goods of the earth.

Theology. While it is true that Christ makes no appearance in A Christmas Carol, at least not as the Savior. But there is far more God and heaven in Dickens’s story than one might at first suspect: Jacob Marley laments that he never raised his eyes "to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode"; the Ghost of Christmas Present condemns those who act selfishly in God's name; and Scrooge himself, after his encounter with the last spirit, falls to his knees in prayer. Most importantly, there is something powerfully true about the vision Scrooge is shown out his bedroom window by Jacob Marley: thousands of condemned spirits, no longer able to interfere with the living, bound in fetters (some singly, others linked together: "they might be guilty governments," Dickens perceptively added), condemned to make this world their abode forever, and never rise up to a higher place. Secular audiences today take such scenes in stride, as part of some pop-horror story mythos; but of course, those with a Christian bent can readily respond to the scriptural imagery: this the earth will become a hell, a prison, for those who place their treasure within it.

Well, all that and more can be said for the book. But most of us know the story through it’s many adaptations. How do those stack up? I can think of five worth mentioning:

The Muppet Christmas Carol. Yes, I'm serious. One of the problems with adapting A Christmas Carol is that Dickens wrote the book to a great extent as if it were to be read aloud; and, in fact, for many years afterward he did do public readings of the book, and he made great use of the descriptive action and imagery he had larded into the text. The problem is that so much of that imagery simply doesn't work outside a narrator describing and commenting upon it; there's only so far you can go in putting those words into characters' mouths. That's what makes makes this version so good, completely aside from the various characterizations the muppets artists were able to pull off and the wacky humor without: Gonzo, playing Charles Dickens, gets to narrate the story to a certain extent. While this particular adaptation takes great liberty with the text (obviously!), the presence of a narrator means some of Dickens's beautiful and sharp language gets to be preserved. (I love the line about Scrooge being "solitary as an oyster.") And by the way, Michael Caine's is wonderful--while this version doesn't get the transformation of his character especially well (preferring humor instead, of course), the opening scenes are great, with Caine's wicked grin digging into lines like "Christmastime is harvest season for the money lenders." Good stuff.

A Christmas Carol, Alastair Sim version. Some people consider this the definitive version; I don't. There's much to like about it--it goes farther than many adaptations do insofar as capturing the theology behind the story. And I like some of their additions to the story (like making Scrooge's long lost love Belle--for some reason renamed "Alice"--into a Salvation Army-type missionary, working among the poor whom Scrooge is taken to visit by the Ghost of Christmas Present). But some of the others are distracting (a very 1950s pseudo-Marxist subplot on how Scrooge embraces the "modern economy" and turns against the "old ways," for example). And frankly, I can't get a bead on Alastair Sims's Scrooge--what kind of person is he, and how he fits the story. There are, as I see it, basically two possible interpretations of Scrooge which can work within the tale Dickens told; the first is best exemplified by...

Scrooge, starring Albert Finney. This is a great musical, with superb and touching songs ("Happiness" is a great love ballad; my sister sang it at a recital she gave years ago) and wonderful acting. Just about everyone in the movie is some sort of Cockney, and the harsh accents nicely contrast with the beautiful waifs they cast as children. (The Timy Tim in this version is heartbreaking.) I dislike Alec Guiness's Marley intensely; he seems to be winking at the audience throughout, and the whole "Scrooge goes to hell" sequence is just silly. But Finney, and the design team who dressed him and created sets for him, absolutely nailed one possible reading of Scrooge: namely, that he's a horrible, wretched, lousy little man, a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner," as Dickens wrote. Finney's Scrooge is a pathetic, bottom-feeding crook, fussing about the binding on his ledgers, double and triple locking everything, driving people to despair over a pound here and a pound there, all while wandering about and chanting the song "I Hate People." Rich, delightful stuff. The only problem with this approach, when you reflect upon it, is that such a hideous old man has no stature, and consequently his salvation seems to come at little cost: there is no real tragedy is such a Scrooge. Perhaps those responsible for the adaptation realized this, and thus were consistent when they ended the musical with basically a big party, with Scrooge running about in a Father Christmas outfit, handing out presents left and right. In any case it works, though it's not my favorite.

A Christmas Carol, Patrick Stewart version. This version certainly has a lot going for it, most particularly Stewart's performance. I wish I could have seen his one-man show of the story. Stewart's Scrooge has something of the creepy miser about him, but he doesn't take it as far Finney did. What Stewart does to very, very well is show the emotional and psychological transitions very well: this adaptation gives Scrooge a chance to interrogate himself as he goes along, wondering if things really were so much better when he was younger, and then condemning the man he has become that much more when honesty forces to him to realize all that he had lost. His "reborn" Scrooge throws himself into his new life with energy, but also doubt: he doesn't know how to be good, and so he is always apologizing, looking around him, laughing at his own confusion. In this sense the Stewart adaptation does better than any other at capturing a point often missed from the conclusion of the story: the fact that "some people laughed to see the alteration in [Scrooge], but he let them laugh, and little heeded them...his own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him." In other words, there are other Scrooges, and people who will judge and mock those who repent and change; Dickens knew this, and acknowledging it is an important part of the story. Unfortunately, the rest of the production pales beside Stewart, I think: the special effects are poorly edited and inconsistent; the effort to spread the story out, to capture a lot of the breadth Dickens packed in there, make it seem rushed to me. I just don't think the people behind it had much vision of how to tell the story besides keeping the camera on Stewart. This is in direct contrast to the adaption I consider the greatest...

A Christmas Carol, George C. Scott version. Just about perfect. The other great interpretation of Scrooge is the opposite of the wheezing miser approach: you make Scrooge a competent, indeed masterful, capitalist, a man of force and pride. Dickens signalled this possibility from the very first page of A Christmas Carol, when he noted that "Scrooge's name was good upon Exchange, for anything he chose to put his hand to." Scott's Scrooge is not angry with the world; rather, he wearily and condescendingly mocks it, confused (and delighted) at its willingness to babble on about all this Christmas nonsense. He drives hard bargains at the stock market, refusing to budge on the price of corn, demanding cash payments. He is, more than any other Scrooge in any other adaptation, genuinely horrified by the way his personal belongings will be disposed of after his death, should be go ahead and die hated and unmourned. Some may find this version too austere and serious, perhaps full of itself. (Bob Cratchit and his family are an awesomely dignified lower-class bunch.) I adore it, however, because it underscores the seriousness of the story. (Also, such stiffness is kind of necessary for the dramatic conventions of the story to work: how else could Scrooge not know that it is signs of his own death--or, as is implied in this version, delude himself into thinking otherwise--unless Scrooge himself is to a degree willfully blind?) It builds the tension, I think, and draws you in, so that when Scrooge leans over his own grave and stares up at the skeletal Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, imploring "Let me sponge away the writing on this stone!" I can't help but weep. I mean it--this version is Christmas television at its very, very best.